Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Stuff to Do in New Orleans

With the crawfish boil under a month away, we thought we'd offer some suggestions for things to do for our out of town guests in New Orleans. This week we’re going to cover some of our favorite spots and places to visit in the city.  (Each suggestion has a link to a google map to show you where everything is.)  

Frenchman Street at night

Frenchman Street/Three Muses: If you want a taste of real New Orleans culture (and to avoid the touristy traps of Bourban Street) head over to Frenchman Street. Jamie highly recommends going to the Three Muses, a bar/music hall. 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 including 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. With great prices and an even better 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.

World War 2 Museum:  For those interested in the history of American involvement in World War 2, look no further than this museum located in the Central Business District. During the war, New Orleans was the home of the construction of the "Higgins Boat" an amphibious landing craft used in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Thanks to the efforts of Stephen Ambrose, the popular historian, and New Orleans business leaders, the museum opened in 2000 as a way to celebrate and study American involvement in World War 2. It is a must-visit for anyone interested learning more about this crucial moment in American history. 

           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 16, 2016

What Are Crawfish Anyway?

         Let's take a look at the history of those delicious little red crustaceans that will fill our bellies at this year's DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil on March 12, at Maison Lafitte in Mandeville. 

          Crawfish season runs from late February through early June. They live and grow in the wetlands that surround the Mississippi River and its estuaries. In the centuries before European settlement in Louisiana, crawfish thrived in the creeks, lakes, and bayous of south Louisiana. Local Native Americans caught bushels of the crustaceons by baiting wooden reeds with vension and dipping them into the water. The crawfish would latch onto the meat and dangle off the reeds, providing locals with their dinner. When the Acadians arrived in Louisiana in the 1750s, they quickly learned the value and deliciousness of this local delicacy. These French settlers, who had been expelled from Canada by the English during the Seven Years War, began incorporating crawfish into the cuisine. Over the ensuing decades, crawfish became a staple of Cajun cuisine. Local Cajun legends offer their own history of how crawfish arrived in Louisiana. Lobsters, a culinary staple of the French settlers in their native Canada, followed the Acadians from the cold waters of the Atlantic to the Mississippi basin. According to legend, when the lobsters entered the warmer waters of the gulf, they shrank to their present, diminutive size.

Watch out... it'll get you. 

          The commercial sale of crawfish began only in the late 1800s with the first recorded harvest 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 today). 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, fueled 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.

There's entire memes devoted to crawfish. 
          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 every year since has held yearly crawfish festival.  With the increasing consumption and availability of crawfish its profile began to grow. Restaurants began serving crawfish on their menus giving birth to the famous crawfish etouffee. 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 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 12. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mardi Gras! King Cakes!

    It’s Mardi Gras, which means it's the last day of king cake season. For the uninitiated the king cake is a pastry of extraordinary simplicity and deliciousness. King cake season only lasts a short time, but is impossible to celebrate Mardi Gras without at least one.  

Cake to celebrate these guys? Sure, why not? 
            Before we dive into the cake, let’s briefly explore its history. King cake season lasts from January 6 until Mardi Gras, i.e. today. Why January 6? January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Three Magi (or Kings) to the infant baby Jesus. The first king cakes emerged in France during the Medieval period as a way to celebrate this important moment in the Christian calendar. It soon became an important feature of Carnival (otherwise known as Mardi Gras). Carnival caught on in New Orleans thanks to the French who founded the city. Explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, landed on the coast about sixty miles south of present day New Orleans on March 2, 1699—the day before Mardi Gras. The French colony and the holiday stuck. The king cake, however, did not take hold until the early 1870s. French immigrants brought their king cake recipes with them and in classic New Orleans fashion, a new tradition merged with the old to create something wonderful. It took until about 1950 for the king cake to become a popular staple of New Orleans cuisine. In the past decade or so, king cakes have really come into their own. Popular interest in all things New Orleans grew after Hurricane Katrina and next day shipping have allowed king cakes to be shipped across the country, spreading their influence and deliciousness.

Is that the baby Jesus there?
             Now let’s talk about the cake itself. The king cake began as a dry French bread dough topped with sugar with a bean inside. Over the past several hundred years the king cake has evolved into a sweet cake covered with sugar and icing. The dough is now braided, stuffed with cinnamon, cream cheese, or other fillings. The process of filling king cakes began in the early 1980s. The cakes are circular and hollow in shape. The colors atop a king cake are the same as the ones of Mardi Gras—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.  King cakes also feature a small plastic baby hidden somewhere in or underneath the cake. Tradition holds that the person who finds the baby is responsible for buying the next cake. Some claim that the baby represents the baby Jesus. A 1990 interview with the owner of McKenzie’s, however, sheds serious doubt on this claim. Donald Entringer Sr. claimed to the Times-Picayune that McKenzie’s was the first to put the baby into a king cake. Entringer claimed that “I've heard people say it's supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that's not true. Why we picked this, I don't know. It was cute. It was just a trinket that happened to be a baby.” Whatever the truth may be, watch out for the baby when you bite into your first slice of king cake.

The former King Cake Capital of NOLA 
             Unsurprisingly here at DGA, everyone has their own preferences for the best kind of king cake and where you should get it. Bill is a big fan of the king cakes from Butter Krisp Diner in Covington. His favorites are the strawberry cream cheese filled and any homemade king cake. Jamie and Benson both have a lasting affection for the king cakes once made by McKenzie’s. The Tastee Donut chain in and around New Orleans, however, purchased McKenzie’s old recipe and sells them at their stores. Jamie doesn’t like a whole lot of frosting. McKenzie’s consists of a simple brioche without cinnamon or filling. There’s only colored sugar topping the cake. McKenzie’s king cakes are stripped down to their roots, letting the dough and sugar shine. Matt prefers the Mandeville Bake Shop due its easy convenience near his house, though the best one he’s ever had came from Randazzo’s. And finally Doug’s favorite king cake is whichever one appears at his house, like the one accidentally mailed there last week by his daughter.