So here I am in The Big Easy, feeling, or perhaps feeding, my way through my first ever ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) Conference. What a perfect location for talking and thinking about food and I am certainly already feeling very inspired by simply being amongst so many wonderful people who have chosen to make food and food studies a central part of their life’s work. New Orleans, of course, is so defined by its food culture, food being one of the central touristic draws of the city and one of the main ways in which people here seek to define who they are. With that in mind, when you are here, your mission must be to try as much of the local cuisine as you can, for it seems that by ingesting these foods (and beverages) you can make a claim to a better understanding of the city and its people. It is so wonderful, in fact, to have food be one of the defining characteristics of a particular place because food is so approachable and accessible to anyone who chooses to participate in its consumption. That said, it is also very easy for the food to become more of a commodity than an actual comestible and therefore to focus more on drawing tourist dollars in, rather than maintaining a sense of self or perhaps “authenticity” (if there is even such a notion). There is a thin line to be tread in a town like this and that is why it is often better to stray away from the central districts of town and to go out and explore some of the smaller “Mom & Pop” places, which some would argue have more character and incorporate more true communal spirit because they are part of the community in a way that the tourist places are not, they exist to serve the community in which they are a part, rather than the transient crowd that is the tourist masses and whom will not be returning in the foreseeable future.
Several of the conference attendees and I decided that we had to get out of the French Quarter to explore some “real” New Orleans food last night and ended up agreeing on a barbecue place called The Joint in the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater part of the city. You have to pass through some pretty run down and not-yet-rebuilt areas to get there, so we were advised by the concierge at the conference hotel that we should take a cab to get there, though I personally would have been interested to have had more of a face-to-face experience with the devastation. But let’s move on to the actual restaurant and the food. The Joint was located right, and I mean right, alongside the railroad tracks in what was otherwise a strictly residential neighborhood. There was a train that went past during dinner and it shook the whole building for several minutes, not to mention making the owners dog (who was inside sitting in the middle of the dining area) howl like a wolf. The building was a long concrete block painted yellow on the outside and a tangerine orange in the inside. But the thing that stuck you most was the entirely intoxicating smell emanating from the place. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m nuts about barbecue (kind of like cookoo for cocoa puffs)! I love the passion of the people who make it their mission to produce the best barbecue possible, the commitment of time and resources and the lore and even the manliness of it (though obviously there are many women involved). But barbecue is not something to be taken lightly, it’s something that wars could be fought over and I’m sure many a family feud has arisen purely because of barbecue-related issues. This is serious stuff.
I am more of a sauce than a meat person when it comes to making my decisions about which kinds of bbq I like best, but there’s no denying a good piece of barbecued pork, beef, or chicken (though pork is really my barometer for barbecue, in this part of the country anyhow, certainly not in Texas where beef is king). The sauce at The Joint was not amazing by my standards, on its own that is. There were two options, both very watery, and I’m more of a one for thick sweet sauces. The redder of the two sauces was the one I settled on and when combined with the pulled pork (which was served without sauce so you could add it to your desired potency, I like about 1:1 sauce to meat, though I could even go up to 2:1 if the meat will hold all that sauce), it was stellar. We also had pork ribs which were, frankly, amazing! They had this thick crust of rub on them which was dark and sweet with a little kick. It was simply out of this world and the ribs themselves, the meat was juicy and tender and oh so flavorful, it was a flavor party in your mouth. Delicious!
Sides were also a strongpoint at The Joint. We had macaroni and cheese, baked beans, green salad with smoked tomato dressing, and coleslaw. The macaroni and cheese had just been made several hours before and was so creamy and rich! The baked beans had an unusual twist in that they included tiny little chunks of green peppers. They added another flavor layer to the traditional recipe that was appreciated. The smoked tomato dressing on the salad was creamy and wonderful. Apparently they smoke the tomatoes for the dressing themselves in the same smoker they use for the barbecue. No wonder it is such a success.
Between the owner’s dog howling like the world was coming to an end, the locals giving us ordering advice, and the laidback and welcoming feel of The Joint, there was really nothing more anyone could ask for! If you are ever in the New Orleans area, you must must must check out this place. It’s certainly proof positive that getting outside of the tourist district and exploring the local food scene can be so worth the time and effort!