Laissez les bons temps rouler! Eatocracy is in New Orleans this week getting ready for the second edition of our Secret Supper. We'll be delving into the people, purveyors and places that make this such a significant food town, and hope you'll join in with your questions, memories, restaurant suggestions and general bonhomie.
Who better to kick off a conversation about New Orleans food than CNN's very own ragin' Cajun James Carville? The Democratic strategist and Louisiana native shares a home in New Orleans with his wife, Republican strategist and CNN political contributor Mary Matalin and has one heck of an eating life. We spoke with him last autumn (when his favorite seasonal sno-ball stand was open) about roux, restaurants, the importance of oyster provenance and the very best bite he's ever put in his mouth.
Eatocracy: As soon as people within CNN found out that we were launching a food blog, everyone came to me asking, “Have you spoken with James Carville yet?” You have a reputation for knowing what’s good.
James Carville: As a matter of fact I just left one of three Zagat 29-rated restaurants in the country – or so I’m told. [Editor's note – it has lowered from this rating in the 2007-2008 guide.] It’s the Hansen’s Sno-Bliz stand. I think that the French Laundry and some place in Chicago are the only other ones that have a 29. It was a satsuma sno-ball – my favorite flavor. It’s a Louisiana citrus that’s like a clementine.
E:: I hear a lot about the sno-ball stands in New Orleans. Why is that?
J.C.: The snow – that’s part of our culture. It gets a mite toasty down here sometimes in the summertime and we like to get a sno-ball.
J.C.: (laughs) I don’t know about that, but it’ll put joy in your mouth!
E:: Do you have a favorite producer?
J.C.: I eat more andouille. It’s a sugar cane cured pork sausage. It’s pretty available everywhere here. I get it from Langenstein’s, which is a small grocery store here in town, or at Cochon, which has got its own butcher shop attached to a really great restaurant in the warehouse district. It’s Donald Link’s place.
E:: Another Twitter question – how dark do you like your roux?
J.C.: My mother wrote a local cookbook that sold 35,000 copies. It’s an amazing book and she made it in a cast iron skillet and stirred it for about 25 minutes. She liked hers kind of a brown – tan almost. I heat my oil smoking hot and use a whisk. I like mine dark – maybe the color of ditchwater or even darker than that. Dark as ditchwater.
Some people will say that if you have a darker meat you want a lighter roux. People go on and on and on ad nauseum about that - what color roux is best with this or that. Those are the first words in every Louisiana recipe: "First you make a roux."
E:: Could you explain to people who might not know what that is?
J.C.: It's flour and a fat. Some people use butter, canola oil or Wesson oil. The trick is you've got to blend it in. You've got to properly stir it because if any part of it burns, it's done. You don't have to spend all your time starting a roux from scratch. Just get the oil as hot as you possibly can, pour in the flour and whisk like hell. It's dangerous if the stuff gets on you. It's not for the faint hearted. You need a sous-chef to help you sometimes.
E:: Does your wife ever sous for you?
J.C.: Sometimes. I like to do the stocks and the roux. You got roux and stock - you don't need anything else. You're there. Everything else is an add-on.
E:: Another Twitter question: "Can a Northerner make a good roux?"
J.C.: Why not? It's not rocket science; it's flour and oil. You might burn one the first time, but sure! You can buy it pre-fab, already made at the cooking store. I don't think it needs to be a big deal, but part of the fun is making it and having a beer or a glass of wine. It's not much fun to just get it already cooked and have it all going for you.
E:: Twitter also wanted to know: Okra or no in your gumbo?
J.C.: I like okra. I also use file as a thickener - it's ground sassafras. Seafood is my favorite gumbo. I had some for lunch just today at Manale's along with some oysters Bienville and Rockefeller, along with a nice shrimp salad, some onion rings and an Abita Amber. It's as good a lunch as you can have!
E:: After the oil spill, did you find that it was harder to come across some of these dishes?
J.C.: Casamento's had oysters from right there in Plaquemines and St. Bernard. And they were gooood. Some places had a harder time getting them and maybe got them from Florida, but those were good, too. An oyster knows it's in the Gulf. It doesn't know it's from Louisiana.
E:: Who taught you to love food?
J.C.: That's like saying who taught you to love sex! It's part of our culture. When we came home from school, our mother would have a pot of gumbo on the stove. We've heat it up and that was some kind of a snack. My sisters and brothers and I always talk about how we remember that. Some people get a grilled cheese sandwich when they got home from school. We got lucky.
E:: Did more than one generation cook at a time in your house?
J.C.: Both of my grandmothers - my Daddy's mother was almost a professional cook. Really good and she grew up in New Orleans. My Mother's mother was a good cook, and my mother was a very, very, very good cook. But I'd used to love to go over to my father's mother's house and her red beans - oh my god! Just out of this world.
Red beans - now someone's come up with mushing them and making them all creamy. I like a red bean when a red bean has some integrity. My wife makes good red beans. Tom Fitzmorris, who is a food critic down here has a good red beans and rice recipe.. It's traditionally a Monday dish. You have the ham on Sunday and you use the hambone to make the red beans. A lot of restaurants have it as the Monday special. I like to go to the Bon Ton on a Monday.
E:: It sounds like you have an amazing eating life in New Orleans.
J.C.: We're very, very fortunate. We just have more restaurant significance now. Before the storm, there were 809 restaurants and today - I pay attention to this sort of thing because it's important - 1117. The difference between before and after the storm is that the food is getting a little more diverse. There's always been Creole-Italian and now some Italian-Italian restaurants have opened here. There's a tapas place that's come along, and this is a good steak town. They just cook it up in a different way - lather it up with butter.
E:: And you're lucky enough to have all those John Besh restaurants.
J.C.: He's a great guy. There are people who talk about how when August reopened for service, what a wonderful thing that was for the city. He's got a place - The American Sector - in the WWII museum and it's a great version of sort of '40s diner food. He's got an Italian restaurant Domenica that he opened with a kid from Israel who's spent two years over in Italy learning to make his own cured meat. Then there's Luke, which is Alsatian. There's a lot of diversity. August is the top of the line - one of the best restaurants in the city. He did a fish courtbouillon, like the sort of stuff you boil crawfish in - that's one of the best things I've ever tasted. We give his cookbook out as gifts.
E:: Is there a dish that your mother or grandmother made that you just can't do as well as they could?
J.C.: I can't make red beans like my grandmother, but really, I'm pretty proud of my gumbo. When I make it, it's a production. I like to put oyster liquor in the stock. That's tasty. To me, it's all about texture.
I tell you what - my mother made crawfish bisque, and it's the hardest thing to make, when you stuff the heads. I can't do that. It was out of this world. When they have it at Commander's it literally might be the best thing I've ever tasted anywhere. That place is a phenomenal restaurant, and they just feed so many people. It's not exactly the way my mother did it, but he gets this silky texture.
One of the things that really crosses people down here is when people say that the food in Louisiana is spicy. It is NOT. Not when it's properly done. It's seasoned, and it's not supposed to burn you. It is supposed to set off little explosions in your mouth.
My brother-in-law can fry fish like you wouldn't believe, like speckled trout. There's nothing better than fried fish. I don't know what it is - how he coats it - you know what I mean? Everyone just recognizes it. No one even tries. And I have another brother-in-law who make jambalaya, makes it in an old cast iron pot and a wood fire. Oooh.
E:: Are you the person your family calls on to make the gumbo?
J.C.: My family disses my cooking sometimes - but not bad. I have a guy who worked for me for five year and now works for the Mayor of New Orleans and we use to manage together pretty good, but I'll to disorganized to handle the gumbo by myself.
E:: Have you ever tried making Leah Chase's gumbo?
J.C.: Oh, that's gumbo z'herbes - vegetarian gumbo. No, I haven't but she's a really nice lady and she's done a lot for this community. She stayed in place after the storm and Obama even ate her gumbo!
E:: So, most importantly, when are you getting your own food show?
J.C.: Maybe one day I'll so something general culture, sports, food, music - just everything. Food is good for conversation. It's good for relationships. It's good for everything. And if it's good food, you don't have to eat as much of it.
The problem is that you've got too much processed food and too much bad food. If something tastes good, you don't need to sit there and eat all of it, like people do.
E:: What's the last meal that you had that made you cry– maybe brought a tear to your eye?
J.C.: When I got the raw oysters at Casamento's. It was such a treat, because I thought after the spill, I was never going to get to have another one in my life. It was really moving - that's one of my favorite joints. That and Bozo's are my two favorite places.
E:: I don't think I've ever spoken with someone from New Orleans who didn't have these strong feelings about food. What is that link that you have?
J.C.: Every other place in the country, when people talk about their quality of life - you've got this much park space and this low a crime rate, the climate is this and the healthcare is that. You put it in a computer and total it up and this is the best place to live.
To be blunt, I don't care one whit about the quality of life. I care about the way of life. If I have my way of life, then I have a quality of life. Food is essential to our way of life. If it's not about that food, then it's not about a way of life.
So you get this "poached, fused tower of this" - I don't want to eat that! That's just not what I'm about. If I have my way of life, I go to Manale's and get my Oysters Bienville, then I go by Hansen's and I go see Ashley and get me a satsuma sno-ball. I'm living the way I want to live.
In another place, you take up all your Zagat scores, you add them and you determine how good the food is. By the way, within ten minutes of my house, not counting the Central Business District or the French Quarter, I have something like - I counted for the fun of it - 15 or 16 Zagat 25 or better restaurants. If it's not good, it's not going to stay around, but I want my kind of food.