Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The New Orleans Food Obsession Marches On With the Saints

When the Saints are playing, New Orleans is eating.
Ian McNulty
When the Saints are playing, New Orleans is eating.

For players and coaches, a football game starts long before kickoff. The same holds true for the food-minded Saints fan. For such fans, it starts with choosing what to cook and devoting the hands-on work to ensure a victorious feast.

It's really no wonder. Take the enthusiasm of the Who Dat Nation, add south Louisiana's endemic passion for food and the results are predictably over the top.

Just check out the action around the Dome on the day of any home game. There are some who say New Orleans isn't a great tailgating town, simply because we don't have those endless stretches of tailgating fields that surround some stadiums. But the food-minded Saints fan finds a way.

The work-a-day parking lots of the CBD are transformed into ad hoc outdoor kitchens while other bands of friends stake out space between, and under, the highway approaches belting the Dome. Aromatic smoke blooms everywhere. Follow it, and you'll find giant vats of gumbo or red beans set over hissing gas jets, great tureens of meaty jambalaya, even clattering hampers of whole crabs roiling in spicy boil. This isn't chili dogs and party subs. This is the cooking of the Louisiana home and camp transported to the field of football glory and decked in black and gold.

Such displays are hardly limited to the Dome scene or, for that matter, to home games. Travel across town to a friend's party or your favorite sports bar as the countdown to kickoff nears, and the signs of this city's collective feast in the making are everywhere. You'll see women in Saints jerseys loading casseroles and foil-wrapped chaffers into their cars with all the delicacy of securing a toddler in a child seat, while next door a pair of buddies wrestle a smoker down from the porch for a better spot on the lawn. Guys on bicycles pedal past, their handlebars stacked with pillowing bundles of groceries and maybe a 12-pack up there for good measure. At some homes the cluster of attention around the stove before the game is nearly as intense as the cluster around the TV during it.

It's conventional wisdom among some that the best possible time to hit a grocery store is while a game is on. Why, you'll practically have the whole store to yourself as the city is otherwise fixated, or so the thinking goes. But after some recent recon, I believe this bit of conventional wisdom needs a rethink. The stores are slow all right, but at some the game is being broadcast over the PA and for many of the employees, updates on the action are as close as their mobile phones. The cashier straining to hear a first-down call above the register noise may offer the slowest service this side of City Hall. And that elderly lady who turns to you for help in the aisle? She might not ask if your long arms can reach that high shelf but rather if your young ears heard who made that last reception.

And woe to the disinterested shopper caught in the aisles at halftime, when the food-minded Saints fans descend in driving, juking droves, determined to get that emergency ration of French bread or a few more pounds of hot sausage to take the feast through the second half. After all, as any seasoned Saints fan knows, with this team you must be ready for the long haul.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.