NEW ORLEANS – Every day spent on vacation in the Big Easy is a day where, as Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose once penned, "stomach and attitude reach a state of grace." It's particularly meaningful to me, as New Orleans is the city where I experienced my very first oyster a decade ago — standing at a raw bar on Iberville next to a family from Mississippi who suggested that I order a dozen "to get a taste for them." As is the routine down here, I concocted my own saucy combo of horseradish, lemon juice, Tabasco, and crumpled Saltine crackers.
Down the hatch.
Needless to say, I haven't been the same since. Sure, I have my favorites (Kumamotos, Beausoleils, Naked Cowboys), but there's a special place in my heart's stomach carved out for the Louisiana variety. And on a recent Friday night at restaurant Cochon, the central artery in Nola's modern Cajun cooking scene, that love-at-first-taste moment happened again. Delivered to my table: five open-faced, wood-fired oysters, glistening with chili sauce, zapped with fresh lemon juice, piled onto a plate of rock salt. They were decadent. They were rich. They were alarmingly good.
Long after the plate was removed from the table, and long after the last bite of heart-thumping upside-down pineapple cake was licked clean from the spoon, I thought about those oysters. I thought about them the next day at the city's oyster festival; as I ate cornmeal-crusted oyster almondine from a disposable plate; as I snatched a rogue fried oyster from my sister's po-boy; even during dinner three nights later, which I topped off with a taxi ride back to Cochon for a wood-fired oyster nightcap.
What brought me down to New Orleans that first time around was a college research project on shellfish. I spent a day on a Louisiana crawfish boat and had a proper homecooked crawfish boil, after which the farmer showed me the room in his house dedicated to John Deere miniatures. I spent a day at a cooking school, learning the secrets of gumbo and soft-shell crab. But nothing compared to the oyster.
It's just like Tom Robbin's wrote in Jitterbug Perfume. "The oyster was an animal worthy of New Orleans, as mysterious and private and beautiful as the city itself. If one could accept that oysters build their houses out of their lives, one could imagine the same of New Orleans, whose houses were similarly and resolutely shuttered against an outside world that could never be trusted to show proper sensitivity toward the oozing delicacies within."
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