French, Spanish, and West African cultures have had a strong and lasting influence on language, architecture, religion, and racial politics in New Orleans. The city’s cultural legacy is rich, pervasive, and sometimes bawdy. Even its nickname, NOLA, presumes sex appeal. From the homes accented by colorful bricks, wrought iron, and shuttered widows on the cobbled streets of the French Quarter to Zulu floats in Mardi Gras and the syncopated rhythms of Zydeco, this Southwestern city is a destination for engaging the senses.
Food defines New Orleans. There is no censorship on taste, no modified portions, and no substitutions. “If you can’t use butter,” asserts 86-year old Leah Chase of the legendary Dookie Chase restaurant, rephrasing Julia Childs, “use cream!”
You can tell a lot about a people by the food they eat, and nowhere is that more easily determined than in a New Orleans Creole kitchen. Earthy, solid, mixed, and spicy describe both its citizens and their most popular signature dish of gumbo. In this very Catholic city, the foundation of all their meals is a chopped mix of onion, celery, and green pepper, known as the trinity. Food in New Orleans is spiritual, and therefore very communal.
“Food is about visiting and sharing,” remarks Chef Kevin Belton of Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. “It’s not necessarily what’s on the table; it’s who’s at the table.” On my recent Creole culinary tour, I learned that every meal was indeed a social event of discussion, laughter, and discovery. We were rarely hungry when my group and I sat down to eat, but we did bring a hearty appetite eager to be satisfied by yet another mouthwatering experience.
Our first stop was breakfast at Wayne Baquet’s Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. With two locations, we visited the newer restaurant at 610 Poydras Street in the central business district, set on one side of a still-functioning historic bank. This spot offers dinner as well as breakfast and lunch, but it is best known for its jazz champagne brunch. Head chef Belton served us crab meat and jambalaya omelets, fried catfish with grits, and their very own spicy sausage. French bread, which is served up in a variety of ways, is almost the only bread you’ll eat in New Orleans. We learned from Belton that French bread has no preservatives. As it ages and becomes hard it’s called “lost bread”—perfect for bread pudding and the French toast topped with bananas and strawberries he served that morning.