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Food Porn: Good little monsters

Softshell po-boy 2015

Last weekend, I accomplished what can best be described as "my annual Jazz Fest food orgy." Now, I know most people attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival for the music; the crafts; and just the fact that, by now, the Fest is such an ingrained local ritual -- and an almost religious one at that (especially if you're in the Gospel Tent). But for me, surprise surprise, it's all about hitting the vendors in the food sections -- and hitting them hard.

Once upon a time,  I actually joined the Nola.com dining team (which, at the time, included both NolaVie founders, Renee Peck and Sharon Litwin) on their quest to taste and rate every bite and sip of food and drink at the Fest in a single day. That's right: All the food at Jazz Fest in a day. I likened the experience to a "feat of gastronomic heroism." And boy, was it fun. Not an easy accomplishment, but an important one, seeing as the best bets for food would wind up in the paper the following day.

I have my favorites. The Patton's Combo Plate is always my go-to, while my brother, Eric, always sprints to Conseco's Cuban sandwich as soon as his feet hit Fair Ground soil. Then there's the Bennachin combo (poulet fricassee, fried plantains and jama-jama), the obligatory Crawfish Monica, the cochon de lait po-boy, Prejean's smoked duck, quail and andouille gumbo, and of course the crawfish enchiladas are a must.

Of all these delightful festival comestibles, there's one, however, that has always held a certain fascination for me: the soft-shell crab po-boy. Why so captivated by a simple fried seafood sandwich? Because, as far as I know, it's the only opportunity one has to eat an entire animal, lovingly deep fried, between two slices of French bread (and dressed in the traditional New Orleans fashion, obviously).

The world of gastronomy lends us few options for eating whole animals. You don't eat an oyster's shell, shrimp and crawfish must be peeled, and most fish are generally filleted. Even in the case of a whole roasted fish -- like the amazing one at Peche Seafood Grill -- diners don't eat the bones or the tail, though one is encouraged to dig the flesh out out of the head with one's fingers. But none of these does one just chuck, in its natural state, into the deep fryer and then serve. It's an amazing and kind of barbaric thing, when you really think about.

So, the availability and opportunity to consume entire animals are few and far between. There's the infamous ortolan, one of the most controversial dishes in culinary history, so much so that it's been illegal for some years now, though that doesn't prevent some adventurous gastronomes to seek it out in hush-hush, speakeasy fashion. One of the only other whole-animal dishes I can think of are "Jersey-style" fried anchovies, which are truly terrific. There's a vendor in New York called, I'm not kidding, "Bon Chovie" who specialize in this dish, serving the wee fishies whole, lightly battered and fried, with a chipotle aioli for dipping and a side of pickled sweet peppers. On paying them a visit for the first time, the vendor asked, "if I wanted the heads."  "Yeah, I want the heads!" I demanded. "I'm paying for them aren't I? How dare you try to take away my fish heads, sir? The unmitigated gall!"

Then we have "chapulines," which are a Mexican delicacy: fried, whole grasshoppers. I tried them once, in a Mexican grocery in Brooklyn, but I can't say I enjoyed them. Too salty. If you'd like to give them a go in New Orleans, however, I'm told the grasshoppers with guacamole are particularly good at Johnny Sanchez, in the CBD.

But here's the thing: Neither chapulines or fried anchovies are served on a po-boy. Again, I find it almost perverse that one can enjoy a single deep fried animal on French bread as though it's no big deal (or two animals, if they happen to be on the smaller side). It's an incomparable experience, biting through the pillowing dough and reaching that rich, crispy crab, the legs and shell crunching in your mouth as you dutifully chew away, complimented by the acidity of the pickles, the heat from the hot sauce, and the creaminess of the mayo you slathered on the bread.

It all reminds me of a scene in the 90's Tom Hanks comedy Joe Versus The Volcano, in which the titular character is sharing a meal in Los Angeles with Angelica Graynamore, played by Meg Ryan. Angelica orders a huge platter of dungeness crabs. When they arrive, she exclaims, "They do look like little monsters, don't they?"

"But," she admits, "they're good little monsters."


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.