First of all, when did I become the kind of person who follows sheep-like the bumbling visitors on a tour around a city? Well, when I first went to Mexico, I suppose. The taco truck tour was epic and worth every penny and mouthful. And then, of course, wine tours are lovely, because … wine. And the last time we traveled to New Orleans, the historical ghost tour was informative and interesting and just the right amount of creepy (and the tour guide stopped often so that we could refresh our libations). And so, a food tour on another return visit to NOLA seemed like a good idea. It had received high marks online; my husband and I supposed we could try food from restaurants we hadn’t gotten around to yet, and learn a little more about the culinary culture of Crescent City at the same time.
We were, of course, wrong.
To begin, we clearly didn’t belong on a food tour. Maybe we’ve been to New Orleans too many times, or we’ve eaten and drank far too much of her specialties; but your corner diner muffuletta doesn’t hold a candle to the one we usually eat. And the pralines? All wrong. Not the kind we’d choose at all. The gumbo was too watery – anyone with any sense knows that gumbo needs to be thickened with okra or filé powder.
Secondly, the other people on the tour. All friendly, ordinary Americans from New York, Chicago, Savannah, Northern California. Somebody was vegan, which … why? Why go on a food tour in a swamp town if you don’t eat meat? There was a bachelorette party with us. (Again, why? To what purpose? Whose idea was this?) They were all so … excited about being in the Big Easy. And maybe that was the problem. We weren’t. Not because we don’t love NOLA – we do. We got engaged there, after all. But the tour was for people discovering the city, not for old hats who were hoping for a line on the best Pimm’s Cup in town, and perhaps some extra beignets to shove down our throats.
We walked around the same few streets, all near the French Market, as the guide told stories from New Orleans history. Many were similar to those we’d heard before. But there is a kind of comfort in the re-telling of a favorite story; an extra detail here, an additional piece of info there. So, her tales of voodoo priestesses and Sicilian dockworkers, Yellow Fever, crawfish boils and meat so gamey that one has no choice but to add as much hot sauce as possible, were treats in themselves. Some of them tastier than the food we were given to sample.
The “real deal” New Orleans? No, the carefully edited tourist version, of course. And as we gathered in the French Market drinking cocktails at 10am, I thought about why this over-the-top city endures. Perhaps it is because it’s all tourists and celebration. Maybe it’s about adding extra spice to help you pretend your rotting food tastes good. Or it could be that people like us come back, and back, and back to listen to the stories and eat the foods, becoming a little more a New Orleanian each time we visit, so that there is no line, not really, between tourist and local.