The Big Easy, Part V: Jambalaya (travelog entry 19)

New Orleans is not like the rest of the south, it has a character all its own. The bayou, the swamp, the French and caribbean and creole influences, the voodoo, the vampires, the alligators, and the hedonism all set it apart.

We have been eating meat through the south and now that we are back near the ocean we are excited about the prospect of eating some seafood again. My friend Tarald has recently taught me how to make jambalaya, the quintessential New Orleans food (kind of a cajun take on paella), and while I am pretty satisfied with the results I am looking forward to trying the real thing here in New Orleans.

We have a great brunch at a breakfast place called Surrey’s (after a short wait for a table), and I get all worked up over the idea of crab cakes benedict but the waitress tells us they’re all out of them. There aren’t a lot of other seafood options on the menu so I settle for huevos rancheros, and Egon has an enormous Italian deli-style sandwich, but I am still obsessing about crab cakes benedict. I am convinced that the reason they are out of them is because they were so good. I begin to plot to eat in the same place tomorrow but to get up earlier so that I can get there before they run out of crab cakes.

We bar-hop around New Orleans, which is either still buzzing or buzzing again, until we are hungry again and then get in line at Coop’s, which was recommended to us for jambalaya. Eventually two spots open at the bar and since we are willing to eat there instead of at a table, we get to hop to the front of the line. The place is dark and dingy and narrow, like a dive bar, and — of course — there are TVs showing a football game, but the tiny floor space is packed with tables with dining customers and the staff are bustling about with an intense energy.

Egon has been complaining about the TVs and I agree they’re pretty awful. They produce a kind of light pollution, so you are bathed in a cold bright flickering light. Either sports are more important in the US than I realized, or else bar owners are getting kickbacks from advertisers to use TVs as wall art. Egon has also pointed out that although there are important soccer matches going on right now in Europe, not a single one of the thousands of TVs we have seen on this trip has been tuned to a soccer match. I already mentioned that Egon has learned his English from soccer fanatics, because Egon is a soccer fanatic. I must add that he would object to this characterization: considering that he thinks American football is “completely fucking stupid” and worse yet, “so gay,” he would insist instead that he is not a soccer fanatic, he is a football fanatic, since after all you play soccer with your feet, with a real ball, not some pointy-ended lozenge. This is hard to argue with. Egon has been checking his iPhone regularly to keep updated on the soccer results.

The guy next to us at the bar is from Denver and he is avidly watching the football game while munching on fried alligator, which he recommends. But it turns out to be hard to place an order. In fact, we haven’t even seen a menu. The bartender is zipping to and fro like the ball in a pinball machine, never acknowledging our presence. We start wondering if we are meant to order from a waiter instead but the waiters cruise past us as if they are on rails. Barbacks swoop in and out of the bar area replenishing the coolers with beer, adding to the confusing buzz of activity, and making it harder to understand who we are supposed to be interacting with.

Eventually we manage to get the attention of the bartender by shouting at him for menus, which he unceremoniously tosses in our direction without any apology and without breaking stride from his pinball impersonation.

We have heard that the jambalaya is good here so we order that, along with sides of gumbo and alligator. I ask the bartender what would be good to drink with that and he names a beer, so we order that, but I suspect from the look on his face that he is responding in the way that he figures will keep the interaction to a minimum.

When the food comes, it is all delicious! The mildly gamey flavor of the rabbit is delicate through the spiciness of the jambalaya. The gumbo is smoky and rich. The alligator tastes like chicken, just like in the cliché. The beer is perfectly okay but Egon and I agree that we need a proper red wine to really enjoy the jambalaya. It is a little challenging to pair wine with spicy food, so I am a bit unsure which wine to choose. I figure the bartender might know, so I ask him which wine goes with the jambalaya. He gives me a look of withering contempt and says dryly and unapologetically, “I have no idea.” He apparently hates people who drink wine, or has some traumatic association with wine. Maybe he was an altar boy. So I order a malbec from Argentina, and now the jambalaya is even better.

So all in all, the service was terrible but the food was excellent. But the terrible service can be rationalized. The place is extremely small and incredibly popular. They could hike the prices but they don’t, it’s cheap. They don’t take reservations so there is always a line. The staff specialize in rushing people through the dining experience, which is good for the people waiting in line. If you want to linger over your table for hours, you should go somewhere else (I can recommend Commander’s Palace). The bartender isn’t interested in having any conversations and he prefers customers who know what they want. He was never directly rude, just not friendly. So can I blame him for making me feel stupid for asking what wine goes with Jambalaya? Of course not! We leave our customary 20% (pre-tax) tip, despite service that made aggressively busy New Yorkers seem like relaxed Southern gentlemen. By now Egon no longer considers this absurd. He is becoming Americanized.

We then hook up with Chris and Tansy and Loren at an absinthe bar, a cool little hole in the wall off an alley off a side street. It is so small that there is only space enough for one TV on the wall. The bartender, dressed in a pirate costume, gives us a professorial lecture on the history of absinthe. As she is explaining how a conspiracy of vintners, terrified by the popularity of absinthe, convinced legislators that it was a dangerous drug and got it criminalized, I notice that the TV screen behind the bar has a four-way split screen showing four different scenes. For a moment I wonder if this is to make up for the fact that there is only one TV where most bars have several, but then I realize that the scenes are live images from in and around the bar. It is not a TV, but a system of surveillance cameras.

After the lecture is over, I ask the bartender why there are surveillance scenes behind the bar and she says it is because there is occasionally trouble. In a normal world, this would not explain why they are on the wall behind the bar, for all the customers to see, but in a world where every bar lines its walls with TVs, it will do.

Loren regales us with some great stories and we eventually wind up at the Café Du Monde for another New Orleans specialty, beignets, sweet donutlike treats served with café au lait.

Late into the night we wander down to the banks of the mighty Mississippi, reflecting on its grand dimensions and the magnitude of our journey (we have driven about 2000 miles so far, a trip of Norwegian proportions: it is about like driving from Kristiansand to Kirkenes without taking any shortcuts through Sweden or Finland). Our destination lies across the broad river.

Next stop, Texas.

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