Tuesday, February 24, 2015

History of Crawfish

          We’ve previously covered things to do and places to eat in New Orleans. Now as we get closer to March 14, it is worth investigating the history of these delicious crustaceans.

          Crawfish season lasts from late February through early June. Crawfish live and grow in bayous that dot the Mississippi River and its estuaries. Before European settlement, the creeks and lakes of southern Louisiana teemed with crawfish. For centuries, local Native Americans caught crawfish by baiting wooden reeds with venison. They would dip the reeds in the water and pull them up—with crawfish dangling off the reeds. Using this method Native Americans caught these crustaceans by the bushel. Consumption of crawfish spread next to the Acadians. They arrived in Louisiana in the 1750s. The Acadians were French settlers who had been expelled from Canada by the English during the Seven Years War. The Acadians began incorporating local seafood into their cuisine. Over time, these delicious crustaceans became a staple of Cajun cuisine. Local Cajun legends offer a slightly different history of crawfish. They claim that lobsters followed the Acadians down from Canada. When they entered the warmer waters of the gulf, the lobsters shrank to their present, diminutive size.

Watch out... it'll get you. 

          The commercial sale of crawfish began only in the late 1800s. The first recorded harvest of crawfish occurred in 1880. The crawfish, raised in the Atchafalaya Basin, resulted in a  harvest of 23,400 pounds, worth about $2,140 (about $51,000 in today’s money). In 1908, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded that Louisiana produced about 88,000 pounds of crawfish per year, worth about $3,600 (about $93,000). The Great Depression of the 1930s drove the price of crawfish down to as low as 4 cents per pound. Technological advancements, including trucking, railroads, and refrigeration allowed for the movement of live crawfish from the rural bayou to urban centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The introduction of traps and nets allowed for the collection of greater numbers of crawfish. In the 1930s, Louisiana began to cultivate the production of crawfish on farms. Rice had long been a staple of bayou farmers. In order to gain more income, rice farmers began re-flooding their fields in order to produce harvests of crawfish in the winter and early spring. This practice soon spread across Louisiana wherever low-lying ponds and marshland could be found.

A typical haul. 

          The process of farming stabilized crawfish production. Before farming, the harvest in any given year depended on the water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin. Thus the market fluctuated wildly from year to year. By the mid-1960s, over 10,000 acres of farms were spread across Louisiana. In the decades since, crawfish farms have only continued to grow to approximately 120,000 acres. Louisiana accounts for 85%-95% of total U.S. crawfish production. In 1960, the community of Breaux Bridge was named the crawfish capitol of the world and held a yearly crawfish festival.  With the increasing consumption and availability of crawfish its profile began to grow. Restaurants began serving crawfish on their menus and the famed dish, crawfish etouffee was born. The process of eating crawfish then passed in the local consciousness as a way to celebrate local food and served as another way for Louisianans to come together and celebrate their home.  Today the industry accounts for 7,000 jobs and about 300 million dollars in revenues.

The end result. 

The process for cooking crawfish has stayed the same (and this may attest to the longevity of crawfish consumption); get a pot of water boiling (seasoned of course), add the live crawfish, let cook for several minutes. Then eating—well peeling first, then eating—the crawfish on newspaper covered tables until you can’t eat them anymore. It’s a tradition that we look forward to upholding on March 14. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Things to EAT in New Orleans

            Now that we’ve covered some places to go in the French Quarter, it’s time to get down to it. Where are you going to eat in New Orleans? We’re going to guide you to some of the best dining spots in the city.

Café Du Monde: We’re starting off with the obvious, but sometimes what’s obvious is best. You never forget your first beignets. It’s New Orleans, it’s beignets, don’t over think it. Stroll on down Decatur and stop when you see the famous exterior. Go in, order the beignets, and blow powdered sugar on your friends and family. Enjoy a café au laut and watch the world go by. If you walk out of there and you’re not covered in powdered sugar, you’ve done it wrong.

Follow the sign, delicious food waits inside. 

Green Goddess: If you want eclectic modern New Orleans cuisine go no farther than the Green Goddess. Make sure you keep your eye out it’s tucked away in a narrow alley just off of Bienville Street. The unassuming exterior masks the culinary creativity within. The menu changes with the seasons and takes a global approach, fusing Louisiana classics with ideas from around the world. Benson and his wife Liz swear by the food and the cocktails (especially the cheese plate).

Killer Poboys: Nestled in the back of the Erin Rose Bar is one of the best kept secrets of the New Orleans culinary scene, Killer Poboys. The Poboy is a traditional New Orleans sandwich consisting of some kind of protein, generally roast beef or fried seafood served on New Orleans style French bread (there’s an entire festival devoted to them). Done right, the poboy is a blank canvas for culinary innovation. And Killer Poboys does them right.

Inside the French Quarter Camellia Grill. 

Camellia Grill: There are two locations of the Camellia Grill, the original in Uptown and a newer location in the quarter. The menu is straightforward diner food, done right. Order a couple of burgers, some fries, and a chocolate freeze to drink. Dessert, though, is where the Camellia Grill shines. Order the pecan (pronounced pe-can NOT pee-can, pronounce it wrong and risk our wrath and mockery) pie and enjoy the best pie you’ll ever eat. The secret? They warm it up on the grill, next to the burgers. No, it’s not healthy, but you’re in New Orleans so who cares?

Déjà Vu Bar and Grill: Open 24/7/364, Déjà Vu is the place to go if you’ve been out all night drinking and need some good, filling food. They serve breakfast all day including southern staples like biscuits and gravy. Their menu includes burgers, seafood, and a host of Louisiana classics. Benson also vouches for their beer selection.

So much gelato, so little time. 

La Divina Gelateria: And we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend at least one dessert place. La Divina makes all of their gelato in house and from scratch. The owners, Katrina and Carmelo Turillo lived in Florence and loved taking late night walks and getting gelato. So they decided to study how to make gelato and brought it over to Louisiana. They opened in February 2007 after being delayed several years by Hurricane Katrina. The shop has four locations, including one in the French Quarter. So if you’re talking a late night walk, stop in for some of the best gelato outside of Italy.

           We’re less than a month away from the crawfish boil now. We hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Things to Do in New Orleans (Non-Food Edition)

          Last week we highlighted the Super Sunday parade of Mardi Gras Indians that will take place on the day after the crawfish boil. This week we’re going to cover some of our favorite spots and places to visit in the French Quarter.  (Each suggestion has a link to a google map to show you where everything is.)  

Inside Three Muses

Frenchman Street/Three Muses: Technically Frenchman street is in the Marigny and not the quarter, but it’s close enough. Jamie highly recommends going to the Three Muses, a bar/music hall. DGA favorite Davis Rogan can often be found playing there. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, Frenchman has become the center of musical culture in the city. Go in, order some food (the food is as good as the music), and listen to some of the best music New Orleans has to offer. Remember to tip the band and thank us later.  

French Market: The French Market is a more traditionally touristy spot. This open air market features a wide range of vendors. It has music, food, and shopping.  It spans about five blocks down by the river. Since it opened in 1791, the market has long been a center of the city’s economy. Over the years, Native Americans, African Americans, Americans, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Caribbean immigrants all mingled together, selling their wares. Like Jackson Square, the Market encapsulates the history of New Orleans.

There hero of New Orleans in foreground, St. Louis Cathedral in the background.
Jackson Square: If you’re in the French Quarter it’s impossible not to walk around Jackson Square at some point. The square is named for Andrew Jackson, who famously defended the city from the English during the War of 1812 (even though the battle took place in Chalmette and the war was already over). A close look at the square and you can see the entire history of the city. The St. Louis Cathedral sits at the head of the square and is the oldest cathedral in America. The site has housed a church continuously since 1718. There has been a church on the site since 1718. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Cabildo, the seat of the French and then Spanish colonial government. On the other side of the Cathedral sits the Presbytere, which was used for commercial and judicial purposes. The Cabildo and Presbytere are now part of the Louisiana State Museum.

Beckham’s Books: Every major city has a hidden gem of a used bookstore, in New Orleans, Beckham’s is it. Beckham’s has great prices and a wide selection. This independently owned book store has been on Decatur Street since 1979. It’s a great way to spend an hour browsing their massive collection. Side note: from the outside, Crescent City Books (just a few blocks over) looks like the used book store you want. But it’s not. Crescent City is mostly a front to sell overpriced “authentic” New Orleans merchandise to hipsters.

Inside Beckham's Books 

Aquarium/Riverwalk: Located at the foot of Canal Street, the Aquarium features a 400,000 gallon tank filled with coral reefs, sharks, and other aquatic life that populates the Gulf of Mexico. After touring the exhibits, take a few minutes and watch the sharks and turtles swim by. It’s a cool sight to see and well worth your time. The aquarium also has stingray touch pool, sea otters, and a replica Amazon rainforest. Additionally you can walk along the Riverwalk to get to the Aquarium and watch the ships sail past the city.

           Stay tuned for next week, where we will tackle the all-important issue of where to eat in the Quarter. Because let’s face it, if you came to New Orleans, you came here to eat. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Super Sunday Parade

          The crawfish boil is only about five and a half weeks away. So we figured it would be a good idea to highlight some of the other events in the Greater New Orleans area that out of town guests might enjoy. While looking for other events, we stumbled across a big one that you will definitely want to check out.

A Krewe on Parade 

          Sunday March 15 (the day after the boil) is Super Sunday in New Orleans. What is Super Sunday? It is only one of few times during the year that you can see Mardi Gras Indians on parade. The Indians are perhaps the least famous (at least to people not from New Orleans) part of Mardi Gras celebrations. They are the African American community’s equivalent of the famous Krewes (and largely white). Krewes are organized along the lines of royalty with kings, queens, dukes, knights, and captains. Membership is severely limited. The krewes are generally named after Roman or Greek mythological figures. Each has their own parade featuring specially designed floats. This list will give you a sense of the different krewes. Their parades begin in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras Indians via HBO's Treme

          Since African-Americans were largely excluded from these white activities, they developed their own ways to celebrate Mardi Gras. African Americans named their krewes for imaginary Indian tribes. This was to honor the Indians efforts to help African Americans escape enslavement in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mardi Gras Indians began to appear in the late 1800s. The first such group was the Creole Wild West from the Seventh Ward. As a way to visualize the bond between the two groups, the African Americans dressed as up as Indians. Their Mardi Gras celebrations featured music, dance, hand sewn costumes, and masks. Mardi Gras Indians organized themselves along neighborhood lines. Older members taught younger ones their traditions, creating legacies within families. Throughout the early 20th century, the Indians remained very much on the margins. They stayed mostly within the black neighborhoods of the city. Their members were often poor and working class. They were carpenters and laborers by day and Mardi Gras Indians by night.

A Mardi Gras Indian Flag Boy 

Instead of floats, the Indians feature beautifully elaborate masks and costumes. Covered in sequins, beads, and feathers, rhinestones, jewels, plumes, satin, and velvet these costumes require a tremendous amount of detail work that takes months. The suits weigh somewhere between 80 and 300 pounds. Each tribe includes a Spy Boy, who locates rival tribes. A Flag Boy carries the tribe’s flag. A Wild Man clears a path through the crowd for the Big Chief. The Big Chief is the leader of the tribe. He is generally the oldest and most skilled at sewing and creating costumes. He also must be able to sing and chant the traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs. He can never wear the same costume twice. The big chief spends his time between each year’s Mardi Gras crafting his new costume. On Mardi Gras and Super Sunday, the Indians parade through the city. In the early days, Mardi Gras Indians would settle their scores with violence. Other time community leaders channeled this anger into competitions between tribes over who had the prettiest chief. Now when tribes encounter each other in the streets, they generally engage in a mock-battle. This involves a song or chant and call for respect from one chief. The other chief responds with a similar song, chant, and call for respect. They each try to assert their superiority as the prettiest or best big chief. The two men dance and chant before acknowledging each other and continuing along their way. Since Youtube won't let me embed the video, follow this link to watch a clip from the HBO show Treme featuring Mardi Gras Indians. 

This is definitely a tradition worth checking out. For more information on the details of the parade, go here. We’ll be back next week with some other recommendations for things to do in New Orleans.