As it’s my hometown, the place where I both learned to eat and learned to love to eat, I know that the real heart of New Orleans dining is not what the tourists see, not the charm of the buildings and the richness of the food. It’s the core belief that eating is one of the great sensual pleasures and, as with all great sensual pleasures, must be both respected and frequently indulged. It’s part of what a friend of mine, the writer Rob Walker, calls “the city’s almost un-American joie de vivre.”
What does this joyful sensuality look like? Well, at least in my family, we didn’t sit around Sid-Mar’s in Bucktown (a few blocks from the 17th Street Canal; farewell, old friend) announcing, “Wow! This crawfish pie is a lot like sex!” No, we just ate the hell out of dem ersters and swimps and soft-shell crabs and planks of fish. And moaned a lot. Afterward, maybe a stop at Camellia Grill for the best cheesecake in the world, cheesecake so rich and luscious and creamy that it pleasured both body and soul.
The joy of living. It’s in the neighborhood dives like Franky & Johnny’s, Parasol’s, and zillions of others, the primeval bars with walls covered with nicotine stains and decades of band fliers, with ratty vinyl booths and astoundingly great food. (The places that Fred’s recalls, which is why Chow, Baby loves Fred’s so.) It’s in the little things, the things that other cities delegate to fast-food outlets and boring chains. When I got a hot dog, it came topped with flirtation and philosophy from a Lucky Dogs vendor in the French Quarter. At dive bar-laundromat Igor’s (pronounced Eye-gor’s), I could have a great burger and get drunken help folding my towels. The great hangover preventer was just down the street: a smoked-sausage po-boy at Trolley Stop, open 24 hours because most of the bars are too. If there was a Denny’s in New Orleans, I never knew it.