Treme and the “Magic” Food of New Orleans

The new HBO show Treme is getting a lot of attention. Not just because it is produced by David Simon, who brought us The Wire, which some TV critics (both professional and aspirants) have deemed the best TV show, ever; not just because America has a fascination with New Orleans, the closest city in the country that feels like the amusement parks we have come to confuse with reality; and not just because Americans like funny fat guys (John Goodman is one of the stars). But to a lesser extent because of the food references and food controversies that have snuck into the show.

In the first episode, which takes place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a chef runs out of dessert to serve and pulls out from her purse a pre-packaged Hubig’s pie. She hands it to her colleague and says to “dress it up.”

Of course, locals were quick to point out that Hubig’s pies weren’t available at that point in the city’s deluged post-apocalyptic environment. David Simon wrote an open letter to the city’s “fact-grounded literalists” that the pie was, in fact, a “Magic Pie,” a metaphor, likening it to the hocus pocus of materializing bread and fish in the New Testament.

It all got me thinking about the last time I was in New Orleans. It was Spring 2005, just a few months before the hurricane would hit, and my first (and only) time in the Big Easy. I didn’t want to stumble through the French Quarter holding a toxic, barely-drinkable concoction inside a plastic toy-like cup; I didn’t want any colorful beads; I didn’t even want anyone to show me their breasts. That is, unless they were chicken breasts. I came to eat. And in Biblical proportions. New Orleans, of course, is as famous for its debauchery, both in drink, merriment and in food. In fact, the cuisine here is so rich and artery hardening, restaurants should start replacing the after-dinner mint with a Lipitor.

Since it was our first time, my wife and I hit all the famous places: we split a catcher’s-mitt-sized meat-crammed muffuletta (olive salad, capicola, salami, mortadella, emmenntaler, and provolone all stuffed between two pieces of bread) at Central Grocery; we dined on staggeringly heart-stalling fare like Huitres a la Foch (fried oysters on toast buttered with foie gras and smothered in a rich Colbert sauce) at Antoine’s; we even trekked way out to Uptown to a place called Cooter Brown’s Tavern where we consumed dozens of raw oysters and tried to use the word “shuck” as frequently as possible.

And while I generally liked what I was eating, I hadn’t had a mouth-watering religious experience I’d hoped for. Maybe we hadn’t been going to the right places, I wondered. So on the morning of our final day, I read an article in the newspaper that the legendary restaurant Uglesich’s was finally going to turn off its burners for good. And despite balking a couple times at shuttering in the past, this time was for real.

Opened in 1924 by Croatian émigré Sam Uglesich, the Garden District restaurant soon built up a reputation for holier-than-though local fare like fried soft shell crab, fresh shrimp, plump oysters, and po’ boy sandwiches. Locals favored it for the fresh ingredients, not frozen seafood like some of the more famous guidebook-friendly restaurants had started using. Lines snaking around the corner were customary.

So, I wasn’t surprised when we walked up and saw the line going out the door. But when I walked around the corner, I was disheartened to see it went around another corner, deep into the parking lot. Jessie and I had four hours to get a bus to the airport so we figured we’d just spend our last remaining time waiting to eat. We got in line and after a few minutes, drinks began arriving. Strong, boozy cocktails. I met Steve, in line behind us, a computer programmer from San Jose. And Jerry, a local who had been coming here for years. Soon enough we were toasting. It didn’t even matter that the minute hand on my watch was moving much faster than the line.

A few hours later, we’d moved up in line, but barely enough to even see the door. It was a decisive moment. It was the time we would have to leave to catch the bus to the airport. But as I watched pot-bellied diners stumble out of the restaurant, deeply satisfying post-prandial looks on their faces, I decided we should take the chance. When we finally got inside, it was pure havoc: kitchen workers scrambling around, orders being screamed out, and diners furiously consuming saucy dishes at the formica-topped tables. And then suddenly ancient Anthony Uglesich, the patriarch of the family restaurant, who’s grey and balding and built like a beer can, was staring at me, pen and paper in hand, awaiting our order.

By the time our food came, we had minutes to jump in a cab and plead with the driver to break speeding laws. Sitting with our new friends, Bob and Jerry, the tabletop was crammed with something that looked like a shrimp version of Monty Python’s famous Spam skit: There was the Asian-inspired Volcano Shrimp, Shrimp Uggie, the Asian-Creole voodoo shrimp, spicy Angry Shrimp, crab meat-stuffed shrimp, something called Paul’s Fantasy (trout topped with, you guessed it, shrimp) and, finally, crawfish-laced etouffee. Jessie and I, with an eye on the clock, piled the food in our mouth.

We did make our flight. Barely. The last passengers to board. On the plane I had a few hours of idle time to think about what I’d just eaten-each dish had a bold, rich flavor and was clearly the best meal of the long weekend-I wondered why the food was so satisfying. Was it really that good? Or was it the “magic” of travel-to borrow the food phrase form David Simon-that made the food taste better? Was it enhanced by the experience of travel, which tends to allows us to exoticise and fetishize even the most mundane things, activities, and experiences in the place we’re visiting?

I’ll never know. Uglesich’s really did close for good after that weekend. And, four months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, which would have certainly inspired the Uglesich family it was time to hang up the apron and move on to more idle, less magical things.

David Farley is author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.