I was born and raised in New Orleans. I grew up in the West Bank, which is basically the New Jersey of New Orleans. It's a little more suburban and sketchy. We have a huge family—my family is Isleño, so they're from the Canary Islands. My parents are one of six siblings and one of eight.
Thanksgiving is a really special time for me, and I think a lot of people feel like that in New Orleans. There's a lot of sense memory and childhood memory wrapped up in there, because there are very specific foods that we eat. We always had big, big Thanksgivings. Shrimp and mirliton dressing is the number one for me. People also put ham in it, but my family added ground pork. It's an all-day thing where you even make the shrimp stock.
New Orleans Thanksgivings have a lot of regional dishes—that was what made my childhood Thanksgivings really special. There are tons of regional dishes. They're mostly just dressing, but they're fun and weird. Stuffed bell peppers and stuffed mirlitons are really popular here during the holidays. There are a lot of rice dressings, but there are bread stuffings too. We use the words "stuffing" and "dressing" interchangeably. You know both words are referring to some crazy savory casserole with some breadcrumbs on top. If you're a grandma, Italian breadcrumbs for sure.
If you put a frozen turkey into a vat of hot oil, it shoots into the air like a geyser. Now there are PSAs in New Orleans about frying turkeys in your backyard.
My grandma would kill me if I didn't show up for Thanksgiving. It would be bad news. She doesn't make food from the Canary Islands, though; the only food that I make that's from there is wrinkled potatoes. A lot of the food is similar to Portuguese food. Wrinkled potatoes are what I make when I go to the beach. Traditionally, you would use water that's from the ocean to boil the potatoes. You use small new red potatoes, and they shrivel and get raisin-y looking. Then you serve those with salsa verde or a red mojo, or even just butter and mojo—that's what I like a lot. I kinda like to make a more Cuban-style dish with lime. That's really it, though.
My favorite New Orleans-style Thanksgiving dish is the mirliton dressing. It's chayote squash—they call it mirliton or alligator pear—and it's kind of flavorless, but you cook it down with a little ground meat and make shrimp stock. Then you add lots and lots of shrimp, ground pork, dry bread, and then whatever your special Cajun seasoning may be. That's it; it's amazing. I have a huge fondness for super intense shellfish and shrimp flavor, so that dish is a standout for me. Plus, it just gets better and better over time. It's even good after you microwave it. Spread a little on turkey and other leftovers—it's great.
We always had big parties, potluck-style, where everybody brings a side. It's pretty traditional in the States, but in New Orleans there's oyster dressing, dirty rice, jambalaya, fried turkey—of course, because everyone fries turkey here. We'd fry them out in the backyard, and that was when people didn't know you couldn't deep-fry a frozen turkey. My brother once created an explosion. If you put a frozen turkey into a vat of hot oil, it shoots into the air like a geyser. It's pretty dangerous.
Our neighbors have all had those experiences, too. Now there are PSAs in New Orleans about frying turkeys in your backyard. I think the cool thing about that is that it comes out of the boil culture here. Everyone has a propane burner and a big pot. In most places, you wouldn't find that, so I think that's why the fried turkey thing has taken off here. You just have to buy five gallons of peanut oil. People blanch and brine the turkeys—a lot of different ways to get them really tasty. The main thing is that you can't use a seasoning with any kind of sugar content in it because it turns your turkey black. I've eaten quite a few black turkeys in New Orleans. People get these cool seasoning rub ideas, but then they end up with a black skin. It still tastes good, though.
Paul Prudhomme made a whole career off of blackened food.
I was living in Chicago for the four years after Hurricane Katrina hit. When I couldn't get back to New Orleans for Thanksgiving the first year after the storm, I was pretty depressed about it. So I figured, I'm making as much food and all the dishes I would expect to have, and I invited all the other orphans out. That first Thanksgiving in Chicago right after Katrina was the best and the worst one ever in some ways. It's good we made it into something really nice. I had a few friends there from New Orleans, and we made all those dishes that we really loved. We started it off with ten magnums of Prosecco for about ten people. That was a rowdy, drunk disaster where everyone was asleep by seven o'clock. My wife called it a day at 4 PM that year.
It was hard breaking from the very family-friendly Thanksgivings that I'm pretty accustomed to. That was about as wild as my Thanksgivings have ever been.
I have heard that the night before Thanksgiving is actually the busiest bar night of the year. But I will tell you this: it depends on what your audience is. I think our bars are a little on the fancier side, so our crowd isn't really the coming-home-from-college types. Our major draw is people a little younger than me, and those people already have houses and things they have to do on Thanksgiving. We have a little bit better of a night than we normally do, but I think the bars that cater to younger people and Millennials kill it. The people at those bars basically are just going to get out of bed the next day, all bleary-eyed, and eat their food.
For us, though, we just don't see it. It's the same thing for football games. You just want to eat oysters and drink cheap beer; you don't want a Manhattan. And that's totally good, because I don't either.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2014.