10 iconic New Orleans dishes and where to eat them
Po’ boys are just one of many New Orleans foods you should try — Photo courtesy of iStock / tacojim
Many cities across the country offer diverse food scenes, but New Orleans is quite possibly the only one offering a cuisine uniquely its own.
In order to better understand how New Orleans developed into such a foodie’s dream, I stopped by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans to speak with Elizabeth Williams, the museum’s President and Director, and author of New Orleans: A Food Biography.
In her book, Elizabeth explains: “All of the people who lived or settled in New Orleans, whether free or enslaved, brought with them their sense of identity as defined by food. And all of the peoples contributed to what has become the cuisine of the city.” These people included not just the French who originally founded Louisiana, but also the indigenous people and African slaves, the Spanish who owned the colony after the French from 1763 to 1801, the British Americans who purchased the land in 1803, and immigrants from Asia, Germany, Sicily and Italy.
“The city was the crucible filled with all those component cuisines and with raw ingredients. The mixture was transformed into a unique cuisine, connected to its component parts, but distinctly different from them,” Elizabeth says.
During my visit to the museum, Elizabeth and I discussed the most iconic foods created from the “phenomenon,” as she puts it, of the “merging of cuisines and transformation into a new one.” Here are the stories behind New Orleans’ ten most iconic foods and where you should go to try them during your next trip to the Big Easy.
In France, traditional pralines or pralins were white sugar-coated almonds; but Louisiana didn’t have almonds, so French immigrants used pecans to make pralines instead. Pralines in New Orleans evolved by mixing pecans into caramelized sugar, poured out and spread into a thin layer.
Elizabeth tells me pralines, a tourist favorite, are iconic: “They represented a road to independence for African-American women in New Orleans. It was the thing that was used in some ways to elevate a family.”
Prior to the end of slavery and post emancipation, many enslaved women worked as vendeuse, female street vendors, making and selling candy as a means of increasing their income. They sold all types of candies but pecan pralines were the most popular.
Coffee and chicory
In the early 19th century, the French struggled to afford importing fees, and so they began roasting, grinding and mixing chicory in with their coffee as a means of extending it.
As the French settled in the new colony of La Nouvelle-Orleans, they brought this practice with them. In addition to it saving them money, it was a reminder of home, similar to the idea of eating comfort food. During the Civil War, the Union Army blocked off the port of New Orleans and made it difficult to import coffee, amongst other things, and so many people throughout the south had to adopt the idea of chicory as an extender.
Once the war ended, most people throughout the south went back to drinking their coffee pure. However, in New Orleans, as time passed, adding chicory to coffee moved away from an extension strategy and instead became coffee flavoring, in the same way that someone today might order mocha in their coffee.
Oysters are commonly consumed in most coastal towns, but nowhere are they as popular as in New Orleans. Due to the city’s mild winters and close proximity to the gulf, oysters are cheaper and easier to harvest in peak season.
The bivalves are so popular in New Orleans, according to Elizabeth, simply because of their ubiquitous nature. Oysters Rockefeller is served at most of the classier restaurants, including Antoine’s, where the dish is believed to have been created during an escargot shortage in 1889.
Fried oysters can be found on po’ boys all around the city, and oyster shooters, a raw oyster served in a shot glass along with bloody mary mix and cocktail sauce, are served at the Acme Oyster House, amongst other places. Oysters en brochette (oysters wrapped in bacon and deep-fried) are on the menu at Arnaud’s French 75 bar; oyster artichoke soup is served as an appetizer at Felix’s; and charbroiled oysters are enjoyed at Drago’s, just to name a few.
Veggies stuffed with breadcrumbs
New Orleans saw tens of thousands of Sicilian immigrants arrive in the French Quarter between 1885 and 1915. Always frugal and resourceful, they found a use for everything, including stale bread.
The French mostly used their stale bread for French toast and even some versions of bread pudding, but the Sicilians made breadcrumbs seasoned with garlic, olive oil, parsley and oregano. They’d add parmesan cheese and chopped sausage, crab meat, or another protein before stuffing it all into an artichoke, eggplant or whatever vegetable they had on hand.
This is one dish that is not as easy to find. Authentic Italian restaurants are beginning to pop up around New Orleans, but head to one of the Creole Italian restaurants, like Vincent’s or Venezia, for your best chance at trying the traditional veggies stuffed with breadcrumbs.
The Sicilian influence is also responsible for bringing sno-balls to New Orleans. Back in Sicily, Sicilians adopted an ancient Persian practice of climbing mountains in the summer to bring down snow that they would flavor with special syrups, known today as Italian syrups.
Even though there was no snow in New Orleans, ice had been developed, so the Sicilian immigrants were able to shave it down and sell it in paper cones with homemade syrup for about a penny or two. Understandably, this flavorful Sicilian treat became a refreshing favorite for locals during the hot Louisiana summers.
Two of the city’s oldest sno-ball stands that locals rave about are Hansen’s Sno-Bliz and Plum Street Snoballs. Hansen’s is open seasonally while Plum Street is open year-round. But before you go, make sure you know not to call it a snow cone or locals will be sure to distinguish the difference for you.
Sno-balls are made with fine, fluffy ice that has been shaved, as opposed to snow cones which are made with coarse ice that has been grated.
Gumbo is one of the best examples of Louisiana’s melting pot of culture and cooking, blending French, African and Native American culinary practices. Even the word itself is similar across cultures. In Bantu, where the name for gumbo is believed to have originated, kingombo means okra, and in French, the word gombo means okra, as well.
Gumbo, a Creole stew, is much broader than most people realize as there’s no one specific type of gumbo. Instead, it’s traditionally made with whatever meat or protein is on hand.
Mouthwatering gumbo is available all over New Orleans. If you get the chance, partake in Leah Chase’s legendary Creole buffet at Dooky Chase, but if gumbo variety is what you’re after, stop by the Gumbo Shop where you can try a sampler platter.
In 1763, Louisiana became a Spanish colony and remained this way for close to forty years. It’s believed that during this time, jambalaya was created. Local legend claims the Spanish colonists, unable to make paella without saffron, developed jambalaya through experimentation with local ingredients.
However, just like with gumbo, jambalaya seems to be another classic dish that incorporates many aspects of the various cultures represented in New Orleans at the time. It’s likely the addition of cayenne pepper came from Native Americans, while the vegetable base of bell peppers, onions and celery was inspired by the French.
“Jambalaya used to be leftovers,” Elizabeth explains. “You had leftover rice and leftover this, that and the other thing. You just mixed it all up and threw it together in rice. But it’s turned into something you make from scratch now. It’s been kind of transformed into something else.”
There’s a lot of places known to serve fantastic jambalaya, but one that you hear discussed by locals regularly is the French Quarter dive, Coop’s Place.
Red beans and rice
Red beans and rice are a New Orleanian staple usually eaten and prepared on Mondays. The women would simmer red beans and rice with the previous night’s leftover hambone, in place of stock, and mix in any of the leftover ham.
Despite beans and rice being quite inexpensive, the wood (or other fuel) used to heat the water all day for the simmering beans and rice was costly. In order to maximize their resources, they’d heat water for laundry, in a separate pot, while the beans and rice simmered on the back of the stovetop.
Today, ham is not eaten as often as it once was, and laundry day may no longer be relegated to Mondays; but New Orleanians continue to eat their red beans and rice (quite often on Mondays), swapping in sausage in place of the ham, or enjoying it with a side of fried chicken or fried pork chops.
Remoulade, in France, is a flavored aioli or mayonnaise-based sauce often served with cold fish, chicken or vegetables. When the French were first settling in New Orleans in the early 1700s, they didn’t have access to the eggs needed to make mayonnaise, so they improvised with mustard.
After adding oil, paprika, cayenne pepper and lemon juice, they had a spicy sauce they could once again eat with their cold shrimp, seafood, chicken and vegetables. They decided to call their new sauce “remoulade” since everybody would already know how to use it. As time has passed, it has became traditional to enjoy the sauce with cold shrimp.
A violent and drawn-out streetcar strike in 1929 led to the development of one of New Orleans’ most beloved eats, the po’ boy. The po’ boy, like gumbo, has many different varieties but what’s most important to understand, Elizabeth tells me, “is that it’s an overstuffed sandwich. If it doesn’t drip down to your elbows when you’re eating it, it’s not good.”
The strike took place near Martin Brothers Coffee Shop. The brothers, Clovis and Bennie, had previously been streetcar workers, so they sympathized with the striking men and began offering them leftover bread and sandwiches. The name came when Bennie, in a newspaper interview, referred to the men as “poor boys.” As time passed, the Martin Brothers became known as a place to get an overstuffed sandwich that locals began calling the po’ boy.