It’s no secret that New Orleanians eat differently from other Americans. When we travel, finding culinary satisfaction is a quest not unlike searching for the Holy Grail or the Seven Cities of Cibola. In fact, both legends may be easier to confirm than to find a good restaurant serving what we like and prepared the way we like it in any major city in the world.
That is not to say there is not such a place, but whenever friends or business associates say, “We have a restaurant here that serves food exactly like we visited New Orleans and we think you will really find it delightful," my standard response is, “Oh, that’s wonderful, but I did not come all this way to taste cuisine I have all the time. Do you have a good steak house around here?”
That answer, I have found, keeps the insult-level and air of superiority out of the discussion. Truth of the matter, I have never found a restaurant anywhere that purports to serve New Orleans cuisine to be worth the visit. Okay, so the attitude is high-handed and haughty but it has been my experience that it is far better to seek out something local at that level rather than endure bad versions of what we offer as standard fare every day.
The same is true of our adult beverage habits. Our town has some of the finest mixologists you will ever find anywhere. And when traveling, I prefer to keep matters simple. Local beer, wines (usually domestic), and international standards, such as Gin & Tonic, Manhattan, and… well, that’s about it.
I cannot tell you how many truly bad French 75s, Sazeracs, and Ramos Gin Fizz I have endured at the hands of people who are passing the time behind the bar until they get their undergraduate degrees – or people who have no idea what they want to do with their lives. “Bartending, how hard can it be?”
Just as with the cuisine, New Orleanians have our own style, our own ingredients, which people in other places do not possess. Again, no offense but it is what it is. I actually had a drink in Oregon where I asked for Crystal (silly question), or at the minimum, Tabasco. The Tabasco was not readily available and when they did locate a bottle, the ingredients had separated. No amount of shaking could make everything come together again. I’m thinking that bottle of sauce would have lasted less than a week around here and in that location, it was likely years and years old, sitting in the hottest and alternatively coldest spot on the top shelf of a storage locker.
Here are a few of the items that we almost never leave out, and others don’t usually add in:
Absinthe – You would not believe the number of intelligent cocktail enthusiasts who still think that Absinthe is illegal – which it never technically was. This distilled spirit is not only the mainstay of one of New Orleans’ most famous cocktails, the Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans by an act of the Louisiana Legislature, but it (absinthe) is available in both red and green versions. It is technically not a liqueur since sugar is not added, but is considered a spirit.
(I am not providing a Sazerac recipe. One should be printed on the back of your birth certificate, or should be embroidered on a pillow given to you by your grandmother on your 10th birthday.)
Ojen – Another anise-based cocktail ingredient, this time a spirit that actually hails from the southern Andalusia region of Spain, near the town of Marbella. No one really knows why in all the world New Orleans took a liking to this spirit and actually brought it back from extinction, nor why this is a particular favorite during Carnival. I attribute that popularity to Renaissance Publishing's own Errol Laborde, who absolutely is in love with Ojen.
As suggested by Neal Bodenheimer at Cure, 4905 Freret St.
- 2 ounces Legendre Ojen
- 7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
- Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice.
- Pour Ojen over the ice and add 4 dashes of Peychaud's.
- Fill with more crushed ice.
- Top with 3 more dashes of Peychaud's.
- Swizzle until the glass frosts.
Ojen was also a key ingredient in one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite cocktails, as noted in Phil Greene’s well-documented volume about Hemingway’s drinking favorites both in real life and in his fiction, "To Have and Have Another."
As a side note, Greene, an attorney for the U.S. Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., is a direct descendant of Antoine Peychaud of New Orleans, a pharmacist, and of Bitters fame.
As suggested by the writings of Ernest Hemingway
- 1-1/2 ounces Ojen
- 2-3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
- 1 teaspoon sugar, or dash of simple syrup
- 2-3 ounces club soda
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir.
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
There are many other idiosyncracies of New Orleanians and their cocktails. We know from 4th grade, about the time that our parents first had us mixing drinks, that French 75 cocktails require Champagne, not any other sparkling wine, and that while gin is the true original support spirit, many of us do prefer cognac, which entered this particular scene just a few years later
We also know as a birthright that while rye whiskey is now used as the base spirit in a Sazerac, the original recipe, harkening back to 1850, called for cognac. In a departure from preferences as compared to the French 75, many of us like the original recipe and the 45 years later interloper.
We know there are no shortcuts in the making of a Ramos Gin Fizz. A long period of shaking, at least 5 minutes, is required for a proper expression.
The Roffignac, named for some obscure reason in the 1860’s in honor of the tenth and last French-speaking mayor of New Orleans, is still very much our town’s secret.
- 2 1⁄2 oz. fermented raspberry shrub or stovetop raspberry shrub
- 1 1⁄2 oz. cognac
- 1⁄2 oz. simple syrup
- Soda water, to top
- Shake raspberry shrub, cognac, and simple syrup in an ice-filled shaker.
- Strain into ice-filled glass; top with soda water.
So the next time someone mentions to you that people from New Orleans eat differently than most Americans, tell them that’s nothing–wait until you see what we drink.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.