Coming from a hippy town in California, New Orleans has been a drastically different experience in every way. All of these differences can be exemplified by many different aspects of New Orleans, but no part of the city’s culture is a better metaphor for the city as whole than the food.
The most important part of New Orleans living, to me, is living a lavish, extravagant and excessive lifestyle, whenever possible. In this case, food is the most common example. New Orleanians, in contrast to Californians, eat very, very well, all of the time. Things like fried chicken, hush puppies and biscuits and gravy are extremely common, and things common in California, like sandwiches and omelets are made with butter, fat, and everything else that makes food taste good. When my parents came to visit me the first time in New Orleans, which was both of their first trip here, they were astounded about two things about the food. First, they were surprised how delicious the food was but also awestruck at the sheer caloric value (butter). New Orleans also exhibits this attitude in other parts of its culture as well. People come to New Orleans from all over the world simply to drink heavily and party: something people choose to do just because of this excessive attitude. Mardi Gras is a whole holiday centered around just that. People eat well, drink better, and generally have a good time without regard for their health of work the following morning.
New Orleans is also a place with much history and tradition. From Mardi Gras, to all of the festivals, to red beans and rice on Mondays, New Orleans has many traditions, and more than anything, these traditions are food based. Guys Po boys is a good example of the importance of tradition to New Orleans. It was originally established in 1952, and when it was bought from the original owner in 1992, the current owner was adamant about changing as little as possible, despite the building being generally run down, but even today he strives to keep Guy’s as close to the New Orleans institution that he originally bought. Food festivals are another tradition that blends food, music, art, and many other aspects of New Orleans culture. These festivals include the Po Boy Festival, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, and many, many others which celebrate years of culture and traditions. Most of these traditions come from a very long time ago and are almost exclusive to New Orleans. New Orleans jazz music, as known as traditional or trad jazz, is mostly still played the same way it was in 1925, and is nearly unheard of outside of New Orleans, besides bands like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band which tours nationally. Despite being founded in 1961, a time when jazz music was going in many progressive directions, the Preservation Hall Jazz band still plays as if jazz is still in its youth. Just like in cooking, New Orleans music has, in many cases branched out, incorporating more modern rhythm and blues influence, though it is still, like the streetcars and the rest of the city, somewhat living in the past. Something similar can be seen in the restaurant scene as well. Eating in the French Quarter or other touristy destinations, one mostly finds most traditional creole food, but branching out one can find many more progressive restaurants as well. The “new” Freret Street in a great example of these kinds of places. These new restaurants on Freret, such as Dat Dog or Company Burger, provide innovation to mostly fairly contrived food, and fresh, high quality ingredients, something that is not found in many New Orleans restaurants.
New Orleans is, and has always been a very diverse city, and this is especially reflected in New Orleans’ cuisine. This includes not only Cajun and Creole cooking, but also many other New Orleans ethnic groups, such as Italian contributions like the muffaletta, and Vietnamese foods such as Bahn Mi po boy sandwiches and Pho. So-called “New Orleans” cooking is especially diverse, since it has so many influences from old-world cooking traditions. Po Boy sandwiches for instance, take New Orleans and southern ingredients and puts them on traditional French baguettes. Diversity is found even in different people cooking the same dishes. When you order gumbo or jambalaya at a restaurant it could be drastically different than the restaurant up the street or someone’s home cooked rendition. This can often come down to ingredients, such as someone’s specific “trinity”, or influence from other kinds of food, especially in contemporary New Orleans restaurants.
New Orleans may be living in the past, but there’s a reason for it. People love to come to New Orleans to have a good time, and in a city of plenty to indulge your self in, the best part of living in New Orleans is the incredible food. The New Orleans experience can be defined in an infinite amount of ways, hearing old-school jazz music, getting shit faced on Bourbon Street, but if you ask me, there’s no better way to experience New Orleans than a messy po boy sandwich and a cold beer. So while you’re here, don’t worry, be happy, it’s later than you think.