I tend to daydream on the weekends. Particularly any time my mind’s freedom to explore the infinite Möbius strip of my private version of Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy is afforded to me. When I’m unshackled by time’s clutch, and its insentient minion of reminders like the morning alarm clock, the shift of the sun, or my smartphone’s 15-mins-warning ringtone and vibrational pulse; the one leaving a visible outline on the exterior of my designer jeans pocket—yeah, that’s when my imagination soars! The rest of it all is just exhausting. The workweek is exhausting. It’s full of these socially imposed—and yet totally self-accepted—hobgoblins and Orcs of social norms and mores that prevent our minds from its purest form of entertainment; or as they say in Late Latin—in inquirere. I wish we placed a greater importance on the childlike act of being inquisitive. [You bet I was daydreaming when I came up with this shit!]
Like this past Saturday, when Jonathan and I were two days into a three-day juice cleanse.* We didn’t have a ton of energy, because we hadn’t consumed anything other than the eight vials of pre-made juices, some of which tasted like crushed garden snail (yes, that’s an assumption); so we tried to keep our three-days light on the activities. That usually means stay home and engaged in one of my many hobbies: writing, painting, or cleaning out the closets; and Jonathan usually scratches his sack like a scrotum of potatoes on the couch….uh, yeah, you know what I meant. Or he’ll use it as an excuse to go get a 90-mins massage, which is what he did last Saturday.
The masseuse he likes is just a few blocks away, and Eddie was gonna need his mid-day walk soon. I agreed to go with them, because I’ve always loved a good killing-two-birds-with-one-stone challenge.
On the entire walk, I was daydreaming. I don’t know if it was the wind flapping in my ears like linens hung out to dry in a swift coastal breeze, creating a canvas of white noise to get lost in, or if it was the lack of enthrallment coming from my walking companion (I mean the dog….but I see where you went with that); the setting was such that I’d been transported to another world. And that world was New Orleans cuisine, aka the reason for the cleanse. It began with a tickle in my stomach (probably where solid foods used to be) as I dreamed of those delicious seafood dishes full of butter and cream. The hot oil from fried soft shell crabs, battered shrimp po boys, and beignets, radiated towards my ears…..and I was lost in my imagination.
We spent the previous week stuffing our faces with the most delicious food New Orleans had to offer. I was specifically reminiscing about culinary bike tour we’d taken on our third day in town. A four-hour trip on two wheels, highlighting some of the NOLA’s most sought after culinary delights.
Best NOLA Bike Tours | The Confederacy of Cruisers
We booked our tour with the Confederacy of Cruisers, a NOLA bike tour company a friend of ours had recommended. Confederacy of Cruisers is the guided bike tour division of the A Bicycle Named Desire bike rental shop nestled at the border of the French Quarter and the Marigny districts. We’d requested the culinary bike tour for 10:30am, which sounded like a great way to spend the day—burning a few calories between ingesting more—all with a street-eye view of some of New Orleans most popular neighborhoods. And with the short bike stints in between, we finished feeling satiated, but not stuffed, and there was enough room for dinner!
We met Cassandra Snyder, our guide and resident New Orleans foodie-chef-television-producer aka “Soul of Nola”, and four fellow hungry tourists at Washington Square Park, where we were fitted on our cruisers and informed that it’s not illegal to bicycle without a helmet, or drunk for that matter.
Bennachin Restaurant-New Orleans African Food
Aside from being closest, the main reason for stopping at Bennachin Restaurant was to pay homage to some of the original influencers of New Orleans food, but in it’s unadulterated form—West Africa.
Most people don’t think about it, but West African ingredients, and styles of cooking permeate the Cajun and Creole food of New Orleans. Because you have to remember it’s not just French and Spanish. Cassandra explained how the trade of goods and humans [remember New Orleans was a major shipping port], made New Orleans a melting pot of cultures. We’ve got the French who named the region in honor of King Louis XIV. They learned how to cook with beans, corn, and squash from the Native Americans already living there. You’ve got the West African influences from the slaves that were brought over on ships in the 1700’s, which lead to okra and gumbo; which comes from the African word ‘gombo,’ meaning okra stew. Then the Spanish purchased the territory from France and moved in. Their success as traders in the Gulf region and back to Europe flooded the markets with Caribbean (chili peppers) and Spanish piquant spices like saffron and paprika. That’s why we see jambalaya everywhere and why every kitchen table in the Crescent City has at least one hot sauce bottle next to the salt and pepper. Later on the Italians made there way down to New Orleans, and now there’s a whole Cajun Italian or Creole Italian cuisine that’s been around for over a century. You’ve heard of the Muffuletta sandwich, right? And to think the mixing will ever stop, Cassandra said New Orleans now has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the US, which is really elevating local cuisine with the fusion of noodles and pickled vegetables with roux, Étouffées, po boys and more.
What’s the difference between Creole and Cajun?
Creole was birthed out of this melting pot of French, Spanish, German, Native American, Caribbean, and West African cultures and cuisine. “Creole” is actually a French word derived from the Spanish “criollo,” a term used to describe a child born in the colonies. It doesn’t matter what nationality you were, or combination there of; anyone born in the “colony” of Louisiane (eventually New Orleans) was considered a creole. Today, anyone born in New Orleans would call themselves a Creole.
How that differs from Cajun is simple. The “Cajuns” were a group of Frenchmen who’d originally settled in what is now Nova Scotia. In the mid-1700’s they were forced out by the British and sent to random places parts of the world. Some went to Massachusetts, and some went to the West Indies and South America, while others found themselves on the riverbanks of South Louisiana. They settled away from the bustling port city of New Orleans, and stuck to the bayous and prairies along the river where they lived off the land and in the swamps. Cajuns incorporate less seafood into their diet as they did game, pork, beef, and cured meats like pork and sausages.
Where Creole and Cajun foods are different, is primarily in the technique and presentation. Creole tends to be more classic French, with an air of sophistication and a focus on fish and shellfish. It’s usually lighter in color because of its preference for butter, cream and flour. Cajun is a little more rustic, direct, and to the point. It’s heavier on the meats including alligator, nutria (river rat), beef, pig, venison, etc. and it uses rice a little more than Creole. Cajun tends to be darker in color, and its gumbos are typically thinner and more soupy than a stew would be.
Enough of the history lesson! Here’s what we had at Bennachin.
We got the Jama Jama, which is spinach sautéed in vegetable oil with onion, garlic, and ginger. Probably the perfect food for us to start our NOLA bike tour with, because it’s full of nutrients and it’s not too heavy and filling.
Their plantains were amazing and some of the best I’ve had. A delicate crust with a gentle char and bit of caramelization. They were moist and soft on the inside, not mealy, and served with a tomato stew and their homemade hot sauce that can go on anything.
Since the French Quarter is where most of us were staying, Cassandra had the genius idea of showing us some areas “off the beaten path.” So we turned around and headed back towards the Marigny and over to Elizabeth’s in the Bywater.
Elizabeth’s in the Bywater
We’d already had brunch at Elizabeth’s the day before, but it was so good we didn’t mind going back again with the tour. Besides, we told Cassandra what we had at brunch and she was able to select some news items for us to try.
We tried the callas. Callas are like beignets, only they’re made with rice instead of flour. That makes them a little denser, and more moist because the rice grains are a good sponge than flour. Dusted with powdered sugar, they had a delicious cinnamon taste that reminded me of a warm rice pudding.
We got an order of the praline bacon, which I was happy to repeat. Personally I think the bacon would be the slightest bit better if it were cut a little thicker, but it’s still delicious. Some say it sort of spawned the obsession with serving bacon on pastries for dessert: maple bacon doughnuts, praline bacon bundt cakes, etc.
Cassandra ordered up some fried green tomatoes. These were fantastic! The moment I had my first bite, I spit it out because it was way too hot. Phew, singing my taste buds with four more days in New Orleans would have been a disaster of massive proportions. But once cooled down I tried it again, and thought to myself, finally! I got a fried green tomato that tastes like the ones Sipsey made at The Whistle Stop Café in Fried Green Tomatoes with Jessica Tandy! The creole mustard drizzled on top added a cool zing to each bite. The tomatoes were definitely green but they weren’t too hard either, and they were thick and juicy. The breading wasn’t greasy either, and to top it all off, they were served with some chilled gulf shrimp with a slather of shrimp rémoulade.
The boudin balls were also delicioso! Boudin (pronounced “booh-dan”) is a sausage of ground pork meat, rice and a ton of flavor. Elizabeth’s puts their twist on it, and forms the boudin sausage into balls and lightly dredges them and fries them. They’re serve atop a pond of their tangy creole mustard and garnished with green onions.
We left Elizabeth’s in the heart of the Bywater district, and rode along the Mississippi where it boarders the lower 9th Ward—a district completely flooded when the levies broke after Katrina.
There was a Brazilian woman traveling alone in our group and somewhere between Elizabeth’s and Vaughn’s (a world famous dive bar where Kermit Ruffins was the resident Jazz musician) she fell off her bike. I was already a few blocks away, and I didn’t see it, but she apparently hurt herself badly enough to want to discontinue the tour. I felt bad about it, but she sort of gave me this look of disgust when I twisted off and slurped the shrimp head at Elizabeth’s as if I were some heathen; so she probably got what she deserved. Cassandra arranged for her to be picked up and taken back to the bike shop, while the rest of us continued.
We continued southeast downriver and Cassandra lead us across the tracks (literally) and up onto one of the levies that framed on of canals that fed the Mississippi. We got a little backstory on Katrina, and how it affected the surrounding area. It wasn’t Katrina that caused the flood per se, it was Lake Pontchartrain that filled from the storm and the levies that weren’t properly engineered to handle the increased load. We learned about New Orlean’s resiliency and the passion of its residents for helping each other out during a recovery that could have seemed endless.
The Joint for BBQ
There’s a lot of work that goes into recovering from such a disaster like Katrina. And that work creates a lot of hungry souls, most of which have enjoyed many a meal at The Joint.
The Joint, as their motto says “is always smoking.” It’s a New Orleans institution, and some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Our group sat around two tables we pushed together, while Cassandra put in our order and brought us a pitcher of beer to share. She ordered a few baskets of BBQ pork ribs for starters.
Then she put down a few cups of mac n cheese. And this wasn’t the frilly stuff. Just some unadulterated macaroni and cheese that I couldn’t get enough of.
Cassandra got some BBQ chicken for Jonathan’s sister because doesn’t eat pork.
They served the BBQ chicken and ribs with some pickles and toasted white bread.
The bread was whatever, but everything else was finger-licking good. And don’t forget their homemade hot sauces. They’re got a Carolina style vinegar sauce which is just chilies and apple cider vinegar. It’s thin, sour, and hot. They’ve got a solid middle of the road sauce that’s tomato based and sweet, tangy, and spicy. It was also good on the mac n cheese too. And they had a slightly more creative pineapple habanero sauce (I’m guessing that’s what was in there)-also amazing!
As we were leaving the restaurant, Cassandra took us to the back and introduced us to two of the smoke masters. They explained that the smoker is pretty much on all day, aside for the occasional cleaning or maintenance they perform on it. They control the level of smoke with logs of mostly pecan (and some oak) stacked on the side. The thing is ginormous.
The Meltdown for Gourmet Popsicles
After stopping at three restaurants for some quintessential bites of New Orleans we headed towards the Meltdown for dessert.
As a caterer, chef, private cooking class conductor, city tour guide, producer, resident chatty Kathy, and all around friendly person, Cassandra knows everyone in the New Orleans food scene. The foods that appear at the various festivals throughout the year are a big part of that vibrant food scene. Namely Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras.
Michelle Weaver, the proprietor behind the Meltdown is one of the most popular purveyor of pops in New Orleans. I mean come on, what more could you want in your mouth when you’re dancing drunk in the hot sun, at Jazz Fest? Don’t answer that…..a gourmet popsicle of course!
She’s renovated an old-school mail truck with a right-sided steering wheel into her mobile popsicle stand. With flavors like Vietnamese coffee, chocolate sea salt with olive oil, vanilla rosewater, blueberry lavender coconut milk, pineapple cilantro, and salted caramel to name a few; her popsicles were the perfect end to our culinary NOLA bike tour on a hot humid day.
The Meltdown has a flash freezer that will make popsicles in 20 mins. This was mind-blowing for me. The benefit of the fast freeze technique is that the pops have less time to form ice crystals and the pops come out more consistent all the way through (fibrous materials don’t have a chance to settle), and they’re creamier.
The NOLA bike tour ended where it began where we turned in our helmets and received what became a coveted list of food recommendations throughout the city. Cassandra knows all too well, that we couldn’t stop everywhere, so she generously sent us on our way with a list of must-haves, fully endorsed by her and her many foodie friends.
In addition to being a fun activity, a culinary bike tour in New Orleans (private or in a group) is definitely worth the time and money. Not only will you get to go to some of the most popular food establishments, but you get the VIP experience, which includes skipping the lines, food waiting for you when you arrive, the possibility of meeting the chefs and owners of the restaurants you visit, and you’ve got a wealth of local knowledge at your disposal for a few hours in your guide. My recommendation is to plan your NOLA bike tour near the front end of your trip, so you can run all your plans by your guide and they can tell you what’s a good idea or not.