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Uncle Earl and the Pompano

Earl Long wanted to convince his rural audience that he, too, was plain folk like them. There was no better way to illustrate the point than aiming a dagger to the heart at New Orleans.

Those people down there at Antoine’s,” the former governor said with contempt before a crowd that associated New Orleans with Gomorrah, “they eat polly peepot in the poke. Now me, Uncle Earl, I eat a slice of ham at the Piccadilly.” The audience cheered. This was their man. What more could a polity demand of their governor, even if they had no idea what it was that the people at Antoine’s were eating?

To translate “Earlspeak,” the state’s leader was speaking about pompano en papillote, the renowned dish invented at Antoine’s where the Gulf fish is baked inside a paper bag along with a wine-based white sauce, crabmeat and shrimp.

It is a classic creation, which even an amateur gourmet might concede, that outdoes in taste and creativity a slice of ham. Furthermore modern science has yet to prove a link between a person’s ability to enjoy the dish and an inability to govern.

In this issue where we survey dining along the Gulf, I pause to mention the pompano, which seems to be (and this Earl had right) the elite among Gulf fish. Do not look for it fried with hushpuppies, blackened or as the fixing for a poor boy or in a stew; instead it’s usually found at white-tablecloth restaurants, if not in a bag, maybe grilled.

New Orleans, particularly Antoine’s has made the pompano regal. Not far from Antoine’s another restaurant, K-Paul’s, made another Gulf inhabitant, redfish, at first a   rock star and then nearly extinct. The impact of blackened redfish was so enormous that the Gulf was almost depleted. The ensuing fishing ban on the species created demands for other Gulf fish that were seldom heard of before. Tuna, if not from a can, I thought came from colder ocean waters. I never knew there was such a thing as Gulf yellow fin tuna until the redfish ban. Amberjack and mahi-mahi would be new to the menu.

Toward the eastern end of the Gulf, along the Florida panhandle, is the grouper belt. You don’t see grouper on many menus in the New Orleans area but it appears as beach food on sandwiches and platters along the shoreline.

Pompano is more elegant than that. It belongs with potatoes soufflé on the side rather than fries, and followed by crème brûlée rather than key lime pie. Curiously, Long’s contempt for the French Quarter wasn’t so great to prevent him from having a fling with Blaze Starr, a Bourbon Street stripper. Surely he must have taken her to one of those fancy restaurants. And if he didn’t like the fish, he could’ve ordered the Eggs Benedict. Right there in the center – a slice of ham.

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