It so happens that last year I was engaged in a sandwich battle. In case this is a new concept to you, it involves the exchange of tantalisingly captioned snaps of lunchtime one-upmanship, home-made of course. Spontaneity is the soul of this competition, so when an idea strikes, the fridge and the supermarket are your only real arsenal. My genre was to be the Cajun jumble of flavours of the Old World and New, so I had diversity on my side, but still, my nearest Tesco at the time was not in a Southern swamp (it’s actually on some of Oxford’s higher ground, and doesn’t tend to flood like so much of the rest of town).
My sights were set on the po’ boy, a hungry man’s dream and a cardiologist’s nightmare. A monstrous version of the sub, which has regional variations all over the US, it combines French bread with a family meal’s worth of seafood or meat, and, etymologically a Deep South pronunciation of “poor boy”, makes an Englishman like me sound quite the idiot when ordering one in New Orleans. Mumbling those words had been the height of my embarrassment on a previous visit; wearily accepting my fate at the all-night bar a block down from my hotel, and ravenous enough after a purely liquid meal or two, I spluttered out the consonants in the vain hope of avoiding having to affect a drawl.
Excruciating – and quite the telling demonstration of the uniquely British nuances and idiosyncrasies of social interaction. Meanwhile, the night involving the sorority, sugared beignets, state politician, and use of the window as a method of egress from a moving vehicle, felt perfectly pedestrian as it settled lower down in my memory. Perhaps this was a more of a reflection on me and the iniquitous town I was in. The awkwardness of Albion was just the third member of a messy moral ménage a trois.
With Ofcom receiving complaints about such daydreams before the watershed, I snapped back to seafood sourcing. Finding no oysters available nearby, quite possibly extinct after a certain takeaway order I had placed in New Orleans, I opted for the traditional shrimp option, thought about glancing at a recipe, but I had disturbing visions of lists and numbers, so armed with the knowledge that I had eaten one before, I just cracked on.
Mourning the loss of her husband to heart failure in his twenties, a lonely Louisiana belle laments in the animated comedy King of the Hill that “the Louisiana diet will kill a man as surely as a sword”. She is not lying. During my stay in the Crescent City I was served quantities of sea creatures (all deep fried) which would make European fisheries policy implode in disbelief, and learned that half a fried chicken can be a side dish.
I had been plunging into the Louisiana equivalent of a Sunday roast – red beans and rice. As I discovered, foolishly thinking I was just grabbing a modest bite to eat before heading to the airport to fly back to London, the name of the dish is a lie of omission. There are indeed beans and rice in it, but also various kinds of pork. Imagine my surprise when, as a gargantuan platter of the stew was placed in front of me, I was also handed a bowl to help myself to the salad bar – of the uniquely-American jelly cube and mayonnaise variety. I thought I’d lost my mind when my waitress followed up by asking whether I wanted white or dark meat as my Southern-fried accompaniment.
No doubt the path to an early grave, but that grave will be double-width, containing a dead man with a smile on his face. Bring it on.
In my kitchen, the fried shrimp po’ boy’s foundations were laid with a hearty chunk of French bread, crunchy outside and fluffy within. Splitting it open, I couldn’t suppress a chuckle at the ridiculous thought that it would ever close again. I piled it high with hot king prawns, straight from the oil and cooked in a batter which had ended up with some leftover panko breadcrumbs along with the usual suspects. Out of the fridge came the bowl of the remoulade I had mixed up earlier. Cajun remoulade is nothing fancy, but it is tasty. It’s the condiment of choice for seafood in the region, and unlike many variants it’s packed full of spices which turn it an orangey colour, and contains a ton of chopped peppers, chillies, herbs and garlic. Drizzling is not quite the word – I liberally drenched my sizzling shrimp in the stuff, before flinging in a small garden of shredded lettuce and a few slices of tomato.
Beautiful, gut-busting, foreign, but feasible, the po’ boy is something so intimately connected with Louisiana culture, and yet eminently doable in our alligator-free climes. Cajun food is, admittedly, like everything else in the Crescent City and its environs, a melting pot; body parts from every European kingdom whose men ever set foot there have been stitched together and reanimated with voodoo to create an unholy beast which will drag your healthy body straight to hell – and it’s devilishly good.
And I reckon that with a little imagination there are plenty of other cuisines you can concoct in your kitchen laboratory, even with the limitations of the supermarket.
The meal wouldn’t have been complete without a NOLA cocktail, so I mixed up a post-prandial Sazerac. Ingredients? While often made with rye, I followed the original recipe and drained a chilled glass of brandy and absinthe. Get started on that wide-load coffin. I’m off to the French Quarter.
How to endanger your life with a sandwich:
I’m not one for prescribing quantities, but here’s something approximating a recipe. Most of it is self-explanatory, but:
Don’t mess around with the batter. This is bayou cookout, not trendy tempura. Don’t be afraid to make it pretty heavy; just make sure you really get it golden and crispy. Nobody likes a soggy sandwich. Soggy batter in a sandwich is just horrendous.
Give your prawns, oysters, or catfish you caught grabblin’ out back a good solid dunk, then fling them in sizzling oil until they’re crunchy.
The remoulade is mayonnaise, made orange. Let that be your guiding principle. Start with a dollop, and chuck in some standard smoky BBQ sauce, cayenne, fistfuls of chopped garlic, parsley, red pepper, chilli, spring onion, Dijon mustard and the juice of half a lemon. All to taste.
Slice some tomato, shred some lettuce, and heap seafood upon a split open baguette, drench in sauce, garnish with slabs of tomato and a sea of lettuce, and don’t even think about trying to fit it in your mouth.
Enjoy while listening to the bayou blues of Mr Tab Benoit, and keep your eyes on the prize – a Sazerac to finish you off if you’re still standing to drink it.