I just got back from family vacation, where, for ten days, I violated all my rules and everything I’ve ever preached about how to travel. I stayed put. I rarely left the hotel grounds. I ate in the same two restaurants for most of my trip—rarely deviating from pasta, pizza and gelato. Though there was a lake a few hundred yards walk down, I never put so much as a toe in it—spending the bulk of my days instead, splashing around in the shallow end of the pool with a Barbie pail , an inflatable porpoise, and a relentlessly energetic 4 year old girl. It was marvelous.
I missed—or was at least physically absent from—the monstrously overblown “controversy” about the dietary choices of “regular people” and the larger question of whether I am a cruel, horrible, snake-eating, Yankee liberal elitist—or just an occasionally obnoxious guy making a point. Or a bit of both. Without revisiting a week where I found myself in the rare, worrying– and yet strangely satisfying position of having both FOX News AND the New York Times drop a deuce on my head, I’ll let this Monday’s episode of NO RESERVATIONS make my argument for me.
The show begins in New Orleans, a city I feel very connected to—and continues deep into the heart of Cajun country and culture. The South—particularly (but not exclusively) Louisiana, is where “American” food comes from. There are certainly other uniquely regional cuisines and specialties in this country—but creole and Cajun constitute uniquely American-born mutations. They could not have occurred anywhere else. Like the birth of jazz—they were created at bizarre yet magical intersections of cultures and circumstances—the end products of long journeys, much pain and simple pleasures.
One of the things I’m always looking at as I travel around the world is “where the cooks come from”. And if there’s a regular feature, a common thread wherever you go in this world, it’s that the best cooks and often the best chefs come from the poorest or most challenging regions. And it is without doubt that the greatest , most beloved and iconic dishes in the pantheon of gastronomy—in any of the world’s mother cuisines—French, Italian or Chinese–originated with poor, hard-pressed, hard working farmers and laborers with no time, little money and no refrigeration.
Pot au Feu , Coq au Vin, Sup Tulang, Cassoulet, pasta, polenta, confit, —all of them began with the urgent need to make something good and reasonably sustaining out of very little. So many of the French classics began with the need to throw a bunch of stuff into a single pot over the coals, leave it simmering unattended all day while the family worked the fields, hopefully to return to something tasty and filling that would get them through the next day. French cooking, we tend to forget now, was rarely (for the majority of Frenchmen) about the best or the priciest or even the freshest ingredients. It was about taking what little you had or could afford and turning it into something delicious without interfering with the grim necessities of work and survival. The people I’m talking about here didn’t have money—or time to cook. And yet along with similarly pressed Italians, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and other hungry innovators around the world, they created many of the enduring great dishes of history.
So the notion that hard working, hard pressed families with little time and slim budgets have to eat crappy, processed food –or that unspeakably, proudly unhealthy “novelty dishes” that come from nowhere but the fevered imaginations of marketing departments are—or should be—the lot of the working poor is nonsense.
The many Cajuns who were good enough to host us on this Monday’s episode make this case, I think, far better than I ever could. Notice, when you watch the show, how everybody cooks. Men, women—even the kids seem to be helping out. Many aren’t cooks, per se, but everybody we met , everybody, was really, really good at at least one dish. Cajuns proudly trace their roots to a particularly harsh and brutal diaspora, followed by a steep learning curve as they adapted to an incredibly difficult new environment. Their culinary traditions reflect that.
At the traditional “boucherie” I attended, an entire community swung into action within seconds of me putting two bullets into the guest of honor. And one and all– everyone, from musicians, mechanics, to the town mayor—set about demonstrating the real guiding principles of gastronomy. Slow cooked, “smothered” and “stuffed” turkey wings, a stew made from the backbone of the pig, delicious, hot boudin made from the blood or less expensive bits, head cheese, cracklins. None of this was expensive. None of the cooks were professionally trained. But what I ate that day—and on other days—in Lafayette, Breaux Bridge and Eunice was some of the most delicious food I’ve had anywhere.
And what about New Orleans? There’s nothing fancy or expensive about the wonderfully kooky Afro-Chinese hybrid street food, Yakkamein, or red beans and rice—or the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s. A good muffaletta sandwich, an oyster Po’ Boy—these are not expensive luxuries, they’re birthrights—and no one who’s eaten them can ever say they are any less delicious than anything served in a Michelin starred dining room. Made well, by someone who knows what they’re doing, they are unimprovable by man or God. They are also, one would assume, quite delicious and quite fattening enough without squeezing them between two Cinnabons.
For ****’s sake, the South pretty much taught us all to cook. They know what good, affordable food is—having pretty much written the book on the subject. All I’m saying is that Macaroni and cheese is a good and noble dish. Deep fried macaroni and cheese is no better and certainly no more affordable.
This is the last episode of NO RESERVATIONS of this season. We begin shooting a new season in September, but in the interim period, while we’re out there travelling, I hope you’ll find amusement—and maybe even some useful information– in THE LAYOVER, a ten episode, high speed mini-series we just shot in an alternately thrilling and exhausting bounce around the world, from New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rome, San Francisco, Miami, Montreal, Amsterdam, London, and Los Angeles.
And for the NOLA/Cajun episode, I want to thank Lolis Eric Elie, Wendell Pierce, David Simon and everybody from the HBO series “TREME”, upon whose previous works and extensive research and experience we shamelessly piggybacked.