I had an atypical american upbringing. Raised by northeast liberal jews between an organic blueberry farm in backwoods Mississippi and carnal New Orleans, my adolescence was a cross between a sympathetically neurotic Diane Keaton character and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Life was an adventure to be savored! Or, from mom's perspective, a series of potential crises to obsessively gnaw.
Neuroses aside, I had another mother - nature - also teaching me about life. The Deep South is an undulant, steamy, sweaty landscape, and it's reflected back in the food - hedonistic, resourceful, teeming, flavorful. Did this lush excess inform my own appetite, or was my hunger innate, blessedly born into the perfect buffet? Before I was 9 I had eaten my weight many times over in sun-warmed blueberries at peak ripeness, straight off bushes taller than me. I made homemade wild cherry brandy, foraged for wild dewberries (an intense blackberry/raspberry blend), harvested tiny wild tree persimmons (mostly seeds and chalky skin leaving a very unpleasant tongue coating).
I had snacked on roadside BBQ up and down the Louisiana/Mississippi border and peeled piles of boiled shrimp served with deep fried hushpuppies at Don's Seafood of Picayune, Mississippi - a class joint with cracked yellow formica table tops, drop ceiling fluorescents, dark brown plastic trays always overflowing, and hundreds of cheap beige paper napkins. And I had also seen the dark side of southern cooking at friends' homes and church picnics: soggy overcooked canned vegetable casseroles, dark and gamey hamburgers pan fried to a hardened burnt char pressed between slices of gummy white bread, nasty pale pink hot dogs with orange yellow cheese running through the center, extreme salt flavored chicken and dumplings the color of pale snot, the giant jar of pickled pig knuckles next to the cash register at Thigpen's Hardware, and the most traumatizing of all, Ambrosia salad - the lazy version, just canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup mixed with Miracle Whip. Not Cool Whip, the delicious non-dairy topping, but Miracle Whip - the tangy sweet vinegary bastard child of mayonnaise, ranch dressing and degreaser. There was a whole-body gagging sensation when the syrupy sweet sour chemical tang hit the back of my tongue. And like rubber necking a car wreck, I couldn't stop watching the nice church lady slurp up the canned fruit cocktail Miracle Whip antifreeze juice with her plastic spoon, even though it was making me physically ill.
My first alligator was barbecued on a stick at the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, home of the Louisiana Strawberry Queen and a boring strawberry eating contest. I will never forget the intense spicy gaminess of tough chewy flesh, and the excitement of eating such an exotic and dangerous creature. That was nothing compared to the Poplarville United Methodist Wild Game Dinner. We were actually embraced as Jews in rural Mississippi - apparently if you convert a Jew you are guaranteed a place in heaven? At least that's what my mother told me. All kinds of Baptists and assorted Christians would come over to our house with bibles and pies. We were invited to this beast feast, where the entire town got together once a year and all the husbands would go out and shoot things and then all the wives would cook the things that were now dead. My mother brought wild foraged mustard greens braised with garlic. She was ahead of her time, and no one really ate that. We were more interested in the whole wild boar turning on a spit in the backyard of the church. The dishes were placed on long narrow tables to be sampled and judged. Every roadkill animal was there several times over: casseroles of squirrel, opossum, rabbit, dove. Slabs of grilled venison, roasted boar, fried pheasant, duck, and gator. And to be clear, this wasn't farm-to-table Dan Barber return-to-the-earth, hearty yet subtle layers of flavor, balanced with just the right amount of acidity. This was southern cooking, the kind you do from cans. Crisco, half & half, crumbled saltines, and Velveeta. This was rows of white Corningware casserole dishes full of beige goop. It all tasted...salty. Very salty. But it was an adventure! A new way to relate to the friendly field animals I loved to catch glimpses of in the wild. Now they were all inside my body.
At the end of the dinner, there were door prizes; practically everyone won something, from a fishing pole to a 50 lb bag of dog food. Afterwards, we walked out into the crisp January evening under the stars. The night sky in rural Mississippi in 1989 was a velvety pitch black, studded with thousands of tiny twinkling stars, and I clutched my new jigsaw in my arms. I didn't know what a jigsaw was, but it was mine. I won it fair and square, and I was proud to own it.
Small blueberry farming is hard work, and hard to get rich on. In desperation, my parents decided to also introduce a line of products, and Honey Island Farms Blueberry Sauce was born. It was a simple and delicious sauce - thin, not too sweet, studded with whole cooked-down blueberries, no thickeners or additives, with a very rich blueberry flavor. It would probably do very well over gluten free pancakes in 2016, but in the rural late 80's it struggled to find its market. Not for a lack of trying. We started in our own kitchen where there's nothing more soothing to fall asleep to than the gentle pops of Ball jars sealing up. We moved up production to commercial kitchens like the Hubig's Pie factory on Dauphine Street in New Orleans, a local legend until it burned down in 2012. Little fried turnover pies wrapped in wax paper, stuffed with sweet potato, coconut, lemon, peach, chocolate, banana, and even blueberry with fruit from our own farm for one season. The foreman loved our berries, and when opening a box he called them "blue pearls," which I thought was very poetic for a pie factory manager.
So we made the sauce, printed the labels, stuck them on the jars, and then peddled our wares to various fancy food shows (not unlike my great-uncle Velval Isenstein, a junk peddler until he was fatally kicked in the head by his own cart horse). For a ten year old, fancy food shows are the promised land, like a chorus of singing angels handing out free samples. At a small show for Japanese buyers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, we set a table loaded with fresh blueberries and orange tiger lilies, and drizzled the sauce over a co-participant's fried quail. That was some serious shit. In Atlanta we did an epic convention-center-sized show. You had to be at least 12 to walk the floor, but I lied about my age and wandered the aisles in awe. Wild venison jerky, smoked trout with horseradish creme fraiche, vidalia onion relish on a gourmet hot dog round, cheddar cheese breadstick twists, dark chocolate truffles the vendor swore were beloved by Pavarotti, mini bison burgers (sliders hadn't been invented yet), red pepper jelly over cream cheese on a ritz cracker, praline coated pecans dipped in fudge, seasoned nut mixes, hundreds of barbecue sauces, novelty ketchups, crackers, cheeses, candies, and flavored fizzy waters. It was a waking dream. A bonbon booth played the "I Love Lucy" chocolate factory episode on repeat, and I stood and watched it over and over, shoving chocolates in my mouth in time. But we only got something like ten orders. Sales sucked and farming is hard, so by age 11 my mom and dad hung up their pith helmets, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and we finally moved to the big city - New Orleans.
My first year at Jazz Fest with friends instead of my parents! At 12 I hadn't started doing drugs yet, so I was still focused on the food. You can try most of Southern Louisiana’s greatest hits in one big smelly venue. Jazz Fest is at the horse racing fairgrounds, so yes, that weird smell is horse shit. The sun and humidity will roast and steam you, or biblical rains will soak your underwear; but damn, it's worth it. Crawfish Monica - rotini pasta with a spicy crawfish tail cream sauce - should be disgusting in 90 degree heat, but isn’t. The combo plate from Bennachin had jama-jama (stewed spinach), poulet fricasee (chicken on a stick) and fried plantains. Not typically New Orleans, but still life changing, my first taste of West African food. Fried green tomatoes with remoulade (mayo with horseradish, ketchup, and bell pepper). Rosemint iced tea sweetened with unfiltered Louisiana honey, half a stuffed artichoke, and a chocolate sno ball with condensed milk. We don’t have snow cones or water ice in Louisiana, we have sno balls from stands like Plum Street or Pandora’s or Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. Flavors run from classic New Orleans - coffee, bananas foster, creole cream cheese, to the cryptic: nectar, tutti frutti, and orchid cream vanilla. Or classy fruit flavors like blackberry and satsuma. And, of course, topped with condensed milk.
I ordered the pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo from Prejean's. Real gumbo starts with a roux - flour and fat cooked together, used to thicken. You know you’re eating real gumbo if it’s a medium thickness without being gummy, is brown not red, the rice is added last as a scoop, and it has no tomatoes. Some gumbo does have tomatoes like okra gumbo and some seafood gumbos do. Tomatoes in gumbo is a hot button issue, obviously. And it's got to have some kind of pork sausage in it, andouille or otherwise. But if you’re eating a soup called “gumbo” and its a mucousy acidic tomato soup with rice and tiny shrimp all mixed in, you have been sold fake gumbo and you should throw it at the wall and scream in rage. I also ordered oyster shooters - a vulgar gulf oyster served raw in a tiny plastic cup drowning in horseradish ketchup cocktail sauce with a lemon slice too thin to squeeze. I can't forget all the crawfish stuff, and there’s a lot to choose from: crawfish pie, crawfish bread (french bread stuffed with crawfish tails and "pizza cheese" wrapped in foil - its actually borderline disgusting), crawfish sack (crawfish mush wrapped in a sack of dough and deep fried - exquisite), crawfish beignets, fried crawfish po boys, crawfish patties, crawfish everything. Northerners spell and say "crayfish," but that’s just ridiculous.
Boiled crawfish is fun at Jazz Fest, but locals know that it's just for show. Real boiled crawfish is at a crawfish boil. Basically, your friend's cousin's uncle invites you over where they've propped up a huge pot on cinder blocks over a makeshift burner in the backyard, and all day long someone’s drunk boiling crawfish and potatoes and corn in Zatarain’s. In Louisiana, all boiled seafood tastes like Zatarain’s or maybe Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic. No Old Bay. Old Bay has more of a paprika celery salt uptight New England vibe, while Zatarain’s is spicier and juicier, and just basically better. You sit outside at card tables covered in newspaper, and they just dump load after load of crawfish and potatoes and corn, and sometimes sausage (it all tastes like Zatarain’s, just different textures), and you drink a beer in front of adults who know your parents. You eat 12 pounds of crawfish but you never get full, because there's hardly any meat to the little fuckers anyways, but the beer and potatoes fill you up. By the end of the day you are disgusting: your fingernails are jammed with spicy crawfish guts, you've got tiny cuts on your hands from obsessively trying to get all the meat out of their sharp little claws, and now the spices from the Zatarain's are burning your abraded flesh (and your eye because you forgot not to rub it). You go home and shower and scrub, but you still smell like crawfish for a couple of days. Luckily, if you’re craving it but don’t have a boil invite, it’s no problem because you just go to your local seafood shop and buy it there. They're all over the city, selling brown paper sacks of spicy boiled shrimp, crawfish and crabs with all the fixins, and you can just take that home and throw down some newspaper, and there you go. All through my childhood, we repeated this over and over, concurrent with the offshore oil boom; not surprisingly, I wound up with mercury poisoning in my 30's.
When friends travel to New Orleans and ask me for restaurant recommendations, I don't know how to tell them the truth: almost all the restaurants are freaking amazing, but the grocery stores and mini marts (we don't say deli or bodega or corner store in Nola, we say "the mini mart") and random holes in the wall are better. In every refrigerator growing up, you could find containers from Dorignac's in Metairie or Langenstein's uptown or Robert's on the lakefront (pronounced Ro-Bears, like cute bears that row boats vocationally). The deli sections were so incredible I want to cry out in anguish at a Whole Food’s salad bar. Boiled seafood in season, oyster & artichoke soup, corn & crab chowder, seafood stuffed mirlitons (a lime-green pear shaped squash), stuffed artichokes in ultra-shiny saran wrap, crab-stuffed twice-baked potatoes (which tasted neither like potatoes or crab but just creamy, cheesy, starchy goodness dusted with paprika), homemade creole cream cheese, Better Cheddar dip (an addictive paste of creole seasoned sharp cheddar, gouda, pecans, and green onions), andouille cornbread dressing (stuffing is called "dressing" in the south, but if you want your po boy "dressed" that means shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo), watergate salad (a pineapple chunk pistachio pudding mix nightmare), fried chicken, gumbos, étouffée, dirty rice, crawfish bisque. Did you know there are stuffed crawfish heads in crawfish bisque? They are stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs. My favorite line from the bisque recipe: "Save about 60 nice-size heads. Clean out and rinse in cool water. Soak, drain, pat dry. Reserve." Or my favorite half-and-half po boy (half fried shrimp half fried oyster) from Zara’s market on Prytania, or the "potato sandwich" (crinkle cut French fries on French bread with roast beef gravy) from a random gas station in Mid-City, a muffuletta (layers of Italian cold cuts and cheeses with marinated green olive salad on wedge of feathery sesame bread) from Central Grocery in the Quarter, the best red beans (we don't say 'red beans and rice') at a random dive bar one warm Christmas night. Doberge cake squares from Gambino's bakery (a New Orleans invention: 6 skinny layers of yellow cake cemented with chocolate, caramel, or lemon pudding, topped with a matching glaze).
It's no wonder I won't eat "cajun" food in New York or order a po boy off a menu in San Francisco. Or that I can't say no to any new culinary seduction, like salt and pepper preying mantis prawns in Tawau, Malaysia, or the idli & vada combo at Pongal on Lexington. Food is life, and life is very vivid and very animate. Luckily I got that message early, whispered to me by the live oaks that canopy Claiborne Ave, in the way they seemed to breathe after a heavy rain storm.
There is no place on earth whose taste compares.