New Orleans, LA –
There's an old adage that New Orleans food doesn't travel well. But it will take a lot more than an adage to keep people from trying, especially at this time of year.
Christmas puts a lot of us on the road, or in the skies, and many who visit friends and family outside of the New Orleans area are expected to bring New Orleans food when we come calling. It's often the best-received gift we can bring, the most eagerly anticipated addition we can make to a holiday sideboard and, in some extreme cases, it can even seem like the de facto price of admission. Forget the figgy pudding. Some distant households receiving New Orleans guests expect something from the Crescent City cupboard. And we can't go until we get some.
Some people have it relatively easy. Maybe some holiday host just craves chicory coffee. Those vacuum-sealed packages can be stacked like bricks in a suitcase. New Orleans-style tamales are a mess to eat, but a frozen package of them does just fine in a well-maintained cooler over a long drive. Even the mighty muffuletta -- tightly wrapped in plastic and secure under its dense, seeded loaf -- can easily pass the muster of airport security screeners in a carry-on bag.
But things get more complicated when we're called upon to answer other New Orleans food cravings, particularly those for remembered meals at favorite restaurants. This might mean fetching a take-out portion of an actual restaurant dish and conveying it over valleys and mountains.
Some specific food delivery requests can seem outlandish. Think about what the buttery slurry of barbecue shrimp from Pascal Manale's would be like after sitting in a cooler for the drive to Atlanta. How well do you think a roast beef po-boy from Domilise's would hold up after being handled several times en route to New Jersey?
But when we New Orleanians on the road field such requests, we have to remember that these are often the cravings of needy Crescent City transplants. Their desires come from a conspiracy of the heart and the belly, and they don't much heed logistics, aesthetics or even strict food safety standards. Demographics and recent history are at play too. A big chunk of this city's pre-Katrina population has settled-in elsewhere, and that means a lot of relatives are living far from the culinary cradle that helped define their food cravings.
There are other ways to sate these yearnings. We live in an age when people in Alaska can get live Louisiana crawfish delivered for an arctic boil -- when turduckens, those great Cajun Frankensteins of stuffed fowl, are flown in to supply holiday dinners in New York apartments. Web sites and retail hotlines make our food accessible far from its font. But for someone pining for a taste of home at the holidays, maybe it makes a difference to have it all delivered direct by someone still anchored to that home.
In this way, as New Orleanians take to the highways with carefully packed ice chests of Gulf shrimp and crawfish bisque, as they queue up at airport security ready to separate andouille and tasso from their carry-on bags, they can see themselves not as mere mules ferrying product, but maybe as envoys, bearing the flavors, and memories, of home. That makes a pretty powerful Christmas gift, and a remarkable holiday meal, all in one.