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Food Porn: The bushido of excess

"Dump truck fries" at The Avenue Pub. There are potatoes under there. Somewhere.

"Dump truck fries" at The Avenue Pub. There are potatoes under there. Somewhere.

A childhood friend of mine, a guy from Opelousas with whom I went to summer camp for many years, started his career as a chef some time ago. This career choice shouldn't be shocking; I mean, the guy is from Opelousas, for god's sake. Though working out on the West Coast, he never, of course, lost his roots, choosing to use his local ingredients but preparing them with a decidedly South Louisiana feel. One day, on social media, he posted a photo of a recent special he cooked up: a lovely seared fish overtopped generously with jumbo lump crabmeat and a decadent meunière sauce.

"Oh man, that looks good," I noted. "But I can tell you're definitely from Louisiana."

"Why's that?" he asked.

"Because everywhere else," I said, "you can just order a simple plate of fish. It's seems impossible to find that down here. People in South Louisiana aren't satisfied until you top their fish with other fish, preferably crab, shrimp, crawfish or fried oysters, then drown everything in butter and/or some kind of heart-explodingly rich sauce."

I said this at the time because it was funny, but also true. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how embedded the idea of culinary overabundance is in Louisiana culture. This is what I now refer to as the "New Orleans bushido of excess."

The term "bushido" is Japanese, referring to the code of the samurai, a way of living and conducting oneself which was told to take a lifetime to master. Or, according to the writings of Nitobe Inazō, "...Bushidō, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe... More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten..."

For New Orleanians -- and especially native New Orleanians of a certain age -- this code is a deadly serious thing. Try to put a $37 entree of simple, modestly portioned, pan-roasted redfish with a few sauteed vegetables and maybe a couple of potatoes, and you're going to raise some serious bile. "If I'm going to pay that much for a plate of fish," they'd say (and I've actually overheard this sentence verbatim in a restaurant), "I'm going to damn well get what I paid for."

The concept of simplicity and moderate elegance just doesn't apply to Old New Orleans and in South Louisiana, in general. If you're going to please the masses, you'd better well make sure that redfish is of ample size, overtopped with huge hunks of crabmeat, shrimp, oysters or crawfish, and swimming in a sauce fashioned with the amount of butter equivalent to the daily output of a small dairy farm. Or, if not fish-on-fish-on-fish (seafood-ception!), then appropriately deep fried and served with a mountain of fries -- you can find this readily at restaurants like Mandina's -- or piled until spilling-over in a po-boy. The ultimate example of this is the "seafood muffaletta" at Parran's Po-boys in Metairie, a hulking monster of a sandwich that could satiate the better part of a small village.

The NOLA bushido of excess does not only apply to seafood. Skimp on the roast beef in a po-boy and you're risking the natives raising pitchforks and torches and running you out of town on a rail. It simply will not stand, not in this part of the world. Items like a seemingly straightforward order of French fries get the royal treatment, too, usually deluged in cheese and gravy, or, at The Avenue Pub, turned into "Dump truck fries," an order of which arrives with roasted pork, grilled onions, Béchamel sauce and a a port wine au jus.

Even a humble grilled cheese sandwich can't escape the New Orleans code of over-generosity when it comes to cuisine. At the newly opened Big Cheezy, a restaurant that specializes in, what else, grilled cheese sandwiches, nothing is small or simple. Do they have a macaroni and cheese grilled cheese? They do. What about goat cheese and jack with bacon and peppers or Cheddar and Pepper Jack with alligator sausage? Indeed. And would their namesake sandwich possibly be a triple-decker affair featuring Gruyere, Gouda, Pepper Jack, Cheddar, Mozzarella AND Monterey Jack cheeses? Well, naturally.

Of course, healthier fare can be found in the Crescent City. If you want vegan, gluten-free, organic whatever, it's not like it doesn't exist here. That said, the New Orleans bushido is fully ingrained in our culture, and it's not going anywhere. o It is the way of things here. Our code. Our honor.

I will stand by that always, a humble servant to my master: New Orleans.


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.