The food in New Orleans, they say, is reason enough to go. Try telling a person you’re heading that way. “Oh my God, Cajun cooking.” They’ll put their hands to their face. They’ll touch their belly. You’ll hear a little moan.
Nine states in eleven days, and somehow we managed to have the worst food of our trip in New Orleans.
Not just mediocre bad. Not Applebee’s bad or hotel happy hour bad. But epically, comically, stupendously bad.
Our first night in New Orleans fell on day seven of the trip, halfway between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. A hopping time in the Big Easy, as it happens. We hoofed it across town from Louis Armstrong Park down Toulouse, weaving the French Quarter, pinballing through beaded, drunken Bourbon Street throngs spilling their Fais Deaux Deaux fishbowls filled with neon booze. We crossed Canal street, ducked under the palms at Harrah’s, and breezed past a series of gleaming glass hotels. We made our way to a restaurant that advertises live music and real Cajun cooking.
What we stepped into was the Bayou Buffet at Busch Gardens. Red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloths tossed over row upon row of tables. Hordes of families. Echoing, open rafters. Sticky floors, stickier menus, Red plastic baskets of food in varying shades of brown. Pebbled plastic tumblers of fountain soda.
A warehouse designed for the sole purpose of fleecing unsuspecting tourists.
Starved and pumped and weary all at once, we faltered in the doorway. We could turn back…? But in their perfect choreography of charm and moxy, the host wooed and the server beamed. So we went for it.
We expected the food would be less than enjoyable, and it exceeded our expectations. It’s impossible to overstate the degree of badness. Hyperbolically and oxymoronicaly bad. Bland and oversauced, heaping and meager. Fried and dry. Half-star quality at four-star prices.
They breaded and deep-fried a piece of tin foil, y’all. ON PURPOSE. Then they heaped onto it a mound of burnt, soggy “crab”cake.
(We couldn’t know it yet, but we would enjoy an exponentially superior meal the next morning at Melba’s Wash World. We ate like royalty in comparison. At a laundromat.)
For the time being, we pushed into our mouths what we could manage, giggling and grimacing.
Then the band came back from break.
At the front of this feedlot, now a foursome of red-faced, white-haired fellows in suspenders and denim started picking, plucking, tuning. They kicked off with a reel which propelled a pair of middle-aged women to the dance floor.
Heel dig, heel dig, shuffle-step, shuffle-step, grapevine, turn, back step.
The food in New Orleans may be reason enough to go. But we didn’t cover nine states in eleven days hunting for a meal.
We went looking for the dance.
A short week earlier, my partner and I had taken off in search of motion and music. Seven hours at the wheel, a fitful night at an Air B&B, and we found our way to the Asheville Movement Collective for something called “ecstatic dance,” Sunday at 10:30am.
Two days later, we picked up the steps to the New York Shuffle at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville.
Even in Montgomery, Alabama where our civil rights history immersion was near total, we grooved on the Renaissance hotel patio as a piano man made some fine work of Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Johnny Taylor.
And now, all the way to here at this Louisiana bottom-feeder fryolator, it appeared the dance had followed us.
I freed my fork from its unhappy toil and made my way to the wooden planks by the bandstand. Alongside these grinning women stepping in sync with the fiddle and accordion, I found the pattern. Or maybe it found me? A few more measures and others joined in. Teenagers from nearby tables. A couple of kids.
The music changed, a new dance emerged. Side kicks and an extra half step. The experienced gals turned the axle of this throng of amateurs, all of us stumbling along until the sequence made it into our muscle and joint. Until we could hinge and pivot at just the moment the bow crossed the string.
My partner, beaming at the edge of the floor, shot video of the rumpus. He didn’t need to dance now. He would soon enough. Tonight, tomorrow. Rocking at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street to the Panorama Jazz Band. Tapping his toes to the brass and bass of the New Orleans Rug Cutters.
Swaggering across the floor at that faux Creole corral, I didn’t know yet where the next dance was waiting. I was only certain it would find us.
When we were ready to head out, our server had the bloated check ready. The picked-over plate of gelatinous flesh still sat on the table, detritus of a Third Circle banquet. We finished off our buckets of ice water and made our way out into the New Orleans night.
Not just pleasingly fed. Not wedding DJ, piano bar, farmer’s market acoustic trio fed. But epically, comically, stupendously fed.
Fed in that place that food can sometimes reach, but only sometimes, because our hungers live deeper than our stomachs. Our tongues can only taste a small portion of the flavors. The seasonings, the way the heat works its way in. Song. Art. Prayer. Touch. Story. Lyric.
The body may need to eat and drink to stay alive, but it needs a full bowl of soul food to live.