Our big streetcar trip up St. Charles Ave. was aborted midway through, due to a 7-alarm fire that consumed a historic home in the Garden District. No one was injured, and anyway that wasn't the biggest crisis that afflicted Carol and I at the start of our New Orleans adventure. At a French Quarter eatery just after our arrival in the city, I was served what was the first in what would become a Homeric odyssey of po boys over the next three days. But the “French bread” - within which my shrimp lay defenseless for my impending masticating assault - was soft! And spongy! With the interior texture of marshmallow! And not French bread at all! It was a lese majeste of gargantuan proportions.
Every poor boy that knows po boys knows it's the city's famous French bread, with its crusty exterior and baby cheek soft but airy insides, and with the freshness shelf life of a mayfly, that puts the po in po boy. There's got to be an exoskeletal feel to it's epidermis when you first pick it up with the gentleness of holding a newborn, as your teeth crunch through to a pillowy limbo before descending into the mother lode of a poaching plunderer’s pile of plump lightly fried shrimp. The bread is the journey, shrimp the destination. The po boy served to me that first night was the journey of a Greyhound bus instead of the Southwest Chief I'd been expecting. At least the shrimp and remoulade sauce made up for the journey to reach them.
The crisis deepened when a series of squeezes of the Leidenheimer's bread bin at a local grocery produced the same featureless pinch of flab that felt like you were hugging fat Aunt Miriam around her midriff (or my own to bring things closer to home). It was the dough-based Katrina of disasters.
But, as with most of my self-inflicted crises, this one also was overblown. At Frankie and Johnny's that afternoon, the bread perimeter defending the shrimp, all bivouacked in their full dress of lettuce, tomato and pickle, was flaky where it should be, while the soft was where it belonged and of the correct consistency. A roast beef po boy the next day at Rocky and Carlo’s in Chalmette gleefully harkened back to the Golden Age of Po boys of my gluttonous youth.
Sadly, the same could not be said for the circa 1885 Corinthian columned manse that for years had been the subject of the Tulane University School of Architecture lectures, and had also served as a toasting stop for the King of Carnival’s Krewe of Rex on Mardi Gras day. It was reported that the house had been purchased by the very first King of Rex in 1906, and was used to impress his friends with his newly minted regal authority. The reviewing stand remains, so there will be a poignant toast this year for sure. But it will be more like an homage to Tara after The Cause had been lost.
I was sorry to see the news about this fire. It was certainly more catastrophic than somebody possibly mucking with a time-honored and revered bread recipe. On the one hand, though, I had no idea the Rex Mansion even existed until Carol and I personally watched the last of the smoke clear. On the other hand, I knew exactly where to go for arguably the best po boys in town.
And I've also learned now where not to go expecting one before you get your bearings on touching down in The Big Easy.