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San Francisco by the bay. New Orleans by the bowl.

April 29 2008 | What's New

By John DeMers

If you're eating right now, you might be seeing us that way already. Gazing down hungrily into a bowl of dark brown seafood or chicken gumbo, butter-lush crawfish or shrimp etouffee, scarlet shrimp or chicken Creole, a heaping helping of jambalaya made from everything in the kitchen. You might like experiencing New Orleans by the bowl, as long as the bowls keep coming.

But as the author of a new cookbook titled New Orleans by the Bowl, I invite you to look a little deeper than what's in front of you now. For New Orleans cuisine is, by many accounts, the world's ultimate bowl cuisine. In more ways than one.

For starters, New Orleans cooking is "bowl cuisine" because it shows up at our tables so readily and dramatically in a bowl. As parts of that global tradition also called "pot cooking," both the Creole and Cajun styles beloved in the Crescent City find their happiest expression in something other than a flat dinner plate. The best foods New Orleans has to offer are slow-cooked in plenty of liquid that becomes sauce or, better still, gravy, lovingly watched and stirred by people who probably learned more from their mothers, grandmothers and aunts than they ever learned in culinary school. The result, as I learned researching my book with chef Andrew Jaeger, is a collection of gumbos, jambalayas, soups and stews second to none found on the face of this earth.

In other words, dishes cooked in deep pots are best served in deep bowls. If you were born in New Orleans, as I was, you know this intuitively. If you are among our millions of visitors you learn it quickly, completely and forever. We'll go with you to learn it, if you like. We'll eat with you and drink with you. Every so often, we might even pick up the check.

Still, for true New Orleanians who have lived through the evolutions and profound social shifts of the past 50 years, the very words "bowl cuisine" can and do take on a meaning deeper than our next meal. The greatest truth of bowl cooking is that many old things go into the pot - and one new thing comes out. It's a thing that seldom is perfect, a ragtag blend of effort, meaning, fallibility and passion, ever dreaming farther than its reach. But what comes out of this pot in New Orleans is something new. Something soul-satisfying. Something we might dare call admirable.

Into the pot that fills the bowls we enjoy here, the lives French, Spanish, African, Sicilian, Irish, German, Greek, Croatian and others are poured, in a real slow recipe requiring... oh, a little over 300 years. Out of the pot, and into our expectant bowls, comes a dish as full of flavor as it is of our deepest shared truths.

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