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New Orleans: Oysters, Crawfish and Brennans
by Fred Ferretti

Ah, the crawfish.

It is only about four inches long in its prime, but in Louisiana, from November to about mid-June, the crayfish becomes the focus of a sort of gastronomic madness as Louisianans catch and eat it by the millions, flood rice fields to create crayfish farms and hold festivals in its honor.

The true name of the crustacean, which resembles a miniature lobster, is the crayfish. But in New Orleans, in the surrounding area of Lake Pontchartrain and in the bayous of Gulf Coast Louisiana it is most commonly referred to as the crawfish, occasionally as a crawdad or crawdaddy, a creekcrab, a yabbie, a freshwater lobster or even a mud bug. And whether written crayfish or crawfish it is usually pronounced crawfish.

The crawfish goes into those thick Creole pot-brewed soups called gumbos, into bisques, stews and etouffˇes, stew-like mixtures served over boiled rice, into jambalayas with cooked rice and into pies. Its meat is made into crawfish balls and deep fried; it is served Italian style with a hot tomato sauce for dipping, or it is eaten fried or boiled. Mostly it is eaten boiled, cold, with the hands, after it has been dropped into a crawfish boil — a pot of water bubbling with mustard, coriander and dill seeds, with bay leaves, allspice and cloves and with dried hot chili peppers — for a few minutes until it turns red.

Like most aspects of the food of New Orleans and its environs, the traditions surrounding the crawfish, and its preparation, reflect the rich ethnic amalgam that is Creole and Cajun Louisiana. There has been some misconception about Creole and Cajun food, with many people believing it to be Caribbean inspired, overly hot and spicy, essentially Spanish-Cuban in origin. And Creoles have been thought by many to be the half-white/half-black people that much of the South once called mulattos. A Creole, however, in the strictest sense, is someone who came to the New Orleans delta in either the first or second French or Spanish waves of immigration in the 18th century. Cajuns are generally descendants of the Acadians, who came from Canada in the middle of that century and settled in the swamps and bayous outside New Orleans. Into this rich melting pot came the Indians, later black Africans and German, Irish and Italian immigrants.

It would seem that their cooking would separate naturally into two schools, the somewhat elegant close-to-French cooking found mostly within the city, and the hearty food of the Cajuns. But the influences have merged, and what is one person's Creole is another's Cajun, which is perfectly all right with New Orleans, so long as what you cook is cooked well.

When you are in such well-known New Orleans restaurants as Antoine's or Arnaud's, Galatoire's or Commander's Palace, Corinne Dunbar's or Pascal's Manale, you have a sense not only of Parisian haute cuisine but of the French provinces, of southern Spain, of Italy. That "ting" that people in New Orleans love with their food is hot sauce, Tabasco, and the hot touch on the tongue is filˇ powder, made from the ground leaves of the sassafras tree and introduced by the Choctaw Indians.

The crawfish was deified by the Houma Indians of the Louisiana bayou, who not only ate them but painted them on shields and on themselves as good luck symbols before a battle. The crawfish, pulled from under rocks in freely running freshwater streams, became a food for every wave of immigration that swept into the New Orleans area.

Lest it be thought that crayfish are in Louisiana alone, it should be noted that they exist in lakes, streams and ponds across the United States from Wisconsin to Maine, and from the Alleghenies south. There are 250 types in North America alone, 29 of them in Louisiana, with the one most desired for eating called the Red Swamp crayfish. They exist in Europe as well, and in July and August the people of Sweden and Finland seem to do their best to eat every one they can catch, but nowhere is there a love for crayfish as intense as there is in Louisiana in general, New Orleans in particular. The town of Breaux Bridge, just outside New Orleans, is called the Crawfish Capital of the World and runs a Crawfish Festival every April.

If you really wish to enjoy them as they enjoy them in New Orleans then you will eat them boiled, as they are served in Fitzgerald's or Fontana's, then make your way to Joe Petrossi's Restaurant on Louisiana Avenue, a neighborhood place with oilcloth-covered tables, which advertises itself, rightly, as an outpost of Cajun cooking. The crawfish arrive in a pile. To eat them New Orleans style you break off the claws and lay them aside temporarily, then you break the head away from the tail. The orange fat in the head cavity is sweet and delicious. Then the tail should be peeled away from the meat inside and the intestinal vein removed, after which the meat should be popped into the mouth and savored. Finally, the tiny claws should be cracked and the threads of claw meat sucked from the shells.

There is no need for seasonings, or dips, unless you feel it necessary to make use of them, for generally the "boil" imparts the various flavors of the spices to the boiled crawfish. Nor should wine be drunk with boiled crawfish. You should have ice-cold beer. People in New Orleans like a beer called Jax.

"Eat like this quite a bit, do you?" I asked Paul McIlhenny, the man who runs the company that makes Tabasco and who contends he would swim a mile, or more, through alligator-infested bayou to reach a crawfish boil.

"Only two or three times a week. Not as often as I'd like," Paul said with a grin.

Lucky fellow.

New Orleans is given, on occasion, to overstatement, hyperbole, embroidery and embellishment, but not, it contends when it come to food and eating. I have been told, for example, that to talk of, and to taste, the Louisiana oyster is to have gastronomic truth on the half shell revealed.

Believe it.

An old friend, Leon, a grand eater and expert oyster taster by inclination, was with me at the bar of the Acme Oyster House, on Iberville Street in New Orleans, one afternoon eating Bayou La Batre oysters, cold and salty, from their shells. As we watched a fellow named Ralph Brossette shuck the large gray bivalves as quickly as we, and others, could eat them, Leon asked Ralph, "How many oysters have you shucked, do you think?"

"I think maybe two million five hundred sixty-eight thousand seven hundred and forty-two, or maybe three million. Something like that. I'm not sure," Ralph replied. "Not as many as Sam. Not yet." "Sam" is Sam Adams, regarded by keepers of New Orleans legends as perhaps the best-ever oyster shucker, gone some years from Acne, passed on. "I'll get there though."

At oyster bars in Louisiana this is what life and behind the counters is; fast food, slow talk. There is consideration of which Bayou has the best oyster, arguments concluding agreeably that whichever is big that day.

In New Orleans there is no talk of such oysters as the Chincoteague, the Belon, the Wellfleet, the Cotuit, the Malpeque, or the Whitstable, the Colchester or the Marennes, simply because they are not harvested near New Orleans. Here it's the Bastian Bay and Rocky Point, which to some have no equal, those from Bayou La Batre and Bayou Cook, from Schofield and Adams and the brackish deltas of Terrebonne Parish.

New Orleans oysters, of whatever Louisiana origin, are somewhat large, gray in color, plump from growing in a mixture of salt and fresh waters in the region. They have touches of black within the meat and traces of iodine, which make them prized. At their best they have a briny taste.

The oyster bars in the Crescent City are more than simply standup eating places; they are pieces of the city's tradition, marble slabs where the fathers bring their small, reluctant sons to initiate them into the taste of raw oysters; they are clubs, sources of pride, even shrines, and they evoke fierce loyalties. There aren't as many oyster bars as there once were, but as my friend Leon, a local lawyer with a sure sense of the New Orleans oyster said, "What is left is choice." They still serve oysters "big enough to fold over," he told me.

Clams — so beloved up in Massachusetts as integral to a lobster and corn clambake do not even merit mention — "We don't eat 'em, we use 'em for bait." There is a debate on where to find the best oyster po' boy, a peculiarly New Orleans version of the Italian hero sandwich, which, at its finest, consists of mounded fried oysters within a loaf sliced lengthwise and swabbed with butter, mayonnaise, ketchup, and hot sauce, and layered with some lettuce and tomatoes. The answer is Casamento's, of course, a small, beautifully-tiled, seventy-eight-year-old shop where oysters, either cold on the half shell, fried after being dredged in yellow cornmeal, or set into po' boys, have people lining up by the hour along Magazine Street.

You'll be told at Casamento's that there's only one way to prepare fried oysters: "Dipped in yellow corn four and fried in lard. Lard. That's the way we make them. You don't like lard, you don't come here."

There are no better oysters Benedict it is said, than those at International House — when the urge to prepare them descends upon the chef. In fact, according to one authority, they exist nowhere else.

On Friday afternoons there is no place to be except the Aft Deck Oyster Bar in the Monteleone Hotel for the oyster soup. Monday nights you want to be in Tyler's Beer Gardens so you can listen to jazz piano and eat raw oysters with your Dixie Beer.

On any given day in the Acme, or in Felix's just across the street, or in Frank's Seafood in the French Market, or in the Pearl Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, which opened in 1899 and is said to have "the longest oyster bar in New Orleans," there are discussions about which oysters are the best, meaning which raw oysters are the best.

"No other way," Leon said, inhaling his tenth or twelfth, or twentieth oyster of the day. You just never know in New Orleans.

Be warned. I suggest that no mention be made, in Ella Brennan's presence, of the notion of a Brennan restaurant dynasty. Or for that matter that Ella is earth mother to her family's covey of restaurants.

"We're not. I'm not," she will say, as she has to me repeatedly, and she will usually drop one of the single-syllable imprecations she adores, for added emphasis. Or she will sniff with derision. Her sniffs are almost as good as her four-letter words.

No matter. For over the past five decades a culinary dynasty is precisely what has arisen in New Orleans, a still-evolving family line of succession that dominates this tradition-bound, food-obsessed city, where there are four Brennan restaurants.

Commander's Palace, the Palace Cafˇ, Mr. B's Bistro, and Ristorante Bacco and farther west, in Houston, Texas, which has two more.

"No," says Ella Brennan, "don't call us a dynasty. Just say we're a close family that takes care of each other. There is no fighting. If we disagree, we listen. We are a bunch of people who see to each other. Say we always make sure there is a BOD. Say that."

BOD stands for Brennan on Duty, and there is always one member of the family in each of the establishments owned by the two generations of Brennans — a sister or a brother, a son or a daughter, a niece or a nephew — watching the store. Theirs is surely the closest of family businesses, as concerned with quality and service as it is with making a profit.

At its center is Commander's Palace, a big, square, colonnaded wood building, all turrets, spires, balconies, and dormers, at the corner of Coliseum Street and Washington Avenue in New Orleans' Garden District. Once a Victorian mansion built by Emile Commander in 1880, it was one of the city's more prestigious bordellos during the Prohibition era, and later became a restaurant. Bought in 1969 by Ella and her siblings Dick, Adelaide, Dottie, and John, it became the training ground for virtually all the Brennans who have gone on to open their own places.

Commander's sprawls and rambles through a series of dining rooms, bars, kitchens, and garden rooms. It is a restaurant, along with Galatoire's, Antoine's, and Arnaud's, that New Orleanians and visitors alike feel they must eat in. It is, in Ella's words, "a destination restaurant," a good-time place for the intense flavors of perfectly spiced gumbos and jambalayas, for fat Louisiana oysters and crawfish touched with a tinge of Louisiana hot pepper sauce, and for crab cakes and andouille sausages prepared in the prettified, somewhat lighter dishes Dick and Ella call haute Creole.

It is in this kitchen that Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish, Frank Brigtsen sauced his first crabmeat ˇtouffˇe, and Emeril Lagasse baked his first bread pudding soufflˇ.

Go to Commander's for the Sunday jazz brunch, as I did recently and you might be fortunate enough to sit surrounded by shade trees in the Garden Room and to have as your waiter Averriel Thomas, who will softly sing "Satin Doll" as he sets down your shrimp rˇmoulade, or "Pennies from Heaven," backed by Joe Simon's trio, as he brings your hot pecan pie.

Food, style, and the experience, Ella will tell you in her purr of a drawl, is what Commander's Palace is all about. All the Brennan restaurants strive for what Dick calls "the whole experience of dining out and dining well."

"It really hasn't changed all that much since my father's time," says Ella. "It's what he wanted and what he made us want."

It was Ella's father, Owen P., and her older brother Owen E., who opened the first Brennan restaurant. In 1943 they bought the Old Absinthe House on Royal Street and turned it into an upscale bar. "It was popular," says Ella, who began working there a youngster. "I learned about whiskey and about buying. We made our nickels."

Three years later, when Owen Sr. was about to retire, the younger Owen bought the Vieux Carre, across from the Absinthe House. All the Brennans worked together in this eatery, renamed Brennan's Vieux Carre, for a decade. Then family unity began to splinter. "There were too many people involved," Ella says. "Some of us wanted to expand, others didn't ." Eventually, the clutch of Brennans parted, and it wasn't the most pleasant of separations; all are reluctant to give details. "It was not exactly amiable," Ella admits.

With the breakup, Pip, who was Owen E.'s son, Pip's mother, Maude; and his two brothers, Ted and James, remained to operate Brennan's on Royal Street, famous for "Breakfast at Brennan's." Ella, Dick, Adelaide, Dottie, and John came together to buy Commander's Palace, which would form the seat of the dynasty.

In 1967, Ella's son, Alex, who had studied at La Varenne Cooking School in Paris and worked behind the stoves at Roger Vergˇ's Moulin de Mougins, went off to Texas to run Brennan' Houston. He later added Third Coast to what the Brennans call their Family of Restaurants.

PRODIGIOUS PROGENY

"Everybody grew up in Commander's" Ella says. "The kids were always there, in and out. There was no way they would not become involved. It was an assimilation process." Says Dick, "They learned how to make drinks and grew up as good bartenders. They worked hat check. Every one of them wanted to come into the business."

So they have, and with six branches on the family restaurant tree, what's next?

"Seems there's still a lot of kids coming along," says Dick Brennan.

With the remembered tastes of New Orleans fresh upon my mind and tongue, it seems a good time to talk about fresh.

What is fresh?

If a bluefish pulled up onto a Block Island fishing smack is fresh, how is one to describe the quality of a turbot caught in Europe's North Sea, then flown six thousand miles to a kitchen restaurant in Los Angeles? We see the anomaly of "fresh" fillets of Idaho trout, frozen; and another firm promises us the same "freshness" in frozen fish offered to the Swedish royal family. Is bread, packed with shelf-life preservatives and enclosed in plastic, fresh? Are vegetables grown in California, picked when unripe, and shipped East to soften en route fresh when they get to the wholesale market, still fresh when they get to the retailer, still fresh when you buy them? Is crˇme frâiche fresh? What is fresh? How fresh is fresh? It goes on. Who can doubt these days that "fresh" appears to be, along with "new" the most overused work in Englishdom. In fact, if we are to believe the rich excesses of our admakers, there is simply nothing that is not "fresh."

So, in search of what is fresh, I journeyed to that font of all things gastronomically with it, my local supermarket. There I would find, I was certain, the meaning of fresh.

I was sidetracked initially because, as I began my search for "fresh," I kept coming upon "new." Among the new were cheese crackers that "contain real cheese;" a cheese substitute that was "Cheddar flavored;" a potato snack that, although "made with real potato skins," was nevertheless doused with "artificially flavored sour cream and chives;" squeezable grape jelly bottles that were labeled "now even easier to squeeze;" and a creamy cucumber salad dressing "with real cucumber."

However, there was nothing quite like the box of thin, crisp toasts that were concocted of mixed dehydrated vegetable snack combined with flour. These were "garden fresh," and had "a salad bowl of vegetables in every slice," according to the box, which looked like a broadside view of a produce market.

Then I began to come upon fresh. I found "kitchen-fresh pierogies" in the refrigerated display cases; packs of "fresh whole-milk rice pudding" that were labeled "good for one month from date stamped;" apple juice made from "fresh apples;" and frozen stuffed potatoes tagged "100 percent fresh."

There was frozen flounder that was "quite possibly fresher than fresh;" and corn, tortilla, and potato chip snacks, all labeled either, "fresh sale through date stamped" or "guaranteed fresh for seven days from date." In all cases these dates were five weeks hence, and this gave me pause. Then there were "breakfast beverage crystals" that had a "fresh orange taste;" packages of "strained fresh tomatoes" from Italy, trumpeting "once opened will last 10 days refrigerated"; packages of rice cakes that were the "new twin pack for freshness" but were undated and thus fresh for life, I suppose; and jars of pickled cucumbers labeled "fresh." The italics are all mine.

As if this were not overwhelming, I discovered that our supermarkets are alchemists as well. I selected a head of cauliflower that my wife had asked me to pick up, pulled off a plastic bag from the roll at the end of the vegetable counter, and slipped the cauliflower into it. "Fresh," the bag said, and not only that, but "Fancy." And just like that my cauliflower became fresh cauliflower, with a pedigree to boot. Aren't supermarkets wonderful? And fresh?

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