James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

My Perfect Dish: Gulf Oysters in New Orleans

New Orleanians, as a rule, are a high-spirited bunch. We love the outlandish, the over-the-top, the joie de vivre of a grown man glittered from nose-to-toes at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning for no clear reason other than he just damn well felt like it. We’re the Leos of the country (even if our star signs don’t quite match up), and don’t our antics show it.

With all this passion bubbling over, it also means we love a good argument (er, heated discussion), especially about our town’s foodways and encyclopedic, one-of-a-kind culinary landscape. The sheer quantity, and distinctiveness, of locally-masterminded dishes is an embarrassment of riches that can lead to fierce loyalty—and everyone has a (typically very vocal) opinion.

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Hotel Picks

Hotel Mazarin

As close as you’d want to be to the action, but the Mazarin keeps it quaint with a languid courtyard and conveniences like free breakfast and wi-fi.

Le Pavillon Hotel

Close to everything, but with enough of that old world charm—high ceilings! crown molding!—to allow you to retro-relax in style when you’re done exploring.

There are a few items, regardless of exact prep-style, that New Orleanians can agree on as wholly good. Crawfish—and that all-important day drinking excuse, the crawfish boil—will always be lauded as the pinnacle of the spring season. Doberge cake, with it’s razor’s-edge-thin cake and creamy dessert pudding layers, is a welcome sight, even after the most blimp-like of meals. And no one in their right mind would turn away a heaping, greens-filled bowl of gumbo z’herbes (especially not from the queen of the dish herself, Leah Chase) on Maundy Thursday.

But, perhaps more than anything else, those who choose to make their home along the pockmarked streets of the Crescent City hold a deep, abiding affection for the most beautiful of all bivalves: the oyster.

While East and West Coast oyster snobs might grimace at the thought of Gulf oysters—their meaty texture, their creaminess, their frequently thick and intimidating size—an entire city begs to differ. Oh, sure, these oysters often aren’t dainty, and you’re likely to do a lot more slurping than elegantly excavating them with an oyster fork. But they’re the kind that would walk the length of a Second Line alongside you and never miss a step. They’re a resilient friend, and a product of their raising.

For New Orleanians, oysters have long been more than a half-shelled delight to linger over while seeking refuge from the most maddening part of the mid-afternoon sun. Much more. They’re a cultural touchstone, and have threaded their way into the very fiber of New Orleans’ existence. There are Christmas trees fashioned out of oyster shells, and entire jewelry collections made from their trippy, opalescent homes. Antique oyster plates—gilded and delicate—line the antique shops of Royal Street. And dozens of my acquaintances have made their oyster lust a permanent part of their bodies by opting for oyster tattoos: some even add a lemon wedge as an inky garnish.

I’m typically a raw oyster girl, and believe the entire act of eating them is a downright sensual experience. Forget all that aphrodisiac drivel, though. This is all about the relationship between the oyster and you: The delicate way it plumps up on the shell; the tug of textures between oyster and tongue; the oceanic brine that follows in a wash of minerality. It’s a solo indulgence that can feel empowering. If anyone is going to lovingly hand-feed me an oyster, it’s going to be me.

Oysters are often viewed as an edible trinket of lavishness; the kind of dish shoehorned somewhere in between caviar and champagne to form a trifecta of fancy. In New Orleans, though, they’re a dish that reconnects you to the land, the community and the spirit of regeneration. Oysters are intricately tangled up with (and dependent upon) their environment, both as a means of reflecting the flavors of a specific brackish backwater and the ability to grow in the first place. Climate change and manmade disasters (read: the 2010 BP oil spill) continue to stymie the natural growth of Gulf oysters, so those of us in New Orleans approach each one that makes it with a bit of a genuflect to their resilience. The wish, perhaps, becomes that resilience is passed on to us with each gulping bite.

It was on the hunt for an edible rebound that I walked into the dining room of MoPho mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, eyes still lipping wet around the rims. My mind was reeling from being mugged the night before: a situation that had happened before, and would happen again—though I didn’t know it at the time. There’s a vulnerability in few days after such a gut-punching violation occurs that nudges one to seek out a balance between comforting (your emotions are raw!) and distracting (replaying the scene in your mind is a vicious cycle!). I needed both comfort and distraction, to be sure, but mostly, I was angry. I was mad at New Orleans—the city itself—for letting this happen. How could she do this to me?

A restaurant lauded for its Vietnamese-tinged takes on South Louisiana ingredients, MoPho was empty—a rare sight—as I sat perched and sullen, alone at a high-top table. Wagging a menu in my hand, I scanned the offerings and, tucked between the roasted duck po’boy and lemongrass chicken wings, a dish hunkered quietly: crispy fried P&J oysters. Sure, I shrugged, why not? I’d drowned lesser sorrows in fried oysters before, and often biked past P&J Oyster Company’s headquarters. It would be, I guessed, a balm.

We often ask a lot of our food. Particularly in times of crisis, we ask it to conjure up a fix, a reprieve. We want it to give us answers. When my plate of expertly dredged oysters arrived, plated with Easter egg radish, MoPho mayo and pickled blue cheese, I knew it was something more.

In order to truly experience the dish, it’s imperative to treat your fork like a kebab of sorts, skewering the tastes into a tiny tower and inhaling all at once. With each collective bite—the smooth oyster and spice-tinged batter, a doubled-up tang of pickled blue cheese, the peppery bite of the radish—I was lulled by thoughts of New Orleans’ 300 years of rebounds, comebacks, and triumphs. It’s a city that lends itself to personification: every meal, handshake, and walk down the street can feel intimate and interconnected. Much as the dish finds ways to marry a classic South Louisiana staple—the oyster—with flavors that reflect the city’s burgeoning Vietnamese community, New Orleans is a place that’s forever tipping back and forth between progress and preservation.

“There’s one thing I know for sure, honey,” an elderly neighbor told me the following week as I finished gushing to her about the MoPho dish. “The Lord made women first and the oyster second—and they’re the toughest things around, in that order.”

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