Alton Brown's Love Affair with Louisiana Cooking
In an exclusive interview, Alton Brown, the star of Good Eats, host of Iron Chef and author of I’m Just Here for the Food, discusses a few of his favorite things about Louisiana cuisine.
Editor: You’ve traveled a lot, both for your television shows and books. Compared to other states you’ve visited, what is so special about dining in Louisiana?
AB: The flavors are great and the history behind the dishes are wonderful, but the thing that you carry away as a lasting impression is hospitality. We talk a lot about Southern hospitality, but I find that what I encounter in Louisiana is a deeper, more genuine joy of life there. Taking care of visitors is a genuine kind of soul-warming experience that stays with you for a long time. I haven’t experienced that feeling anywhere else, quite like that.
Editor: Why do you think that is?
AB: It’s built into the culture and the heritage of the place. Whereas in other parts of the South it may be this frosting—this veneer of charm, and underneath is the regular day-to-day world that so many other folks live in—in Louisiana there’s a genuineness to it. I’ve traveled a lot of places and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcomed at a table as I have in various places in Louisiana. I can’t say where that particular magic comes from. Does it come from the very particular cultural heritage of people there as they came there together in history, which is such a unique story? I don’t know what it is. It’s tangible, and is as unique and distinctly American as the jazz that comes out of the nightclubs in New Orleans.
Editor: What are some of the more memorable meals you’ve had while traveling throughout Louisiana?
AB: Holy smokes… this will make me have to break out a map in my head. My favorite food in the state has been at little roadside joints whose names have been forgotten by me. Roadside diners, roadhouses, little restaurants that are tucked in small towns. You can wax rhapsodic about New Orleans cuisine and gosh knows, there’s no finer food city in the United States than New Orleans, and certainly no better place to drink in the world than the classic bars in New Orleans. But there are thousands of little family restaurants where you talk to people that are third and fourth generations of owners of restaurants that have been handed down along family lines. Those are the places that really give backbone to what Louisiana cuisine is.
Editor: The state is famous for its Cajun and Creole cuisines. What are some other aspects to Louisiana food that visitors might not know?
AB: I’ve had surprisingly great Italian food in Louisiana, and I don’t know why. I’ve gone to little bitty joints where I’ve had the best spaghetti and meatballs. I won’t talk about barbecue because I’ve spent so much time in the South, that it’s like I expect barbecue everywhere that mosquitos live, but the barbecue culture in Louisiana has been a big surprise to me. I’ve probably eaten my body’s weight in crawfish there, which I believe is finer than lobster. I don’t go down there to try new things; I go down there to have what nobody else can do.
Editor: What do you mean?
AB: It’s where you find decent étouffée and Cajun food. Good Cajun sausage. I go down there for strawberries in spring, which I believe are better than just about anywhere else in the world. You can’t get a decent Sazerac anywhere else. I go for the same reason everyone else does. I’m not trying to discover new foods there, I’m there to delve into heritage I rely on.
Editor: Speaking of heritage, what do you think of the culture that’s developed around seafood and fishing?
AB: I’ve spent a lot of time way south of New Orleans, and I’m fascinated by the Delta culture. People do think about what is “local” a different way down there; they draw a very tight circle around what that is. People who live on Lake Pontchartrain think of local very differently from those who live right at the mouth of the river.
Editor: I recently spoke with a chef from Alexandria who said he wouldn’t serve oysters because he was afraid he couldn’t get them fresh, even though the town’s just 100 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
AB: I find that charming. It just goes to show that communities absorb what they have locally and don’t disseminate it too widely.
You better start planning your culinary trip to Louisiana by downloading the free Louisiana Inspiration Guide. In the mean time, dive into Louisiana's eight distinct culinary regions to discover restaurants, food tours, recipes and more.