Dorothy certainly had her fears as she traveled the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City. I have mine. They are: Po’ Boys, and Gumbo, and Beignets, Oh my! I just happen to be walking the streets of New Orleans.
N’Awlins. A place where food is a religion. A place that is Mecca for foodie-travelers. A place where food made Emeril a household word. What about gluten-free food? What is a celiac traveler to New Orleans supposed to do when weak and unsteady from hunger, and nearly every restaurant menu makes you run screaming as if being chased by the Wicked Witch of the West? Or in this case, the Louisiana Swamp Monster?
First, do a little pre-trip planning. Make a rough itinerary of places to go and things to do, and then think about where you might be when it’s meal time. The things I wanted to do on my recent initial jaunt to New Orleans are among the usual ̴must sees” for first-time visitors to the Crescent City: listen to jazz at Preservation Hall, http://www.preservationhall.com/, ride the St. Charles streetcar (one of the oldest continually running streetcars in the world), have coffee at Café du Monde, http://www.cafedumonde.com, stroll through the French Quarter, and cruise the Mississippi River on a paddlewheel steamboat. My family, consisting of my husband, myself, and our three children ages 8, 10, and 14, also wanted to see alligators at either Audubon Zoo, http://www.auduboninstitute.org/zoo/index.php, or on a swamp cruise, and visit a plantation home.
With an idea of what and when you will be doing things in New Orleans, you can take your planning a step further and guesstimate where you might be when it is mealtime. This may seem like excessive planning to some people, but after years of traveling with young children, and now as a celiac, I believe that finding suitable food at the right time is critical for a successful vacation. It also helps me figure out how much of my own gluten-free food I will need to take with me. For example, many hotels now serve continental breakfast. It’s possible this will include yogurt, fresh fruit, or even eggs. Ask ahead of time. I usually pack a box of gluten-free cereal that I take down to the breakfast room each morning, and then partake of the hotel’s juice, milk, and coffee to round out the meal.
The next thing to do for planning a trip to New Orleans is to learn a little about the local cuisines – Creole and Cajun. They are similar, yet distinct. Both believe in the holy trinity of cooking: green peppers, onions, and celery. Both use rice. And both use roux, a mixture of equal parts fat and flour, as the basis for many dishes, particularly gumbo, étouffée, and sauce piquantes. (Then, you’ll want to learn about the voodoo practices prevalent in New Orleans, buy a voodoo doll and name it “Roux” and, well, you’ll know what to do!) Creole and Cajun cuisines also use very similar local ingredients that include crawfish, shrimp, crab, and freshwater and saltwater fish. In addition, pork, sausages, turtle, beans, tomatoes, and okra are common.
Creole is the more refined of the two cuisines. Historically, the Creole people were the wealthy plantation owners. The cooking combines traditional French techniques with local foodstuff for meals such as turtle soup, trout meunière, and shrimp rémoulade. The price range of many of the renowned Creole restaurants (Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Emeril’s Delmonico) tends to be on the moderate-to-expensive side. It is these higher-end restaurants, though, that may be better able to provide a gluten-free meal. We had reservations at the well-known Court of Two Sisters, and the executive chef was checking to see how my dietary requirements could be met, but we ended up canceling due to inclement weather. I understand they have an outstanding daily jazz brunch.
Cajun food, on the other hand, is heartier. Cajuns are descendants of exiles from the French colony of Acadia, which is present-day Nova Scotia. Their food, a combination of French and Southern cuisine, consists of simple one-pot dishes made from local ingredients. Gumbo, crawfish étouffée, and pit roasted pork are examples of Cajun cooking. Cajun restaurants are generally a little less expensive than Creole, but there is also less chance of getting a gluten-free meal because of the style of cooking.
The final step in my pre-trip planning is to consult the celiac list-serve for restaurant recommendations, as well as talk with people who have already traveled to the place of my destination. The celiac list was not particularly helpful regarding New Orleans. One summary stated that the oysters at Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street are coated with cornmeal, but did not verify they are gluten free. I personally don’t like oysters, and neither does my husband (he calls them nasty mollusks), so we didn’t go there. The summary also confirmed my assumption that dining out in New Orleans is expensive and that it is usually the higher-end restaurants that are able to provide gluten-free meals.
So where did we eat? Upon arrival at our hotel, http://www.homewoodsuites.com, we took a taxi to Irene’s Cuisine on St. Phillip Street in the French Quarter. This restaurant, with its French provincial and Italian menu, is not listed in the monthly tourist magazine and is slightly off the beaten tourist path. I heard about it from my son’s trumpet teacher, who is a native of New Orleans and of Italian descent, so I figured it had to be good. I was not disappointed. I discussed my needs with Irene personally and was informed she has previously served celiac customers, one who even brought in her own rice pasta. My meal, Pollo di Parma, consisted of two grilled boneless chicken breasts topped with Parma ham, a slice of grilled eggplant, and mozzarella cheese, all smothered by a thick and zesty homemade tomato sauce. In place of the pasta side dish, I was served sautéed julienne vegetables loaded with garlic. The menu here is heavier on meats and fish rather than pasta.
On our first full day in the city, we took the two-hour Steamboat Natchez jazz lunch cruise, http://www.steamboatnatchez.com/. Tickets can be purchased with or without the lunch. I carried my own meal aboard, though I could have purchased a couple items à la carte. After the cruise, we walked to Jackson Square and watched as the street performers worked hard for their daily tips. We were enthralled with the statue-like poses of one in particular. Afterwards, while the non-celiacs of the family dove into a plate of those powdered sugar covered fried dough balls called beignets at Café du Monde, I enjoyed a warming cup of café au lait and a couple of gluten-free cookies I brought along just for this occasion. From there we explored French Market Place (half farmers market, half flea market), got lured into a candy shop, listened to jazz, and got caught up in a local birthday celebration at an outdoor café while we waited for the rain to lessen, and then spent the afternoon strolling, and sometimes running for cover, through the rain slicked streets of the French Quarter.
Back at the hotel, the non-celiacs made dinner out of a muffelata sandwich and a bag of chips while I had a salad, a container of tuna from home, and some rice crackers. The city’s sandwich staple, the muffelata, is a huge Italian-style sandwich that is filled with meats, cheeses, and an olive relish, and which probably originated at Central Grocery on Decatur Street. Of course, I couldn’t eat the sandwich, but the grocery is full of imported cheeses, tins of Italian products, and they even sell De Boles brand corn pasta. Po’ boys are another sandwich staple. Made with French bread, they can be stuffed with just about anything, including roast beef, barbeque beef, duck, shrimp, oysters, and fried catfish.
The next day was thick with clouds and a hint of rain that eliminated our desire for a swamp cruise. So we hopped on the St. Charles streetcar and rode the seven miles through the historic Garden District to Audubon Zoo, all the while being entertained by our Whoopi Goldberg look-alike streetcar driver. Hanging Spanish moss and a misty shroud gave the zoo an otherworldly feel, but the animals seemed to delight in the weather. A couple of stars of the zoo are the white alligator and the white tiger. Food was scarce, though, and after a couple of hours of being cold and hungry, we decided an early dinner was required.
Dining at non-peak meal times makes good sense for celiacs just about any time, and even more so in New Orleans. We beat out the crowd at Mike Anderson’s Seafood Restaurant on Bourbon Street, which gave me the opportunity to discuss my dietary needs with the kitchen manager. My order of fresh red drum was one of the restaurant’s specialties, and it was sweet, flaky, and seasoned just right. Just be sure to ask how the fish is cooked to ensure it is not blackened in an iron skillet that has been used for gluten-containing foods.
I did make my pilgrimage to Preservation Hall before the evening was over, and it was a most thrilling experience for me. The children were less enthusiastic because it was late and they were tired. The next day when we left town, we followed the famous River Road along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge to see a sugar plantation. We toured the “Grand Dame” of them all, Oak Alley Plantation, http://www.OakAlleyPlantation.com. It is a national historic landmark that the children actually found interesting. My eight-year old said he’d like to live there.
Now, as for those po’ boys, gumbo, and beignets, I couldn’t eat any of them. But I faced my fear and learned that with a little planning, I could dine defensively in New Orleans. The family also brought home a few souvenirs, including a plush white tiger from the zoo. We named him Beignet. (MP May 2005)
An all-suite hotel located in the heart of downtown New Orleans. Each room includes a fully equipped kitchen. Complimentary hot breakfast.
Mike Anderson's Seafood
Central Grocery Co.
Steamboat Natchez Cruise
Oak Alley Plantation