From “getting by” to “getting ahead.”
I’ll be the first to admit that we were unprepared for this venture. Oh, we chuckled and said, “Sure, we’ll swing by the co-op in the afternoon!” Or Rouse’s (our local supermarket). Or the local farm/market. Or one of the many farmers markets that pop up during the week.
But then you start going by these places and you see some things that stand out. It’s like Veganvision, the phenomenon where you can give a 6-point font ingredients list to a vegan and their eyes will hone in on the non-vegan ingredients as though they were words in those “find the first three words and they describe you!” letter scrambles.
We found this tub of “cajun seasoning” that had one of Rouse’s “Buy Local!” markers beneath it, so I instantly grabbed it off the shelf. It had basically everything we need: diced onions, shallots, oregano, garlic, celery…and we continued shopping. But as we started to see more and more of those “Buy Local!” signs beneath things we knew were not grown, raised, or caught within our 200 mile radius, we took another look at that tub.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Something smelled fishy, and it wasn’t the nearby oysters. Celery’s not in season, for starters. We never noticed it at any farmer’s market or at any of the places we picked up our local produce. Same with shallots and one or two of the other ingredients. Scanning around, we finally saw something I had never encountered before, but makes a lot of sense in hindsight:
Assembled in [location].
Meaning, roughly, they could get that celery from anywhere, despite the season, dice it up and throw it all together. Now, is that what they did? It could be. They could’ve frozen a lot of that stuff and assembled it later. But we decided it was better to not risk it. It’s very similar with bread, or coffee. Sure, they might make it here, but they’re making it with things not from here.
It kind of makes me think about gentrification, or the transient’s unwritten social contract. See, I’m not a New Orleans native. I was not created here, I was not raised here. I might very well be assembled here, though. And when you look at some of the New Orleans staples, that’s how they are, too. That Zataran’s dirty rice? Those ingredients aren’t grown here. Cafe du Monde coffee? Not grown here. Hell, there’s not a cornbread recipe out there that doesn’t use baking powder!
I found myself screaming into the dark, “Then what the hell is New Orleans cruisine?”
Let’s ignore the fact that New Orleans is a port town for just a second, because that option isn’t available to me (as much as I would love for it to be). All of our produce purchases have been largely blind. But I’m okay with this. We just need to get a stockpile. Here’s why:
There was a comedian (Seinfeld, I think) that did a riff about working at a Mexican restaurant. The running gag was that this one table kept asking them “What’s in this dish?” as they navigated the menu. And the response was always the same: rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc… After the third time or so they asked this, the comedian gets all indignant and shouts, “It’s all the same thing! Just say something in Spanish and I’ll bring it out to you!”
If we can just get five or so go-to ingredients on hand and ready to go, we will always have a meal.
The rice and beans I made on the first say. We boiled some corn and kale, sheared the kernels off the corn and added diced tomato and sautéed onion to it with a drizzle of pecan oil. That’s the corn and kale salad you see pictured (rice not yet added).
So far, the pecan oil has been really interesting. I’m hesitant to use it for pan frying still, but I put a tablespoon in the rice cooker with some salt, and the rice turned out to be some of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.
For June 2’s dinner, I basically did the same thing, but sans corn and kale, instead frying up some locally-made red pepper tofu (cubed fine), green garlic, and another onion that I’d acquired at Holly Grove Farm, and I stuffed those into some green peppers and baked them for an hour. I had to go to rehearsal and couldn’t see the fruit of my labors until the following morning, but when I did, the stuff outside of the peppers was dried out and crunchy. I would recommend stuffing them deep and not halving the stuffed peppers as many pictures show when you google “New Orleans stuffed peppers.”
We took the opportunity to sample the local wine as well.
The Ponchatrain wine you see pictured is “Dah Red,” a Cab/Syrah blend. It was all right for a table wine, and the girl on the cover is cute. Please note, if you think I’m not so shallow as to buy a bottle of wine for its label, you would be sorely mistaken, as a cute girl will win out over no cute girl on the label should all other factors equal out. However, I think there are better wines at the price point. But, if it’s what we have to work with, we’ll suffer through. …Or make sangria.
All in all, what it appears to be is that we cannot fight the genre. As it is in the joke with Mexican food, so it is here: so long as we can keep five ingredients ready to go: rice, beans, tomato, onion, and let’s say corn, we will be able to eat well. The rest is largely finesse and additions: our spices (thyme and oregano for right now), leafy greens, peppers, and we’ll see what turns up at some of these other farmers markets.
I’ll admit, we’ve just been getting by. But I think, if we can keep ahead of the game with these staples on-hand, we’ll move on to getting ahead.