When you think of New Orleans, two sensory subjects come to mind: great music and great food. That said, a lot of New Orleans fare is not "Shabbat-ready." Yet even though New Orleans' Jewish residents make up only a small percentage of the city's population, there is a Jewish presence wherever there is a restaurant-and-arts scene.
If you don't find it right away, all you have to do is ask an expert: Alan Smason, to be exact.
The lifelong New Orleanian, who assumed the city's editor position on the Deep South Jewish News after a brief, post-Katrina sabbatical in Cleveland, is an avowed foodie and music lover.
He's also an encyclopedic resource for everything Jewish that's tied to the Big Easy. Although he has kept a strict kosher home since he left Cleveland, he maintains that there's still a lot for Jewish visitors to appreciate in New Orleans.
When not covering cultural happenings in the city, he does create them via his company, Smasonics, and is widely known as the D.J. with the largest collection of Jewish music in the community.
Over lunch at a po-boy spot during Tales of the Cocktail (www.talesofthecocktail.com) — an annual spirits extravaganza for hot-shot bartenders, industry movers and shakers, and weekend warriors who like to play with their food — Smason provides an interesting answer to the lofty question of "What is it like to be Jewish food writer in the land of crawfish étouffé and muffelettas?," especially in a city with only two truly kosher options in suburban Metarie: Casa Blanca, a Middle Eastern/Moroccan spot, and Kosher Cajun.
It was quite an enlightening exchange.
"While Antoine's is the oldest restaurant, dating back to 1842, Tujagues [is] the second oldest restaurant (est. 1852) and is now owned (as of 1982) by a Jewish owner, Steven Latter, who tirelessly researched the restaurant's history to restore it to its early state," explained Smason.
"They are famous for their boiled brisket of beef with horseradish sauce. The food reflects the culture of New Orleans. In this city, it is important to have a good accountant, a good attorney and a good waiter. We regard our food as a part of the whole equation.
"The old expression, 'We don't eat to live. We live to eat,' is really true out here in New Orleans. Food and drinks are definitely part of the culture and what people love about the city."
A Jewish Federation Web site offers a listing of kosher restaurants and stores, as well as the revelation that there is such a thing as "kosher creole," thanks in part to Mildred Covert, a contributing food columnist to the Times-Picayune. She is noted for putting kosher creole on the map with her four cookbooks, co-authored with the late Sylvia Gerson. She gives lectures, cooking demonstrations and workshops on kosher cooking.
Arts and Music Scene
Thanks to the city's cultural wealth, many who visit New Orleans come to feed their souls via the city's music and art scenes, or the spectacle of Mardi Gras (or more wholesome counterparts, such as the New Orleans Food & Wine Experience every May). However, the city has some hidden gems that show how interesting things can get when Jewish and New Orleans culture get together.
The Panorama Jazz Band plays a rousing blend of klezmer music and New Orleans jazz, and the Krewe du Jieux reportedly is the first and only Jewish "Mardi Gras Krewe." Since 1996, this group has marched through the French Quarter as a "subcrewe" (or participating group) in the Krewe du Vieux parade.
Like other groups in the anxiously awaited festivities, the Krewe du Jieux picks a theme, along with costumes and throws out … decorated bagels! It also stages an annual "Bagel Bash" at Donna's Bar & Grill, hosts a "Krewe Seder" on the second night of Passover and struts its stuff in other parades throughout the year.
In addition to breaking bread and breaking into song, there are many great places to break out the credit card, particularly Royal Street in the French Quarter and trendy Magazine Street. Despite these bustling and vibrant scenes, a Hurricane Katrina tour is mandatory — not only to gain proper perspective of the city's past and future, but it also places the human factor into context after you've seen the city at its best.
Many companies offer them, but locals highly recommend Tours by Isabelle (www.toursbyisabelle.com), a local company that also conducts tours of plantations, fashionable neighborhoods and the cemeteries that inspired Anne Rice and American folklore. Post-Katrina, it began its own rebuilding process with tours that steer clear of sensationalism and toward sensitive narratives by actual survivors.
No matter where you go — from the folksy historic Faubourg Marigny district to the nostalgic Café Du Monde and Napoleon House, to French Quarter photo and art galleries to UAL (the city's beloved haunt for discounted designer clothing and shoes) — nearly everybody you meet will take a personal interest in you, ask what brought you to the city and tell you what inspires them about "NOLA."
Some residents are still living in FEMA trailers, while others are replanting their roots, as Alan Smason has done. Whatever their circumstances, these folks will infuse you with the most infectious optimism.
For more information, log on to: www.neworleansonline. com.