NEW ORLEANS — "I was born in New Orleans, and I never ate a blackened redfish in my life until a few years ago," said John DeMers, food editor here for United Press International. "Paul Prudhomme invented it."
According to DeMers, Prudhomme so popularized the dish at his K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen here that blackened redfish has become synonymous with New Orleans cooking, and the fish is threatened with extinction.
But long before Prudhomme ever touched a peppercorn, New Orleans was a city of culinary dreams-- beignets at the French Market, coffee with chicory, Sazerac cocktails, boiling pots of crawfish, huge kettles of jambalaya. Some of the best food in the nation comes out of these Creole and Cajun kitchens.
"Cajun refers to the Acadians, French Canadians who came to the South in the 1700s to escape British control," DeMers said. "They settled in the bayous. Their cuisine, based on French country cooking, has not changed a lot over the years."
Creole, on the other hand, refers to Louisiana-born people of French, Spanish or African descent, and that cuisine has evolved dramatically.
The basis is classic French cooking brought to New Orleans in the 17th Century. In the 18th Century the Spanish introduced tomatoes and bananas from Latin America. The African slaves who cooked the food added such things as okra--they would smuggle the seeds aboard slave ships leaving Africa. Then in the 1900s, Italians brought garlic and oregano from Sicily. The resulting mix is today's Creole cuisine.
His Favorite Place
To sample Creole fare, we went with DeMers to his favorite New Orleans dining place, Arnaud's. (DeMers is the author of the restaurant's newly published cookbook.)
"Arnaud Cazenave, a Frenchman, started the place in 1918," he told us, as we sat down in the lavish main dining room hung with crystal chandeliers and ceiling fans.
The first course was a typically Creole shrimp remoulade. "The early New Orleans chefs took a French remoulade, left out the mayonnaise, and added Creole mustard," DeMers said. This piquant dish was followed by a mild soup of tender oysters stewed in cream and served with vegetables.
Next came a salad of mixed greens with a light dressing of walnut oil and lemon juice. The success of the main course was mixed. A pompano en croute with a scallop mousse in green peppercorn sauce was light and delicate, but the filet mignon Charlemond was served so cold that the sauces had begun to coagulate.
For dessert we had strawberries Arnaud, strawberries marinated in port and Gran Marnier and served with ice cream and whipped cream. Our meals were about $40 per person, not including wine.
For Cajun cuisine we went to Bon Ton, started in 1953 by Alvin and Alcina Pierce, who grew up in the bayou. The food they serve is from their mothers' recipes.
The 'Rolling Stores'
"They used to have 'rolling stores,' " said Alvin's nephew, Wayne Pierce, who manages Bon Ton. "Wagons would come to the bayou selling flour and yeast. Everything else you had to grow, hunt, trap or fish."
Many Cajun specialties are "black pot" dishes, soups and stews traditionally cooked in a huge black kettle. At Bon Ton we tried a gumbo that was rich and intense with the flavor of file (a locally grown spice) and a hearty turtle soup with lace-your-own sherry. Soups are $2.75.
Next came crawfish etouffee ($11.75), a stew of crawfish (tiny shellfish similar to shrimp, but sweeter and more tender) and vegetables, served with rice; and a shrimp jambalaya ($8.25), shrimp and rice in a smooth but piquant sauce.
Dessert was truly decadent--bread pudding drenched in whiskey ($1.50). Creole and Cajun chefs make abundant use of the fresh seafood brought into New Orleans daily from the Gulf of Mexico: crawfish, shrimp, many varieties of fish and buckets of oysters.
The 80-year-old Acme Oyster House, with its wood-paneled walls and tile floors, and Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar are French Quarter institutions. Both serve gulf-fresh oysters shucked before your eyes for $2.75 a half dozen.
Locals swear by yet another oyster haven, Casamento's, a white-tiled restaurant on Magazine Street. In addition to fabulous ingredients, New Orleans restaurants offer visitors a sense of tradition and, very often, a history lesson.
Napoleon House occupies an 1814 addition to a structure dating from 1797, originally built as apartments for Napoleon as part of a failed plot to rescue him from exile on St. Helena.
Today the cozy French Quarter cafe serves muffulettas, huge Italian sandwiches of ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, provolone cheese and hot olive salad served on muffuletta bread. A $6.50 sandwich serves two.
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