Gut Instinct: The Big Sleazy

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“My God,” my girlfriend said, shrinking in shock, “what are you putting into your mouth?” I looked up from my plate, filled with limp, four-leaf-clover-colored foodstuffs.
“It’s…it’s…” I began. I coughed. Bowed my head, red-faced with shame. “It’s salad,” I said. “Salad. I’m eating salad.” I paused, expecting heaven-sent thunderbolts to smite me. Instead, she harrumphed: “After last week, you need a dozen more.” Reader, I was repairing my intestines due to a New Orleans adventure built around beer, pork and potato chips. Specifically, I speak of crisp Abitas and Zapp’s shatteringly crunchy fried taters, the salty pride of Louisiana.Yes, you can score such indulgences at Brooklyn’s Bierkraft (try malty Turbodog and spicy Cajun Crawtators).

But devouring southern treats in Yankee country feels plumb strange, like dirty-dancing with your sister. See, region-specific foods possess an ineffable terroir. Take Texas barbecue: Fatty brisket tastes better inside soot-stained smokehouses than faux-folksy joints like Hill Country.This holds true for New Orleans comestibles. Though Delta Grill, Bourbon Street and NoNo Kitchen pump out gumbo and catfish po’ boys, the French Quarter food feels Xeroxed, a Chinatown knockoff. Though the po’ boy appears uncomplicated—fried seafood or animal protein shoehorned into French loaves—the key ingredient, airy and crusty Leidenheimer’s bread, stays near Bourbon Street. I needed the real deal. I needed New Orleans.

“I hope you’re wearing sweatpants,” my girlfriend said as we flew to The Big Easy. It was my second culinary tour since Katrina—despite disaster and ongoing repair, the Crescent City remains a gastronomic Disneyland, with more eateries now than pre-deluge. Thus, my itinerary: drink until drunk. Eat until distended. And sleep less than six hours a night. In other words, I’d pretend to be 21. “That’s not as much fun as I remember,” I moaned the first skullthrobbing morning. I’d spent the night sucking Abita’s floral Jockamo IPA at d.b.a., a beer bar with great Big Apple branches.

“Perhaps you feel crappy because you ate jalapeño Zapp’s,” she said. My goal was eating a different flavor daily, a noble quest in mind, not body. “And don’t forget that fried-shrimp po’ boy.” “Yuhhh-uss,” I groaned, as headless crustaceans danced before my eyes. For lunch, I devoured a gravy-drenched roast-beef po’ boy at Parkway Bakery, paired with stout Abita Mardi Gras Bock and mellow sour cream and Creole onion chips. Come snack time, I crammed down BBQ Zapp’s and a Ferdi Special from Mother’s: baked ham, roast beef, rich meat “debris,” cabbage and zesty Creole mustard, a veritable farm on a bun. Cochon hosted dinner, where zippy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle; gumchewy fried gator dipped into chili-garlic aioli; and crispy suckling pig (a.k.a. cochon) with cracklings were eaten with abandon. The eatery’s pilgrimage-worthy for pork fiends.

“Is it smart to consume that much pork in a day?” my girlfriend wondered, as I gnawed ribs like a wolf setting upon a prancing doe’s limbs.

“Don’t harsh my happy,” I chided, reaching for Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine. By dint of eBay or generous down-South friend, you must acquire this North Carolina liquor. Mellow and ruinously easydrinking, Catdaddy tastes of frostingtopped vanilla cake fit for lumberjacks, not sniggering sorority girls.

The days passed, fatty and flavorful. For breakfast, powdered-sugared Café Du Monde beignets. Lunch? Ham-studded cabbage and moist, finger-licking fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.“I sure hope you’re full till dinner,” the boist said. I wasn’t. I snacked on Casamento’s sandwich of shucked and fried oysters, relishing the briny, greasy mollusk bounty. But still I saved space for the final dinner, which doubled as my sweetheart’s birthday. “Will you feed me a po’ boy?” she wondered.

Déclassé dining? Not tonight. “We’re getting fancy,” I declared, as we decamped to MiLa, the sibling to NYC’s Dirty Bird to-Go. Instead of duplicating their fried-chicken venture, hubby-wife team Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing concocted a seasonal, locally sourced restaurant that applies French techniques to Southern eats. Graceful, easygoing waitresses delivered sweetly herbaceous mint juleps and “deconstructed” oysters Rockefeller consisting of lightly wilted spinach topped by poached bivalves and bacon chips, as well as supple sweetbreads swimming in creamy black-truffle grits so sensual, I’ll forever alter my offal opinion.

“Not me,” said my seafood-only sweetheart, contenting herself with buttery, citrus-kissed barbecue lobster. While she dove into crispy snapper with tart orange-chili reduction, I devoured butter-poached chicken as soft as sun-warmed licorice, offset with cabbage and pickled chanterelles. And sweettea–brined duck shellacked with date jus. “Can we just skip to dessert?” she asked, bored of my fowl fun. “It’s your birthday—whatever you want,” I said, like a suave romantic.

“I want the adult Reese’s Cup,” she said, ordering a chocolate peanut butter tart topped with peanut brittle and chocolate sorbet—a crunchy-velvety melding finished with HAPPY BIRTHDAY written on the white plate in curvaceous chocolate script.

“It’s perfect,” she said, digging into the lovely, lingering Southern sweetness.

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