by Kristina Santone

While everyone was rushing to get north this May long weekend, I was actually packing for a quick trip down south…the deep south.  I often spend small moments of any given day fantasizing about where I’d like to go and what I can eat while I’m there…and lately, New Orleans has been on my mind, so I decided that it was time I make the trip.

Aside from natural disasters, when people think of New Orleans they probably think of its rich history and music culture, but I think of food: delicious, Southern, deep-fried, seafood feasts…and I couldn’t wait to try it all.  Having a shrimp allergy, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get along in a place that cooked it in a million different ways.  Surprisingly enough, shrimp dishes were mostly a meal of their own, such as shrimp etouffée (eh-too-fay), which I could only enjoy visually from the other side of the table as my boyfriend gave me a running bite-by-bite commentary.  There was shrimp thrown into some dishes here and there, but for the most part, I had no problem avoiding that particular crustacean.  In the process, I discovered a love for crawfish, which happily does not make my throat close up!

It’s often never enough for me to just enjoy eating great meals, I always want to know how to make them as well. To that end, I took in a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking (524 St. Louis Street).  For a group of about thirty (hailing from such far-flung places as Australia, Norway and Hamilton, Ontario), our instructor Kevin Belton dished up some local flavour, both on and off the plate. The menu that day was red beans and rice with some cornbread and pecan pie and pralines (pronounced like it rhymes with “craw” as opposed to “pray”) for dessert.

Kevin indicated early on that he was a self-taught chef, a refreshing admission, and one that made the delicious dishes all the more impressive.  Instead of formal training, he did what many of his generation did and watched his grandmother and mother cook while growing up. He also worked his way up through the Cooking School, learning as he went, letting the skills and knowledge soak in.

For those with sensitive tastes, Creole and Cajun food isn’t intensely spiced on its own.  Apparently that’s a misconception that Kevin sought to dispel, warning us all that, “If you don’t want it spicy, then don’t touch nothin’ on the table” referring to the myriad of hot sauces and rubs available everywhere you look in NOLA, all claiming to variously make your head explode, slap your mama, or melt your face off.  There’s a point where it just doesn’t sound appetizing anymore.

But no meal is complete without a good stiff drink afterwards, and there are plenty of places to quench your thirst in the city that aren’t glaring with neon signs or boasting dollar shots. There is the Old Absinthe House which is a very cool spot with all the old-timey cocktail classics: the Sazerac, Plantar’s Punch, and of course, you can meet the Green Fairy. I watched the sugar cube / flame ceremony take place beside me at the bar, and laughed to myself as the bartender looked like the novelty had worn off long ago. I’m thinking that the absinthe ritual loses some of its cache as it gets gulped down by frat boys wearing beads and pounding the bar for more.

And there were plenty more of those also found at Pat O’Brien’s, the Nola bar famous for inventing the Hurricane, a drink which I’m still trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.  It was apparently created during World War II when whiskey was in low supply. During that time, liquor salesmen were really trying to push the purchase of rum, which was abundant.  Pat O’Brien’s had acquired so much rum that they created a special drink to get through it all. The name actually comes from the glass they put it in – it’s shaped like  a hurricane lamp not after the disasters that continue to strike the city. I had four sips and reached my daily allotment of sugar. I decided to avoid my own disaster by discontinuing to drink it.

After that, I stuck with bourbon at my very favourite place for a drink after a long, hot day (and they were all long, hot days),  The Napoleon House Bar and Café.  As soon as we walked in I knew we would be sitting there for awhile. It was old, dark, comfortable and seemed to exude a magical sense of history that made you feel like lucky to be there.  The service was slow but steady, and each item on the wall illustrated the bar’s storied past.  With a seat by the street, and a drink in hand, I enjoyed some of the best people watching I had ever experienced, even after being scolded about leaving my purse on the chair nearest the window (ripe for the plucking, apparently).   Napoleon’s was the home of former mayor Nicholas Girod and the name of the place comes from a scheme to rescue Napoleon from his exile and bring him to New Orleans.  I don’t think Napoleon ever made it there, but the 200 year old landmark is definitely worth a look… and a drink.

Kristina Santone is the Assistant Editor of TAPS, Canada’s beer magazine. Thanks to her italian mother, she loves all things foodand is an avid vintage cookbook collector.