Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Orleans, Louisiana

One of the biggest problems with visiting New Orleans is that there is never enough time for all the food you want to try. I just spent a three-day weekend there with my wife and several friends revelling in the culinary art of places like Cochon, Commander's Palace, Willie Mae's Scotch House and the Green Goddess.

In a recent column, Commercial Appeal food writer Jennifer Biggs compared the food scenes of Memphis and New Orleans and asked how New Orleans became so much more of a culinary destination for tourists. One of the biggest differences between southern Louisiana and the rest of the country is that down around the bayous a huge portion of the general population still knows how to cook real food from scratch.  And unlike the average American, they readily recognize that while chickens, cows, pigs and seafood are all tasty, there are plenty of other delicious critters like the rabbit, quail, alligator, duck and turtle that also deserve a spot on the dinner table.

Obviously different cultures take different approaches to cooking, but there are basic universal elements you see repeated over and over in traditional diets throughout the world. As Dr. Catherine Shanahan pointed out in her book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, these traditional elements are the foods we’ve evolved to need in order to reach our genetic potential. This helps explain why these foods have the potential to be delicious on such a fundamental level when prepared according to the food traditions of almost any long-established culture. The universal “four pillars” of healthy eating that Shanahan identified are bone stock and meat cooked on the bone, fresh foods, fermented foods, and organ meats. You can find meals based around these pillars in Memphis at places like the outstanding Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, but you don't see them everywhere the way you do in New Orleans, with the exception of our glorious renditions of meat-slow-cooked-on-the-bone like barbecued ribs and butts.

These foods have been nourishing humans for hundreds of thousands of years, but in most parts of the United States the processed food industry has convinced people that a healthy human diet is something like a boneless, skinless chicken breast on wheat bread with fat-free potato chips and a Diet Coke. New Orleans’s cuisine was blessed with a heavy French influence that made them cling to the wonders of real butter, heavy cream and stock while the rest of the country was poisoning itself with margarine.

Religion also played a role in convincing people to abandon their culinary traditions. New Orleans is Catholic in ceremony, ritual and architecture, but people don’t seem to take religion too seriously in their day-to-day lives. Most of the United States is heavily infested with the type of Christians who consider human sexuality dirty and evil. With their inherent distrust for anything natural that causes people to feel alive and good it is no wonder they were quick to accept the propaganda that butter is bad and needs to be banished from the kitchen.

While Memphis enjoys a soulful atmosphere and colorful history that comes from its location at the top of the Mississippi Delta, it is also cursed with a large evangelical protestant population that is deeply ashamed of the area’s rowdy Dirty South vibe. Memphis and New Orleans both have ample poverty, crime and corruption. And both have plenty of good music, artists, bars,  and restaurants. But a large number of people in the Memphis area, particularly in the suburbs, seem angry and embarrassed that the riverport city doesn’t conduct itself like the more traditional Bible-Belt areas in the South. If you love living in Memphis, or even visiting it, people in the suburbs will actively try to make you repent and list reasons that you should “get out while you can.” These people even get angry when good things happen to the city because it conflicts with their belief that we should all be punished by God for our sinful ways. New Orleans has a better image than Memphis in most people’s minds, and a better food scene, precisely because the Big Easy is too busy enjoying life to care what other people think of it.

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