Deadly weather could be advancing on New Orleans. The forecasters can't yet say for certain. It's early July, a month into hurricane season, and the local newspaper reports that newly formed Hurricane Dennis has the city on edge. The news stations discuss possible evacuation strategies.
Aside from typical summer mugginess, though, our first day here beams cobalt bright. Some of the Southern Foodways Alliance field trip attendees from other parts of the country joke that if Hurricane Dennis does come, we can simply shack up in the hotel, catch up on sleep and raid our snack bars.
And while the members who live in the Big Easy don't share in the outsiders' blithe humor, it's hard even for them to feel worried. We've gathered to seriously chow down, like we do every year on the SFA's field trip to an ebullient gastronomic outpost of the South. The local organizers -- chefs, food writers, dedicated chowhounds -- have painstakingly arranged a N'awlins-style snarf fest for us.
During a bus ride through the rippling sugar cane fields of Louisiana, native food expert and author Marcelle Bienvenu gives us her crash-course explanation of the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisines: Creole food is city food, Cajun food is country food. Oysters Rockefeller, crab meat Sardou with hollandaise and artichokes, cherries jubilee, baked Alaska? That's Creole. Jambalaya, etouffee, crawfish stew and homey bread pudding? Cajun. And gumbo? A universal dish cooked distinctively different by Cajuns and Creoles.
I squirm and salivate at the mention of all these iconic dishes. How long till we get to the next restaurant?
Over a tummy-stretching two-and-a-half days, we sample signature handiworks by the city's renowned chefs. Austin Leslie, whose restaurant Chez Helene was the inspiration for the short-lived '80s TV series "Frank's Place," feeds us gutsy black beans soused on rum. Susan Spicer of the French Quarter's upscale Bayona dresses crispy smoked quail salad in bourbon molasses vinaigrette. The group piles into legendary soul food restaurant Dooky Chase for lunch on day two. Chef Leah Chase honors us by making gumbo z'herbes, a greens-laden variation traditionally eaten on Holy Thursday.
We linger at Dooky Chase for a tasting and lecture on bread pudding. Among the offerings is a custardy pudding dropped off in a small crock by 88-year-old Willie Mae Seaton. Her tavern, Willie Mae's Scotch House, was canonized in May with the James Beard 2005 Americas Classics award. The crock is literally scraped of its contents by greedy spoons.
Even as I shovel in roast beef po'boys and muffulettas at noontime on Saturday, the trip's last full day, my thoughts wander to dinner. The finale at Restaurant August is the meal I've been anticipating. Chef John Besh's cooking has been heralded locally and nationally as the next evolution in New Orleans fine dining.
The dinner was to be hosted at an old plantation house 15 minutes outside New Orleans, but fears about Hurricane Dennis have intensified, and it is decided that we should stay in town. We'll be supping in the stately banquet room at Restaurant August instead. No one feels deprived.
Our ranks have thinned slightly but perceptibly. Husbands and wives are heeding the call of nervous spouses to head home before the threat of harsh weather turns to reality. I take shameless advantage. One seat at our table remains empty. A server appears with the first dish and inquires, "Is anyone sitting there?"
"Oh, absolutely," I answer quickly, as some of my tablemates glance at me warily.
The first course is cochon du lait medianoche -- a gentle version of a Cuban sandwich made with sweet bread and Louisiana pork -- and a melon salad garnished with basil and glistening with sugar cane jus. I polish off my helping, then switch my plate with the uneaten portion next to me. I wolf it down as well. Carefully, I jostle the absentee's chair so it looks recently occupied, and rustle the napkin to make it seem casually tossed.
"Yes, he's finished," I say to another server as she reaches for the empty plate at the vacant setting.
Some of my fellow diners lob disapproving looks at my scheme. But after the second course arrives, they start asking to share in my payload.
The meal becomes a guided tour through the entangled influences that have shaped New Orleans' cuisine. The second dish -- tomato and caramel tarte inversée -- is one that will happily haunt my memories. A square of puff pastry has been spread with a gloss of local Louisiana goat cheese. Atop this lay three precise columns of oval grape tomatoes, each painstakingly roasted and peeled (for 150 people -- that's nearly 2,000 of those miniature suckers!). The tomatoes are then burnished with a thin lamina of caramel. The effect is smoky and sweet, a collusion of French technique and American chutzpah.
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