New Orleans, New Me

So there I sat at that long table, the breeze of the Mississippi River on my cheeks, contemplating my lunch options.  There it was, exactly what I wanted, a turkey and cheese sandwich.  Plain.  Simple.  Tasty.  But I couldn’t let myself do it, my mom’s words were ringing in my ears. “You’ll regreeettt ittt,” she whispered, “Don’t get the tuurrkkeyy.”  I scanned the rest of the menu looking for something else.  Something new, but not too new. Then it caught my eye, The Po-Boy.  It seemed safe enough, just a sandwich with some fillings.  So when the waiter came around I ordered myself a classic New Orleans Po-Boy with fried shrimp and all the fixins’.

It was midday and I found myself surrounded by fellow marching band geeks and chaperones at a a table for twenty.  We had been invited to perform at the BCS National Championship Game’s halftime show (some super important football thing that I still hardly understand), so we were spending a week in New Orleans, Louisiana.  We had spent the morning of our first free day exploring the French Quarter and now we were at a riverside restaurant, seated outdoors with a great view, ready to feast.

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Now it’s important to mention that up until this point, I had never been one to try new foods. I stuck to the plain and simple; Macaroni and cheese and grilled chicken were two of my staples. My mom had even sat me down before I embarked on this once in a lifetime trip and practically begged me to live it up and try some of the local cuisine. “Come on,” she said, “You’ll regret it forever if you don’t try at least a little bit of good old New Orleans grub.” I knew she was right, but all of the spicy staples like gumbo and jambalaya sounded like something out of my nightmares. Even beignets, doughnut squares loaded with powdered sugar that should have given me visions of sugar highs, seemed scary.

I remember the first bite of that Po-Boy so vividly.  The crunch of the baguette and the spicy shrimp breading, followed by the freshness of the cool tomatoes and creamy mayo. This was heaven on Earth, this sandwich was the most wonderful creation on the entire planet! I devoured it, along with my Cajun seasoned French fries, faster than I ever thought possible.

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That’s when it hit me, trying new foods isn’t scary.  Yes it can be risky, but not scary.  The worst possible outcome is that I won’t like what I’m eating. So what?  That’s not the end of the world; I’ll just spit it out and try again next time.

Then I was offered an even stranger delicacy.  One of the chaperones had ordered Gator Bites for all of us and now this foreign, spicy and extremely unsettling food was being shoved in my direction.  This time, with the success of my recent explorations fresh in my mind and palette, I took a bite without hesitation.  While not as impressive as the heavenly Po-Boy, I was surprised by the tastiness of the fried alligator.  That day was the first of many in my new life chock-full of exotic cuisine, propelled by a try-it-once attitude.

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The rest of my time in New Orleans was fueled by a hunger for new tastes and a recently dropped fear of food exploration.  The above picture is of my high-school’s marching band getting ready to board a riverboat dinner cruise on the Mississippi.  (I’m in there somewhere, I promise.)  Just the thought of that menu is making my mouth water.  Rice and beans, flavored with creole seasoning, and jambalaya with spicy sausage and chicken were two of my favorites.

On the not-so-spicy side of things were the fresh beignets we ate for breakfast on our last morning in the city.  I remember sitting on a bench by the river with some friends, waiting for a band-mom to return with one last surprise.  The first bite of that pastry is still fresh in my mind.  They were still warm from the oven and powdered sugar blew around my face like a sweet cloud as I took bite after bite.  While that trip may have been my first experience with exotic flavors, it definitely wasn’t my last.

The following summer, before my junior year of high school, I went on another trip, this time to San Francisco, California.  I was on a service trip and spent most of my two weeks deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains working to restore trails and wilderness areas.  While I was only able to spend three days in the actual city of San Francisco, I made sure to make the most of it in regards to my food choices.

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On our first night in the city, my group and I decided to take a stroll to the world-famous China Town for dinner.  I remember walking down the narrow street, half-listening to the unidentifiable chatter that surrounded me, gawking wide-eyed at the tiny restaurants and windows lined with hanging ducks.  When we finally chose a restaurant, the twelve of us sat at a long table and tried to decipher the menu.  I, still relishing in my new-found experimental attitude, did something that I had never done before- asked the waiter for a surprise.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “What the hell? I would never even do that. How did this girl, who seemingly lived off of turkey sandwiches, let a waiter surprise her with a dish off of a menu she couldn’t even understand?”  I’ll be honest, I was surprised at first too. It just flowed out of my mouth, “Surprise me!”  I guess it all goes back to that lesson I learned in New Orleans, food isn’t scary.  Yeah, maybe I wouldn’t like my surprise dish, but that’s okay.  I don’t need to like everything I eat, but it’s always worth a shot.  Low and behold, I saw the chef grab one of the hanging ducks and get to work on my meal.

A few minutes later, the waitress sat a dish down in front of me.  “Crispy duck, rice,” she said.  It looked sort of like the pork fried rice I often had from Chinese takeout restaurants at home, except with long strips of pan-fried duck resting on top.  I took my first bite, with the beautiful hand-carved chopsticks we had been given, and was immediately blown away.  The duck was delicious and juicy, it almost seemed to melt in my mouth.  From what I gathered, it had been coated in a sweet and sour sauce, breaded and then fried to a perfect crisp.  The sticky white rice was more flavorful than any that I had eaten before, especially with a splash of soy sauce on top.  It didn’t take me long to finish off my plate, undeniably satisfied.

The second cuisine experience I encountered during my time in San Francisco was a little less adventurous, but just as tasty.  It involved a warm bread-bowl and some creamy clam chowder.  We were visiting Pier 39, the famous bay side pier known for its abundance of sea lions.   (Sadly, I didn’t get to see any.)  It was a cloudy, rainy day and we had just finished exploring shops and taking in the sights when my group leader brought up the ever-important question, “What should we do for lunch?”  We were immediately torn in two.  Half of the group wanted burgers from In-N-Out, the west-coast favorite, and the other wanted to hit up the pier’s food court to try some chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, another SanFran staple.

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We decided to split up and I headed with the chowder gang, ready to warm up with one of my favorites.  While I already had a love for clam chowder, thanks to many summers spent in northern Maine, I had never eaten sourdough, not even a pretzel.  That was going to be my cuisine exposure for the day.

We lined up outside of the food cart that our leader had suggested, bought our overflowing bowls, found a spot at the bustling table section and dug in.  The creaminess of the soup was at a level I had never before experienced, and the clams were chewy and delicious.  I decided to try dipping the lid of the bowl, which was resting quite precariously on my paper plate, into the soup for my first taste of the sourdough, what a perfect pairing!  That meal was definitely a highlight of my San Francisco experience.

As you can tell, my New Orleans food epiphany has had a major impact on my eating habits.  Now, whenever I travel I make it a goal to try some of the local cuisine.  When I go out to eat, I love to try new dishes and experience new flavors. I went from being afraid to eat anything that wasn’t chicken nuggets or a turkey hoagie, to writing those choices off as boring.  When I traveled to Bar Harbor with my family, I eagerly searched for the highest-rated lobster shack to stop at.  When I went to Florida with two friends, we stopped at a few of the area’s well-known restaurants and I ate the most delicious seafood I have ever tasted.

Trying new foods has become a passion of mine, something I crave, and it all goes back to that heavenly New Orleans Po-Boy and my mom’s whispers in my ear.

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