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Thursday, Aug. 5, 1999

Jambalaya! Cooking to die for in the Big Easy


By DAVID WADDELL

A visitor to New Orleans in the early part of this century described the city as "a paradise for gluttons," and considering that the Big Easy has the highest number of restaurants per square kilometer in the United States and its denizens have the lowest life expectancy in the country, it's easy to see why.

The food in New Orleans has been the inspiration of songs and many a cookbook (including one by Lafcadio Hearn, who resided for a time in New Orleans), and a sojourn here is guaranteed to add inches to your waistline and leave your mouth watering for another piece of crawfish pie or bowl of file gumbo.

A mixture of geographical and cultural factors combined to bless New Orleans with the unique brand of cuisine it possesses. The city's location on the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi River provides fish and shellfish from the ocean, brackish coastal waterways and freshwater lakes and streams.

Add to this a subtropical climate with a long growing season for fruit and vegetables; an abundance of peppers and spices that once grew in the wild, but are now cultivated; and wetlands teaming with waterfowl, and you have a cornucopia of flavors bound to tantalize the palate.

Perhaps more important than geography are the cultural factors that have been instrumental in shaping the cuisine in New Orleans. The Big Easy has always thrived on cultural diversity and has enthusiastically integrated successive waves of immigrant influences into its multicultural cookbook. The food in New Orleans is a hodgepodge of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Italian and German cooking styles and ingredients.

Nothing symbolizes this melting pot more than gumbo, the smoky tasting soup immortalized in a Hank Williams' tune. The word gumbo itself is a West African word for okra, which was brought to the New World by African slaves and is used as a thickening agent in gumbo. The roux that is the base of the gumbo is derived from French cooking, and the use of sassafras leaves to thicken and flavor the concoction came from the local Choctaw Indians.

Political developments also played a role in shaping local cuisine. Though originally founded as a French colony in 1718, New Orleans passed into Spanish hands in 1762, then reverted back to French control in 1800 and finally became part of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It is said that cooks (an occupation that was held in high esteem) had to adapt their recipes to the taste buds of the political powers of the day. Jambalaya (a rice-and-sausage dish) actually descended from the Spanish paella and is believed to have evolved during the Spanish occupation of the colony.

New Orleans' fare can be divided into two basic categories: Cajun and Creole cooking. Cajun cooking is based on French country cooking and tends to be simpler and spicier than its Creole counterpart. In contrast, Creole cooking is closer to classical French cooking, and places greater emphasis on presentation and the use of sauces. Some chefs do not make a distinction between the two styles because they are closely related and both are indigenous to Louisiana.

A visit to New Orleans would not be complete without a stop at the Mecca of Creole cooking, Antoine's. Located in the French Quarter and billed as the oldest restaurant in the city, Antoine's has been run by the same family for six generations since it opened its doors in 1840. The front room, with its cream-colored interior, wooden fans, faded dark with age and mounted on high ceilings, and cordial waiters who address their patrons as "Sir" and "Ma'am," exudes the air of a bygone era from the Deep South. You expect to see a bunch of local fat cats huddled around a table, dressed in white linen suits, wiping their forever perspiring brows with handkerchiefs and jabbering away about politics over a round of Dixie beer and a feed of boiled crawfish.

With a 25,000-bottle wine collection (worth an estimated $3 million), a menu with 150 items for the choosing and seating for 1,600, Antoine's has drawn guests from American presidents to the Pope. A visit to Antoine's is also a lesson in how class-conscious New Orleans operates: It is said that tourists never make it past the front room.

So what exactly is the secret behind the food in New Orleans? Well, it depends on who you talk to. According to John de Ville, head chef at Antoine's, "the key to New Orleans cooking is in the spices." Like many of the old guard of New Orleans chefs, he grew up in the Cajun country south of Baton Rouge and learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother.

Michael Devidts of the New Orleans School of Cooking says that "flexibility and creativity" are the keys to preparing good food. Maybe it's a combination of the three that make the food in New Orleans outstanding, but whatever the secret is you'll find the food irresistible.

Antoine's is located at 713 St. Louis Street. Also consider Tujagues at 823 Decatur Street, Johnny's Po-Boys at 511 St. Louis and Franky and Johnny's at 321 Arabella Street.


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