My grandfather was born Uptown shortly after his parents immigrated from Sweden. As a child I would marvel as he pushed aside plates of my 7th Ward-born grandmother’s glorious grillades, etouffée and smothered vegetables, favoring instead to nibble buttered white bread while he longed for things like boiled potatoes, pickled herring and sardines. Born in the early 1900s, save for the potatoes, the native foods of Sweden would have been unavailable to him as a child. This left me to assume his culinary preferences were somehow embedded in his DNA.
It was obvious that his November 1986 birthday would be his last, so my father honored his father with a sack of Gulf oysters – the only ingredient in the Louisiana pantry worthy of my grandfather’s favor. An excellent cook like his mother, my father crafted upwards of 44 dozen hand-shucked oysters into roasted, grilled, steamed, fried, Bienville and Rockefeller incarnations. The many who attended Andrew Ernest Benson Sr.’s final birthday party thrilled to the elaborate menu – everyone except the guest of honor. He liked them raw, straight-up, naked … I sat stunned watching that frail old man wolf down about 13 dozen raw ones. Shortly thereafter he died happy.
Like my grandfather, I eagerly anticipate the cooler months when oysters are cold, briny and at their prime. Unlike him, I’ll take them any way I can get them.
I would-a-liked-ta-die on a recent visit to Commander’s Palace when my absolute favorite dish, Oysters in Absinthe Cream Under Puff Pastry Dome, was mysteriously unavailable. Though my waiter assured that due to public outcry the dish was sure to soon return, I was still left to console myself with Braised Pork Belly & Briny Oysters (both served over chicken liver boudin with local roots, grated horseradish and sweet & sour pepper jelly). The dish was divine but still I yearn for my first love, so I’ll be back soon.
I worked evenings as a hostess at Arnaud’s restaurant when I was in college. Though I despised the prim floor-length skirts and neck-choking blouses we had to wear, I loved the dining privileges: Hostesses could order absolutely anything from the menu for our evening meal. For me, most of the time this meant Oysters Stewed in Cream. The nectar of the gods, I could pretty much be embalmed in this stuff. I left that job after eight months with a solid 10 pounds to show for it.
The season is upon us, and I’m trying to get at every oyster dish on my “Hit Parade List.” My perennial favorites are Oysters en Brochette (battered and fried with bacon, oh yes!) from Galatoire’s; the eponymous, garlicky oysters at Mosca’s; the crisp Oyster Loaf and succulent Oyster Stew at Cassamento’s; Fried Oysters with Brie and Spinach at Clancy’s; and raw oysters with icy Mignonette Sauce at Lüke.
The Crispy Fried Oysters with Pickled Bleu Cheese at MoPho is a new favorite, as is the Oyster and Cauliflower Gratin at High Hat Cafe.
As the holidays draw closer, I’ll ring up Sal Sunseri and head to P&J Oysters for a gallon of the prime, golden-hued goodies they get from the Collins family’s oyster beds in Caminada Bay. With them I’ll commence to preparing copious amounts of the Creole Oyster Dressing for which my father was famous. Thanksgiving will be perfect.
I sampled some of the delicacies at The Sweet Palate, a petite confectionery boutique that relocated to the French Quarter from Park Avenue in 2012. Though the Danboy biscuits, Christine Ferber confitures and Oriol Balaguer chocolates were heavenly, what really caught my attention was a selection of Krave meat jerky from Sonoma. Sold by the piece from apothecary jars for mix and match in varieties like Black Cherry BBQ Pork, Sweet Chipotle Beef, Basil Citrus Turkey, Sweet Teriyaki Pork and Orange Pineapple Beef, these sweet-savory nibbles would be a fun thing to have on hand when revelers come to call.
Arnaud’s: 813 Bienville Ave., 523-5433, ArnaudsRestaurant.com
Cassamento’s: 4330 Magazine St., 895-976, CassamentosRestaurant.com
Clancy’s: 6100 Annunciation St., 895-1111, ClancysNewOrleans.com
Commander’s Palace: 1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221, CommandersPalace.com
Galatoire’s: 209 Bourbon St., 525-2021, Galatoires.com
High Hate Cafe: 4500 Freret St., 754-1336, HighHateCafe.com
Lüke: 333 St Charles Ave., 378-2840, LukeNewOrleans.com
MoPho: 514 City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoNola.com
Mosca’s: 4137 U.S. 90, Avondale, 436-8950, MoscasRestaurant.com
The Sweet Palate: 519 St. Louis St., 522-5150, TheSweetPalate.com