The Big Eatery 

Forget Bourbon Street; with a nod to history and music, New Orleans is all about food.

When the salty, spicy essence of the crawfish étouffée spread throughout my mouth, I wanted to bang my fists on the table, cry "Great God Almighty!," and hug everybody in the Bon Ton Café. I wanted to weep, run around the streets of New Orleans like a mad prophet, and never eat again. The fact that I had eaten only one bite was reason to celebrate and despair; I had so much left, yet I was on my way to being finished, and once it was gone, well

Once it was gone, there was the rest of the city to eat. And before that, there would be the bread pudding and the richest coffee this side of Europe, and after we walk the Quarter for a few hours, we can have beignets at Café du Monde and breakfast tomorrow at Croissant d'Or

Our first night in New Orleans we set off for some celebrity chef's place -- Paul Prudhomme, Emeril, somebody like that -- but we weren't up for a wait, and around one corner we saw a dark doorway with a sign reading "Napoleon House." A flash of memory went off in my head: That's the place that my writer friend Jeff in Dallas says is the reason he can't move to New Orleans, because he would spend his whole life in the Napoleon House drinking beer. It got its name because some supporters of Napoleon met there to discuss his fate -- in about 1810 -- and a quick look around made me think the décor hadn't been updated since. We ducked in and ordered gumbo.

That's what it's like eating in New Orleans: utterly overwhelming. No room at Prudhomme's place, where the whole blackened thing started? Try the 200-year-old bar around the corner or put in a few more blocks and get the shrimp in sherry butter at Broussard's, the creamy oyster stew at Arnaud's, or the latest and greatest at Emeril's. Why the hell not?

In less than a week, I experienced culinary bliss on several levels. I found myself walking in Jackson Square, eating a praline, which I'm sure is the sweetest substance on earth, and I looked up to realize I was halfway between, indeed less than a block from, Café du Monde and Krispy Kreme.

One day for lunch we went into the Central Grocery, ordered a muffuletta, and sat down at the counter. What we got was a sandwich about the size of a Frisbee, weighing a few pounds, made with ham, salami, mozzarella, and a salad of marinated green olives. Four adults can share one of these things. You eat half of one, and you'd better take a nap -- or get some beignets and coffee.

At the far end of the spectrum, we ate at Galatoire's to celebrate my brother's wedding. Galatoire's has been where it is, doing what it does, for 99 years, and I can't imagine it needing to change. The fact that it's on Bourbon Street, an island of elegance in that sea of idiocy, makes it that much finer. Men have to wear a jacket to get in, the waiters whirl about in tuxes under huge chandeliers, and they do, for example, potatoes about seven different ways, along with 13 salads, 18 shellfish items, 13 desserts, and so on. The menu looks like a Michener novel.

I had a classic New Orleans moment at Galatoire's. I got the fish special, because it was trout and sounded good, and I didn't even ask about the details. Trust the house, I told myself. I ordered julienne potatoes, because they were the only ones I hadn't heard of, and I topped it off with eggplant béarnaise, because I like eggplant and béarnaise.

Out came the fish: fried, nothing on it. Julienne potatoes: cut into strips, fried. Eggplant: béarnaise sauce, yes, poured over eggplant, which had been fried. There is an art to frying food, and the masters of the trade are in New Orleans.

Compare this with the place my new sister-in-law took us, over by Tulane University, where they more or less swing by with a pail of boiled crawfish and dump it on the table. It was a little more civilized than that, but not by much. And, man, was it good. She also took us to a place called Domilise's, which was out in a God-knows-where neighborhood, surrounded by shacks, more or less, but with a customer's Rolls Royce parked outside. Two women stood behind a counter making po'boys that made me finally understand what everybody was talking about with the po'boys.

And then there are the beignets. Somehow, fried dough with powdered sugar seems to define New Orleans. It's sweet, tasty, sinful, even a little scary, and you'd never do it at home, much less once -- or, okay, twice -- a day. You wait in line to eat something that does you almost no good, but once you get your order, plop one into your mouth, and sit back with the sugar on your face, the "mmmm" in your mouth, and the breeze coming off the river, you feel like calling on the Almighty and bonding with your brethren.

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