We talk about it with our best friends and with perfect strangers. We rant about it online and we dream about it at night. It's a natural fixation when we’re hungry, yet we still talk about it when our mouths are full.
It's the food of New Orleans, compelling, often uniting, frequently divisive and never boring, at least not if you’re doing it right. May it always be at the ends of our forks and on the tips of our tongues.
We get passionate about the topic because when we’re talking about food in New Orleans we’re talking about something that’s as personal as it gets. We’re talking about ourselves.
Food talk gets down to our tastes and our experiences. It taps the stories that bind a family and the lessons we learn as we grow. It speaks to how we measure novelty and familiarity and even how we define value.
That’s a pretty hefty serving. But at least we can cut into it in different ways, and talking about our favorite restaurants in particular will always get things rolling.
Restaurants are the corner of our food culture that’s most visible, most public and, thus, most open for debate. Just ask around and you’ll quickly learn that the best gumbo in New Orleans comes from someone’s grandmother, though such assertions don’t normally come with invitations to assess. With restaurants, anyone who can get in and pay up can proclaim their own opinion.
Because I write about New Orleans food, I field requests for restaurant recommendations all the time. But this has always been a two-way street. Way before I had the job I do today I discovered the special virtue of asking New Orleans people to hold forth on the topic.
When I first moved to town years back I didn’t know many people here at all. But I quickly learned that I could connect with just about anyone just by asking them about restaurants- where should I go, what should I get, why would I like it? It was like pressing the play button – immediately, out would come opinions and commentary and advice. Finding the stop button was harder, but never mind that.
I still ask people the same questions today, and in response I feel like I get a deeper view into this city’s food culture. Yes, the raves and slams usually start with food and service and ambiance. But when people really get into it, I also hear about their stubborn loyalties and new discoveries, I hear their admiration for restaurants taking chances and for restaurants carrying torches, I learn about old revivals and recent arrivals.
It points to ways to understand restaurants that don’t fit on a menu description or a business motto. But they set the pulse of this city’s restaurant scene anyway. It’s what gets people talking and keeps them forever ranking and defending, extolling and berating the places that align or diverge from what they think of as ideal, exciting or worthwhile.
As long as people take the topic personally and put themselves into the argument there can never be one conclusion. That’s why the New Orleans conversation about food can feel endless. Let’s hope it stays that way.