New Orleans native Poppy Tooker is mad about food—especially New Orleans food. The cookbook author, radio host of the NPR-affiliated Louisiana Eats!, and culinary activist cooked up a big pot of gumbo for the lucky travelers on AFAR Experiences New Orleans. This straight-shooter has a lot to say about the New Orleans food scene and more provocative topics like, say, the impact of imported seafood on local fishermen.
Read on for the scoop.
OK, let’s get right to it: What are you eating these days?
Everybody should try the boiled beef brisket and the chicken bonne femme at Tujague’s Restaurant. It’s the second oldest continuously operating restaurant in New Orleans and the third oldest in the United States, and they’re celebrating their 160th anniversary this year. Tujague’s is casual: Even though they have white tablecloths, you can go there in shorts, and it doesn’t matter.
I am also wild about Isaac Toups and the food at Toups Meatery in Mid City. I think he’s an absolute rock star. And I’m crazy for Michael Gulotta’s MoPho Vietnamese place—I eat there at least once a week.
What do you get?
Wicked, wicked things. I get his Asian chicken wings. I’m a sucker for his pho. I like my pho with double spicy tripe, oxtail, and tendon because I’m a bad girl.
What’s best at Toups?
There’s a pork chop that will change your life. There’s a candied pork belly that is prepared much like cracklins, only they’re meaty, meaty cracklins because they’re pork belly. It’s like pig candy. He calls those rillons. And they’re enough to make a grown man cry.
You're considered a culinary activist. What in New Orleans is in need of preserving right now?
Ingredients. Our Gulf shrimpers and fishermen. Our farmers. Our farmers’ markets. Good Eggs made a run through New Orleans and kind of decimated the farmer’s market. Why would you go to a farmer’s market when the farmer’s market will be delivered to your door? But the most endangered thing is seafood. The U.S. seems to lack control over imported seafood. Consequently, you can get pounds of Chinese crawfish tails for maybe $9.99, when fresh, local crawfish tails are more like $16.99. And then, of course, there’s the whole shrimp thing.
Shrimp should not be a commodity. I always say “Friends don’t let friends eat imported seafood.” So much shrimp is imported from Southeast Asia. The fact that Americans willingly consume enormous amounts of imported shrimp without questioning where it comes from has resulted in reducing our shrimping fleet by a third of what it was pre–Hurricane Katrina.
Even with the recent drop in oil prices, the shrimpers can’t compete in a commodity market. You’ve got to understand and appreciate the taste, the quality, the safety of eating fresh local seafood—and making that happen is an enormous undertaking.
What does Louisiana shrimp taste like?
We have two distinct kinds, brown shrimp and white shrimp. Brown shrimp season opens up right about now. They’re slightly smaller and sometimes referred to as Louisiana gulls. They are sweet and delicious. The brown shrimp are from inland waters. The white shrimp are shrimped year-round in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s one of my dead giveaways for IDing imported shrimp: I have never been (and would never go to) a casino buffet, but if you go, and you see a huge quantity of boiled shrimp offered with cocktail sauce, and the shrimp has a slight translucence to it, that’s imported shrimp.
Where can travelers eat local seafood?
First, I never order a seafood dish in a restaurant without asking where it came from.
Borgne, John Besh’s restaurant in the Hyatt, is an incredible seafood restaurant. And additionally, it’s one of the few places I know where you can find Caminada Bay oysters. Last year farmed oysters from Caminada Bay became available for the first time. Or try Pêche, Donald Link’s restaurant. You can also go old school and dine at the Bon Ton Cafe, a restaurant that’s been around since, oh lord, the early ’50s. The menu is very heavy on crawfish, with traditional crawfish dishes like étouffée and bisque—real crawfish bisque, with stuffed heads. All of their crawfish comes from Cajun country.
What will you be making for the AFAR Experience group?
I’m making gumbo. I’m part of the gumbo experience. That would be my all-seafood okra gumbo that I had the dubious honor of beating Bobby Flay in a gumbo throw down on the Food Network. It was also was featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Wynton Marsalis. My gumbo became known forever after as the “Have Mercy, Poppy” gumbo.
Anything else travelers should know?
To prepare to visit Louisiana, you should download and listen to Louisiana Eats! my NPR-affiliated radio show. You can subscribe through iTunes. Last year, we were named the best radio show in New Orleans by the New Orleans press club.
AFAR Experiences New Orleans took place May 18–20 2016. Learn more here.