Scooped in sweet spoonfuls from a styrofoam cup, a cake batter and coconut snowball drizzled with sweetened condensed milk was my favorite taste of New Orleans. Not jambalaya, not the succulent head of a crawfish, not a Po’ boy. This simple accumulation of sugar and ice, purchased for $2.50 from a fat-bottomed woman named Mary was big, easy and delicious.
The Whittier College Choir traveled to New Orleans over the first weekend of Spring Break to sing a little, do a tiny amount of community service and spend copious amounts of time wandering the boozy, Jazz-filled streets. Naturally, I was ecstatic at the prospect of visiting this town with my fellow choir members and reviewing its culinary delights. It has been hailed as the food capital of America by numerous cooking magazines. Naturally, as most things that are supposed to be the best, it wasn’t.
My first meal was at Felix’s, an oyster bar. I did indulge in the slimy aphrodisiacs for the first time in my 18 years. Topped with cocktail sauce and jiggling on a saltine cracker, these phlegmy bad boys were not as unsavory as one might think. I also got a crawfish Po’ boy. My grandpa told me a story about Po’ boys. Apparently, their name comes from the people who used to eat them before they became a culinary specialty: poor boys. Add in some ol’ Louisiana twang and you got yo’ sef a Po’ boy. But now rich people eat them as well. This meal, while satiating an intense hunger that had grown from a long day of community service in the hot bayou sun, wasn’t that good. It was as tasty as any fried thing is.
Fried things do prevail. There is this place, Café du Monde, the first coffee shop at the French Market, that only sells coffee and beignets. Beignets are little fried squares of dough covered in a sweet dusting of powdered sugar. I felt compelled to wait in a line behind the sunburnt backs of other tourists to taste this New Orleans specialty.
However, when I took that first bite, I was not met with a rapturous taste-bud symphony. Instead, powdered sugar shot down my windpipe, causing me to cough up some iced café au lait that I had seen poured into my cup, ready-made, from a plastic jug. The beignet was a dense, chewy, lardy-tasting thing. I really did like the café au lait though. Once again, like Felix’s, I had been let down.
Although my first attempts had left me discouraged, I didn’t want to give up on the Crescent City. I got a praline and it was yummy. I had a crawfish sausage and that was pretty tasty. I had ham from the famous restaurant, Mother’s. It tasted like ham, and not even famous ham at that. Each new food foray just left me disappointed.
Thankfully, New Orleans distracted me from its culinary shortcomings. The romantic architecture in the French Quarter left me spinning in circles, pointing and saying repeatedly, “Look at that balcony!” A journey down infamous Bourbon Street left me contrarily wishing for and fearful of the day I turn 21, and wondering how to clap my butt cheeks together. A sobering drive through the Ninth Ward left me thankful and shaken, especially the hollow cement skeleton of an elementary school, its sign still reading “Welcome Back! School starts August 30, 2005!” The heady, herbal interior of an authentic voodoo shop left me with a little handmade doll, two pins and some witchdoctor power. Although my palate disagrees, the city was fascinating, beautiful, and disgusting with a heavy aura of eerie.
And so, this snowball was my calming Sunday escape. I rode the streetcar to Tulane’s campus, a picturesque, scholarly, very green place, and started wandering through the surrounding neighborhoods. The houses that inhabit them are immense, grandiose, so utterly and quintessentially Southern. They do not have porches, they have verandas. And grand foyers and magnolia trees and three stories. While wandering, we came across a park that was equally as Southern as the houses surrounding it. A pond lay in the center, surrounded by acres of velvet grass, trees hung heavy with Spanish moss, their delicate tendrils quivering when one of the numerous laughing children stumbles by.
It was here that Mary’s cart was parked, this oasis from the overwhelming urbanity that lay a seven minute street car ride down the tracks. There were no stumbling drunks. There were no butt-cheek clapping strippers. There wasn’t a sign proclaiming that these were the best snowballs in the U.S. of A. But after that first sweet, icy bite, I’m pretty sure they are.