Bust out the beignets and crack open the crawfish, because Tuesday is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which is celebrating its tricentennial this year. And whether you know a krewe from a king cake, you’re no doubt savvy to the fact that the food characteristic to the region — generally defined as Creole and/or Cajun — is worth celebrating.
Scott Ghormley, owner of Rhythm Kitchen on Decatur Boulevard, said there’s a simple reason the cuisine is so highly regarded.
“It’s the blend of cultures,” Ghormley said. “You initially had the Spanish and the French; they were settling people in that area at different times in the early days. And then they brought in the Africans, so that was another culture. And then a lot of Germans settled in the area, too; that’s where the sausages and a lot of the smoked foods came from.”
In some cases, he said, the blending of cultures is literal. Jambalaya, for example, is a “hodge-podge of French and African,” with the first part reflecting the French word for ham — jambon — and the second referencing an African word for rice — yaya — a New Orleans truism that historians have been reluctant to endorse. What has been proven is this:
“It created something,” Ghormley said, “that exists nowhere else on earth.”
Lola Pokorny, owner of Lola’s A Louisiana Kitchen, which has locations on Charleston Boulevard and Town Center Drive, said there’s a misconception that Creole and Cajun food is by definition spicy.
“It’s just seasoned well,” she said. “It’s seasoned with every layer.”
Ghormley is a Las Vegas native, but his parents hailed from Louisiana. When his mother opened The Hush Puppy in 1973, he said, she tried to serve Creole and Cajun food, “but people didn’t get it.”
They did get the catfish, for which the family would travel to Louisiana several times a year.
“My father was such a visionary, bringing catfish out west,” Ghormley said.
Things were different by the time he opened Rhythm Kitchen in 2009.
“Since Katrina, so many New Orleans people got relocated out here, there are a lot of people who are familiar,” he said. “People here are more in tune with the culture and food of Louisiana than they are in other places, like California and Arizona. That’s who our main customers are. They know what to look for and what to compare it to.”
Pokorny is a native of New Orleans who grew up in Monroe, Louisiana.
“I got the best of both worlds,” she quipped.
Pokorny said there was no lack of familiarity when she opened the first Lola’s in 2009; some of her customers, she said, are members of the medical community who went to school in New Orleans.
“The larger percentage of Louisiana people who came to try our cuisine realized it was as authentic as it can be without being in New Orleans,” she said. “There’s some people who hesitate to go and actually experience the cuisine, because they’re so often disappointed.”
As an example, she cites the various versions of a favorite Mardi Gras- season dessert.
“We do the traditional king cake, from my recipe — not the cinnamon-roll version you see now,” Pokorny said. Hers, she said, is a sweet dough bread that’s either plain or has a cream cheese or praline filling. They make them in-house, and last year sold about 60 (call to pre-order).
Ghormley said he imports the king cakes sold and served at Rhythm Kitchen from Louisiana, bringing in 100 last year and planning to add about 50 this year. He’s selling them whole and will be serving them Tuesday at his Mardi Gras party and 10th annual crawfish boil, complete with DJ with New Orleans music.
Pokorny said Lola’s, too, will have a big party complete with specials, including turtle soup.
“If you’re lucky enough to be there early enough,” she said, “you might be able to get in on some alligator nuggets.
Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.