We are excited for our first taste of New Orleans, although there is some reservation about what Whitney, the vegetarian present, will eat. Ultimately it is decided that she will eat around any meat or seafood in her dish. We seat ourselves in the back, where we get a small glimpse of the kitchen. Pictures of Woodrow Wilson hang above a metal table covered in dishes, pots, etc., and a block of butter. We look at the menu and decide on our food, which we order and pay for at the front. Two bowls of crawfish étouffée, a roast beef Po Boy, and bowl of Gumbo.
I take a bite of my étouffée and pull out my notebook to jot down what I can about this meal. “Taking notes there?” Joy asks. I tell her that I am, and that I want to try writing about food while I’m here. She tells me, “If you can’t figure out what the taste is, when you have a hard time naming it, think of associations, what it reminds you of, experiences. It frees you up.”
In that case, étouffée, served with four thickly sliced pieces of airy white bread, is like my grandparents’ house, where I would fill up on bread and gravy at Thanksgiving. Dipping a torn piece of bread into the mixture of crawfish, rice, and a thick sauce filled with spices reminds me of this. It feels wholesome, home-like. The grandfather clock chimes in the dining room and echoes against the wood-paneled walls. A painting of a rose next to a glass of water hangs above a record player that isn’t played anymore. I can smell the house. I can smell my grandparents.
In French, “étouffée” means “smothered.” My lips retain the food as I pull the spoon from my mouth, and the pieces of crawfish, smothered in the onion, pepper, and celery gravy, melt when I bite into them. It’s spice and it’s home and it’s not enough. I’ve finished my bowl, clean.
“I’m surprised the spice isn’t more difficult to bear.” “Me too.” “Maybe there’s a local pot and a tourist pot and they can just tell we’re out-of-towners.” And they probably could when we tried to come in the wrong door; stood in the middle of the restaurant, waiting to be seated; and, with our big, eager eyes, looked at the brick walls, nodding with approval as we examined and accepted this place as a genuine local find.
Michael eats all of his Po Boy, surprising, considering the size and the amount of roast beef that falls from the bread of both sandwiches. Joy, too, finishes her bowl of étouffée. And Whitney eats clean around the meat, which she deems a mystery, and which I, picking it up with my fork, deem oyster.