With so many incredible restaurants and food choices, it’s impossible to go hungry in New Orleans. One of the best ways to learn about what you’re eating and do some sightseeing along the way is via a food tour or, better yet, a food history tour.
I had the pleasure of joining a Doctor Gumbo food history tour, a 3-hour mobile feast through the French Quarter, and I highly recommend that you do the same.
Note that your food history tour itinerary and dishes may be a bit different than what I experienced. You will learn far, far more than I’ve outlined here, and walk away with an entirely new appreciation for New Orleans foods.
Our group assembled at SoBou (which stands for “South of Bourbon”), where we first sampled some candied pecans as our guide, Lindsay, explained what we were about to experience on the tour. And she covered how pivotal moments in Louisiana’s history influenced its cuisine.
Pecan trees are one of the only nut species that is native to North America. The early American colonists, spying an opportunity for significant business due to the ability to ship pecans via the Mississippi River, planted vast numbers of groves in the New Orleans area. An industry was born.
Beignets and Bacon
Beignets were brought over to Louisiana by 18th-century colonists, and they’ve been a New Orleans staple ever since. Served fresh from the fryer, these deep-fried pastries can be savory or sweet.
A SoBou, ours were savory and included a dollop of slightly sweet cream cheese and bacon crumbles.
Speaking of bacon, when in NOLA, leave the diet at home. In addition to classic New Orleans foods, chefs have their spin on all things indulgent, including these little bacon-filled cones made out of (wait for it) bacon fat.
After we were finished eating at SoBou, many of us grabbed a cocktail in a plastic “go cup” from the bar (it is New Orleans, after all) and hit the road.
(Lots of) Hot Sauce
The good news is that you can try before you buy at Pepper Palace, and the bottles are labeled on a one to ten fire scale.
A stop here is an excellent chance to pick up a few souvenirs as the hot sauce is a staple around these parts. Lindsay explained that hot sauce became popular with the Cajuns as a way to cover up the gamey meat, basically.
These days, a myriad of flavor combinations and levels of spiciness are available to suit any palate. I’ve never seen so many bottles of hot sauce in one place. I brought home a bottle of their hottest sauce, “The End,” for my husband, who can seemingly withstand fire. He loves it, but one little toothpick dab set my mouth on fire.
They have a hot sauce waiver to sign in-store should you like to taste it on the spot.
Cream, sugar, and pecans never tasted so good. This slim, fudge-like dessert was brought to Louisiana by the French, and Leah’s Pralines makes them daily using recipes and techniques passed down for three generations.
Pralines also make excellent souvenirs, if you can resist eating them. And, I can vouch for Leah’s bacon pecan brittle, too.
You seriously can’t come to New Orleans without eating a po’boy. Lindsay told us that it’s all in the bread, not actually a true French baguette. It has a thin and crispy crust but a soft interior. The best and most common po’boy bread has been made for generations by a local company called Leidenheimer, founded by German immigrants.
Our catfish po’boy is from NOLA PoBoys on Bourbon Street. This one sample could have been a meal for me. And, it was so good.
Somehow, I missed the memo that the muffaletta sandwich is one of the many foods with New Orleans roots. They use an olive salad, a gorgeous round bread with a crispy crust and sesame seeds, provolone cheese, swiss cheese, ham, salami, and mortadella.
It was born in 1906 at Central Grocery out of convenience. Workers would come into the grocery for Sicilian lunches featuring the same ingredients though served separately. They had a hard time balancing all of the food on their trays, so the owner decided it was more convenient for all involved to prepare it all as a sandwich, slice it, and serve it. He named it the muffuletta after a favorite customer.
Grasshoppers and Brisket
Tujague’s (pronounced Two-Jacks) is totally the kind of place my husband and I would have sought out in New Orleans. Steeped in 160 years of history, it’s here that the grasshopper cocktail (which tastes like a glorious, slightly-boozy Thin Mint cookie) was born.
Another claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of brunch.
It’s the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans and has the oldest stand-up bar in the country. Here, we sampled melt-in-your-mouth brisket. I mean, it’s brisket like none-other.
No dish illustrates the West African, European, and Native American influence on New Orleans foods better than a bowl of gumbo. The name gumbo is mostly thought to have derived from the Bantu language for okra (ki ngombo). Okra was brought to the New World by West African slaves in the 1700s. When okra wasn’t available, its thickening properties were mimicked by filé powder (dried and ground leaves from the North American sassafras tree, a technique discovered by Choctaw Indians) or roux.
Gumbo is traditionally served with rice; a food also brought to the New World by Gambian rice farmers. It’s delicious history in a bowl, I tell you.
It can be thick or thin using a variety of shellfish, fowl, sausage, and greens. And, we tried it at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau restaurant on the edge of Jackson Square. It was our last stop, our tenth generous sample, and I was stuffed but so good that I had to eat it.
New Orleans Food Tour Takeaways
Between stops, we soaked up the glorious ambiance of the French Quarter. The Saints were playing the Panthers, and people remarked about how quiet the streets were. But, a quiet New Orleans street is incredibly festive by my standards. Plenty of people were out and about, and it was my first chance to take in the gorgeous architecture.
Try it; you’ll like it.
*I visited New Orleans in partnership with the New Orleans CVB but all opinions are certainly my own.