Thursday, July 26, 2012

You Can't go to New Orleans Without Tasting the Food

Last week, I was with a group of 16 youth & adults from Windsor Heights Lutheran Church; the congregation I serve in Des Moines, IA.  I asked the group to offer their reflections throughout the week on koinonia.  In this entry, Brett "Big Daddy" Toresdahl shares our group's culinary experiences. 

As the self appointed “food tour guide” for the WHLC Youth Gathering crew, I felt the responsibility to review some to the incredible cuisine that we experienced in the Big Easy.  Let me first start with a word of thanks to my fifteen traveling companions for their eagerness and willingness to explore the food of New Orleans with me.  Often, when traveling in groups it is hard to come to a consensus as to where to eat for a variety of reasons, but for the most part All were game to try new places, setting aside any dietary pickiness that they may have brought with them.
Before setting out on the trip, I attempted unsuccessfully to get a clause added to our covenant that would put a moratorium on the eating at any fast food, chains or joints that had more than one location and could be consumed had we stayed in Iowa.  But being realistic, traveling by bus, keeping schedules, battling 33,000 others for food and convenience sometime made this difficult.  I regretfully report that there was some McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC and Subway consumed.  Lord, forgive us our sins. With this said, I set my sights on the group experiencing the food, atmosphere and culture that is truly New Orleans.  If anyone has ever been there, you know what I am talking about and I think our group left with some memorable food experiences.
On the day of our arrival, following registration and check in to our hotel, we set out by trolley for our first food experience. Our destination was Dooky Chase, a restaurant rooted deep in the African American community and the Civil Rights movement of New Orleans.  Our walk from the trolley took us six or seven blocks through a neighborhood which still had the footprints of Katrina.  We walked past boarded up homes next to newly build townhouse complexes next to overgrown vacant lots next to small businesses struggling to survive.

Right in the middle of blight, poverty and now construction is this incredible restaurant that's been cobbled together by an amazing ambassador of New Orleans, Leah Chase, the 88 year old matriarch of Dooky Chase who still oversees the kitchen starting at 7am daily.  The restaurant is part old world, part gallery and everything New Orleans.  Dooky Chase is one of those places you hear about as being quintessentially New Orleans. From the amazing food to the beautiful art, it did not disappoint.  Dooky Chase, was known as a gathering place during the 1960s among many who participated in the Civil Rights movement.  The restaurant is also known as a gallery due to its extensive African American Art collection.  The distinguished collection represents powerful symbols of a history this restaurant both survived and altered.

As you step thru the door you know you're leaving the challenges outside the doors behind you.  The tables are covered in white linen and the main dining room is a deep red.  While many tourist flock to Dooky Chase, it regularly attracts a professional crowd at lunch as well as a number of local politic types. Ms. Chase's traditional southern fare food is as good as the atmosphere. Everything you'd expect to be on the menu is; fried chicken, fried catfish, smothered cabbage, red beans and rice, peach cobbler. We went for the buffet and everything on it was delish.  The fried chicken was golden crunchy, moist and not greasy.  My mouth is still watering thinking about it.  I believe that I can claim it as the best I have ever eaten. The andouille sausage, green beans, mac and cheese, red beans and rice were all stars.  And when the friendly wait staff announced that the dessert for the day was peach "cobbler", we all answered in unison, “yes”.  

All of us left Dooky Chase with huge smiles on our face. We saw some amazing art, ate some incredible food, and enjoyed getting to know each other better.  A side note of trivia: Ms. Chase was the inspiration for the main character in Disney’s animated movie “Princess and the Frog”.

The next morning, the group determined that the only way to start a morning in New Orleans is with a plate of beignets and a cup of chicory coffee.  So we ventured into the French Quarter in search of the place that is on everyone’s “to do” list.  All we had to do was follow the brightly colored t-shirts of other Lutheran youth headed for the same destination.  The Original Cafe Du Monde is a traditional coffee shop. Its menu consists of dark roasted Coffee and Chicory, Beignets, White and Chocolate Milk, and fresh squeezed Orange Juice. Beignets are square French -style doughnuts, lavishly covered with powdered sugar.

When we arrived, the dining room was crowded and the lines were long.  But the experienced and seasoned staff kept the tourists flowing in and out.  Our patience paid off as we were rewarded with what we had come for, the beignets.  Hot, fresh and drenched with powdered suger, our eyes bulged as they were placed on our table. The group quickly concluded that beignets should replace donut holes at WHLC coffee hour.  After a brief discussion with Megan about the merits of recycling the excess powdered sugar, our group was off to the Convention Center for our day of peacemaking.

Lunch time brought us our first food dilemma of the day.  Do we eat expensive convention center fare or do we venture out in search of a place that has not been found by the other 33,000 in attendance?  The decision was made to divide and conquer.  Part of the group headed in the direction of Mother’s (more about this to follow) and the rest of us set out for the new WWII Museum where we knew that they had an old fashioned soda shop complete with sandwiches and homemade ice cream. Not more than a block into our journey we cross the street into the arms of a woman standing outside of a sketchy neighborhood bar & grill and encouraging us to stop and try the food.  “Kids are welcome”, she exclaimed.  The chalk written sidewalk sign promoted cheap po boys and $2 bread pudding.  After a slight hesitation to change our plans, we told the woman we would be back.  A few more steps up the street, Megan and Emily couldn’t resist and turned around to go back for fresh shrimp po boys.  They reported that the little dive joint was as charming and delicious as we suspected.  And two days later, we kept the promise to the woman and returned there as a group for a lunch that I will describe later.

About three blocks away we found the Soda Shop.  Opened as part of the WWII Museum, local award winning chef John Besh uses his famed culinary expertise and creativity to turn a traditional looking soda fountain into a very interesting place for lunch.  I think Caroline may have had the most interesting PB&J in her life with a grilled version, oozing with gooey peanut butter.  Several of us had the devil dog which was a homemade hot dog topped with a ground sausage mixture reminiscent of a coney dog.  The parmesan wrap was reported to be very satisfying as well. Most of us topped our lunch off with house-made ice creams and milkshakes. They offered flavors such as Bananas Foster, Sector Candy Bar Crunch and Creole Cream Cheese Red Velvet among others.  The Soda Shop was definitely worth the walk.  But this brought about my second food dilemma of the day; how was I going to walk past the $2 Bread Pudding sign again?

More to follow…

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