Dozen Best Months For Eating In New Orleans
The idea that most foodstuffs are better at certain times of year than others was just about to disappear in the 1970s. We were saved by a movement among cooks toward using only what was in season in their kitchens. That shift took several decades to take over thoroughly, but now no self-respecting chef would dream of serving crawfish in September, broccoli in July, or blackberries in November.
New Orleans has so many seasonal local foods that the changing of the calendar pages is inexorably connected with new flavors coming to the fore, after being missing (and missed) for months. But some months have more and better foods in season than others.
There’s an infallible way to tell when seafood and produce have reached their peaks. When the price bottoms out, that’s the time to buy. That’s when the item in question is in greatest supply and best quality. The money you save is a bonus.
Here is what I believe are the top twelve months for eating in these parts. I would have added more, but we always limit ourselves to the top dozen.
1. May. The food scene in May gets off to a running start, with the Jazz Festival already past its first weekend. Crawfish are at their peak in most years. Soft-shell crabs have been great for a month, but by now the prices have come down, and even restaurants that are usually afraid to buy them do so. Oysters are just beginning to moderate after their best months, but are still big and meaty. At the end of the month is the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, the best and last big feastival before summer sets in.
2. April. The happiness of Easter is reflected in the explosion of spring food and festivals. In most years (but not the strangely cool 2013!), the soft-shell crabs come from nowhere to become the biggest and best of the year. Warm weather is the trigger. Oysters are magnificent. The crawfish are big and cheap enough to boil or for making crawfish bisque. The French Quarter Festival–the biggest food event of the year, if not the best–puts hundreds of thousands of eaters on the streets. Every weekend, a half-dozen or more smaller festivals go off with tons of great eats.
3. December. As in every other sphere, Christmas and the other year-end holidays dominate the eating scene, giving us permission to feast in the most indulgent ways. The Reveillon season begins on the first of the month, with dozens of seasonal, historic menus in the restaurants. December is also the month of wines. You have permission to open the good ones. And the month of baking: bread, pies, puddings, and all the rest of it.
4. November. The eating calendar is dominated by Thanksgiving, of course. We eat not only more turkey than the rest of the year, but many more ducks. No time of year is better for vegetables, particularly those in the cabbage and squash families. In the water, white shrimp and pompano are still as good as they get. If we a very lucky, the first crawfish appear right around the time we eat the last of the turkey gumbo.
5. October. All of a sudden, the town is very busy, and restaurants are full. You can dine on the sidewalk or in the courtyard again. Just when we thought soft-shell crabs were finished, here comes their surprise second season for another month or two. A lot of crabmeat and fish out there, at affordable prices. Oysters begin to bulk up, but only as fast as the water cools down. Lots of great vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli and their kin. And the food festivals, all but forgotten since June, fire up again.
6. March. In most years, March eating is dominated by Lent–whether you’re a Catholic or not. But where’s the penance? Oysters are as good as they get, crawfish are around in large enough numbers to do a boil, and speckled trout remain on many menus. Every Friday in church parishes around town are fried catfish dinners. At altars in people’s garages, St. Joseph inspires a unique array of Sicilian-New Orleans dishes. Local strawberries are big and sweet. At the Cool Water Ranch, we have huckleberries.
7. July. After the Fourth of July, nobody–local or visitor–really comes back. The heat is convincing, and we aestivate in our favorite air-conditioned holes. Crabs thinking about molting think again, and soft-shells seem to be smaller. Making up for this is a decline in the price (and rise in the excellence) of jumbo lump crabmeat. Local corn, okra, eggplant, cucuzza, and the last of the Creole tomatoes. Cold oysters hit the spot, but they’re spawning and a little off. A lot of restaurants have their discounted summer menus in force.
8. June. June begins with the Oyster Festival on the river. The timing is less than perfect–the quality has begun to slip (although not in 2013). But they’re still the best seafood in town. Crawfish, on the other hand, are walking the plank, and by the end of the month will be gone or near to it. The restaurants once began their summer specials in June, but June business is now good enough that most places wait until July or even August. At home, we have too many perfect Creole tomatoes, if that’s possible.
9. August. The Coolinary officially begins, as dozens of restaurants roll out marvelous special menus, in the hope that locals will take over some of the chairs not filled by visitors this time of year. Lots of crabmeat, but don’t get your heart set on soft-shell crabs. (They seem to take their own vacation this month.) Redfish and black drum are great, and sheepshead are incredible unless you have to clean them yourself.
10. January. The first ten days of the year are a dead zone for dining out, as weight-loss resolutions take over with their usual brevity. It’s a good time to get easy reservations in otherwise impenetrable restaurants. Oysters are superb, but it’s too cold for a hunger for raw ones to form in the brain. King cakes–the second-worst local food specialty after shrimp Creole–are everywhere, starting on the sixth.
11. September. Numerous forces conspire to make September the worst month of the year for restaurants. It’s still very hot. The convention business is in deep doldrums because (I hate to bring this up) hurricane season peaks this month. Locals are on budgets after paying for school tuitions and Saints season tickets. Oysters are at their flabbiest, shrinking miserably when cooked. The good news: white shrimp season is open, and the shrimpers can sell all the pompano they find in their nets. So the best fish in local waters is more available than usual, along with the jumbo lump crabmeat many people like to top it with.
12. February. Mardi Gras usually falls in this, the most miserable weather month of the year, cold and drippy. Mardi Gras itself, for all its other joys, is the worst eating day of the year in New Orleans, although that’s improving lately. (The revived tradition of eating a big steak on Fat Tuesday has helped.) If shrimp could be said to have a low point, this is it. Best part of Feb.: shortest month.