Chow, Baby: Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Ciao, New Orleans

There are greater losses in New Orleans, many and much greater losses, but as an ersatz food writer I figure itís appropriate for me to mourn the destruction of one of the worldís truly great food cities. As itís 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. Itís 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. Itís part of what a friend of mine, the writer Rob Walker, calls ďthe cityís almost un-American joie de vivre.Ē

What does this joyful sensuality look like? Well, at least in my family, we didnít sit around Sid-Marís in Bucktown (a few blocks from the 17th Street Canal; farewell, old friend) announcing, ďWow! This crawfish pie is a lot like sex!Ē 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. Itís in the neighborhood dives like Franky & Johnnyís, Parasolís, 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 Fredís recalls, which is why Chow, Baby loves Fredís so.) Itís 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 Igorís (pronounced Eye-gorís), 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 Dennyís in New Orleans, I never knew it.

I donít know if this painful void in my stomach, the one Iíve had off and on since the levee broke, means Iím about to cry again or merely that I deeply regret not getting a debris po-boy on my last trip home. The line at Motherís was too long, and I didnít feel like going all the way across town to Parkview Tavern. Stupid, stupid. I didnít know that the line ďalways kiss your spouse goodbye in case itís the last time you see each otherĒ also applies to the bits of beef that fall off during roasting and bathe in the juices for hours, all ladled on a flaky-crusty baguette to soak into the soft part of the bread, yeah white cheese please, no just a little mynez. A gloppy, oozing, decadent mess, the greatest sandwich in the world. Like beignets, the French doughnuts topped with mounds of powdered sugar, these po-boys leave evidence of your pleasure on your cheeks and hands and rumpled clothes. Everybody knows what youíve been doing. Everybody shares your joy.

Oh. I guess it means Iím about to cry again.

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