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Trend and Tradition in New Orleans

Ian McNulty
Pompano with crab meat and butter, a Creole classic at Galatoire's Restaurant.

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, La. –

It wasn't so long ago that discussions about dinner in New Orleans tended to focus not on what in the world to eat but on where in the city to get it.

The conventional wisdom was that so many restaurants here served essentially the same menu, so the question was which place made your favorite rendition. It wasn't that such restaurants were necessarily copying each other, but, rather, they all shared in a strong and highly localized culinary tradition. New Orleanians participated in this tradition at the table, and we evolved our own particular language, one that's still as intuitive today as ordering a po-boy "dressed" or just knowing, without so much as consulting a menu, that any French Creole restaurant surely will serve trout meuniere.

Lately, though, there's been a lot of new vocabulary in play around the restaurant scene here. And rather than being about New Orleans food in particular, much of it centers on the same trends and topics that have foodies around the nation talking.

Food trucks and pop-up restaurants, cupcakes and small plates, gastropubs and sliders, bacon everywhere, farm-to-table bona fides and craft cocktails - these hot national dining trends have been getting a lot of buzz in New Orleans these days, and they're part of the program at many of the new restaurants to open here in the past few years.

While earlier trends have cycled through the city in their turn, there are signs that today's crop might have greater sticking power than before. Consider the influx of new residents after Hurricane Katrina and the exposure locals had to the trends and dining scenes of other cities during their own prolonged Katrina evacuations. Then there's the drumbeat of national media food coverage and the hyper-connectivity of the wired generation with its constant online posting about the next new thing. Could it all be leading some mono-culture in the food world?

It's easy to see how this might concern people who care deeply about New Orleans food and feel a personal connection to its flavors and history. After all, restaurants that focus on the next new thing aren't doing much to introduce the next generation of New Orleanians to the heritage and tradition of their own home.

But here's why I'm not so worried about this myself. First, for all the buzz about trends, there is also plenty of fresh evidence of locals' ongoing affection for homegrown flavors. Look at the lines outside traditional po-boys shops, the surging popularity of local heritage crops at our farmers markets or the way New Orleans rallied to support local seafood after last year's Gulf oil disaster.

What's more, beyond being just a collection of individual traditional dishes, New Orleans cuisine has always been about blending different cultural influences. I believe this knack is part of our cuisine's very tradition itself. To this way of thinking, today's hot dining trends could provide the fodder for tomorrow's new twists on what New Orleans food can be. In the meantime, let's enjoy the one-of-a-kind food heritage we do have, and let's check out the trends that come our way with the discerning eye of a casting director, parsing what's silly or overblown and singling out the good ideas and great flavors that might just stick around to join the New Orleans tradition of adaptable edibles.

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