Whether it be the simplicity of a Café du Monde beignet with its warm doughy center covered with so much powdered sugar that you might breathe it in or the complexity of a home-cooked spicy chicken and sausage gumbo that has been built upon layers and layers of spicy rich flavors, New Orleans cuisine is second to none.
My favorite memories of being raised in New Orleans involve food. For a few years before Katrina, my family started a new tradition of attending Christmas Eve mass at St. Louis Cathedral followed by a beautiful dinner at Antione’s. No place exemplifies classic New Orleans cuisine better than Antoine’s, an establishment that has existed since 1840 with a history so thick you can feel it when you walk through its doors. This tradition of ours was fairly new however some families have kept the annual Christmas Eve at Antoine’s for much longer than us some even had the same waiter for many years. We found this out one year when the maitre’d had offered us a better table because the famous New Orleans family of football, The Mannings’ would not be attending. My family, consisting of my mom, dad, older sister and her fiancé, myself and my younger sister, excitedly followed the Maitre’d to the prized table at the center of the Large Annex Room, one of the most beautiful rooms in Antoine’s decorated to the nines for Christmas. We felt special having the opportunity to grace the table that the Mannings’ had dined at for many years.
Just about the time when our first appetizers came out, we found out the Mannings did arrive albeit late but they made it and probably didn’t expect the Macaluso family to be occupying their table. Archie Manning and family coolly took another table at the end of the dining room not making a big deal of the situation. We felt awful anyway. My dad told the waiter that we would certainly move tables if there were any issue at all which he assured us there were not. Still feeling like imposters now sitting the Manning’s table as they were shoved over at the far end of the Large Annex Room on Christmas Eve, my father, always with the best of manners and pure sense of class, sent over a bottle of wine to the Manning’s as a peace offering in case they were secretly enraged. They nodded and smiled from across the room in thanks and each family went on with their dinners. My husband likes to tell people of this story even though he was not there. He likes to say, “the Macaluso’s stole the Manning’s table on Christmas Eve!”
Back to the divine meal, my father treated us and did it right by ordering a variety of appetizers, so we could try as much as possible. We would start with Antoine’s own Oysters Rockefeller, an oyster on the half shell topped with a sauce made of a puree of green vegetables and breadcrumbs and then baked. The baked oyster would melt in your mouth but then you would get a salty crunch from the toppings. My dad also ordered the classics: Shrimp Remoulade, Crab Ravigote, and Oysters Bienville. Shrimp Remoulade always excited the taste buds with its spicy tang combined with the fresh tenderness of the shrimp. The creamy richness of the Crab Ravigote has always been a favorite of mine. The Oysters Bienville I don’t remember as much as the others not because it wasn’t delicious but more because in those days I was much more cautious of oysters and it is possible that my young palate passed it up. By this point, we would all be laughing and talking as well as a bit tipsy. My dad would treat us to cocktails of our choice and then pick out wines to pair with our entrees. My older sister and I were well above drinking age and as for my sister 7 years younger than I…well she may have been 17 or something but its New Orleans. Everyone over the age of 15 or 16 should partake in a cocktail at Antoine’s certainly on Christmas Eve. My mother had a Cape Cod with a twist of lime, my older sister something sweet like an amaretto sour, for myself I’m sure it was a Kettle One dirty martini up, extra dirty with olives, my little sister probably had a Poinsetta, a glass of champagne with a hint of cranberry juice, and my father would be drinking Kettle One on the rocks with perhaps anchovy stuffed olives with extras for snacking.
Our meal would last for hours as we would have a more than a day’s worth of food to consume and plenty to drink. My dad would let us order exactly what we wanted never hindering us with the quantity or the cost as long as he could have a taste. My mom treated herself on this occasion but was generally the opposite of my dad in that she would eat very light and never want us to over order. Her appetite was no match for my dad’s or for her three food loving daughters who certainly took after their father’s Sicilian side. I recall ordering the classic Pompano en Papillote, which is another Antoine’s original recipe made by baking a filet of pompano in a sealed parchment paper envelope with a sauce of white wine, shrimp and crabmeat. The dish was made for a Brazilian balloonist, who was honored at a banquet at Antoine’s. The chef Jules Alciatore used the idea of baking the fish in parchment paper in order to have the paper steam up on the inside to create a balloon shape or hot air balloon. Pompano en Papillote, almost sensual in its name, is a simple delicate creation that may be considered outdated but when eating this at its home you feel connected to the history of Antione’s and its cuisine.
My family ordered mostly fish except for my now brother-in-law who may have partook in the prime tenderloin of beef. The ladies enjoyed some of the many simple items from the menu of Poissons. Some of our entrees included the fried filet of trout with toasted sliced almonds and a lemon butter sauce, the grilled trout with crawfish tails and shrimp in a white wine sauce, and the soft shell crab fried in a light batter with a hot melted butter sauce. My dad ordered a couple of side dishes to go with our entrees. Our favorite was the Pommes des Terres Soufflees or the classic Antoine puffed potato or even more simply the most delicious French fried potato you have ever had. The potatoes are served in large white cone propped inside of a drinking glass, the perfect compliment to your fish or beef. Along with our meal, we enjoyed a side of the steamed asparagus with butter and the spinach in a cream sauce.
The finale to our meal, the dessert, was a Baked Alaska another dated menu item, some may say, but it feeds a whole table and is still delicious. We also split a few different desserts-that was something we always did. It made us feel better because half the time we just wanted a taste of the dessert, and never could finish the whole thing after everything we ate during the meal. After our feast, we would gladly take family pictures by the enormous tree in the dining room holding in our overstuffed bellies. As a family of women except for my dad of course, we all took pride in our chosen outfits for Christmas Eve as if it were our own fashion show, so my dad never struggled to get us to take family pictures. We would get in the best pose to flatter ourselves and ask my dad to take it long ways to get our whole outfit and our shoes. My dad would do it no questions asked. He has always been proud of his girls.
We walked out of Antoine’s into the cool New Orleans night through the French Quarter filled with the sounds of a talented tap dancer on the corner or a saxophonist playing a Christmas carol. We would happily make our way to the car and then back across the Crescent City Connection to our home in Algiers where I spent the most of my young life from age 11 to 17. I probably ran upstairs to privately call my boyfriend, now husband, who was then at home in Philadelphia celebrating the holidays. Later my mom would distribute our annual matching Christmas pajamas that we would willingly put on for the night and then we actually would sing Christmas carols while my dad or my older sister played the piano-they both are quite musically inclined. The best part was that my dad would have already made his Christmas gumbo. The smells would fill the house as it was simmering away on the stove for Christmas day when everyone would come over but we would have a late night sample even after the obscenely large meal from Antoine’s-there is always a bit more room for some gumbo!
Enjoy your family traditions-whatever they may be or start a new tradition to call your own this holiday season.