liuzza gumbo.jpg

Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty -- The gumbo at Liuzza's by the Track is distinctive, with a dark roux and fresh seafood added just before it's served.

Want to know what makes New Orleans such a great food town? Look down at your plate, then look in the mirror.

New Orleans food is a tale told with the garlic and cayenne of a seafood boil, the crunch and crumb of po-boy loaves, the gush of fat oysters and the burnished hue of a dark roux. But it goes beyond flavors.

There's the dedication and talent of those in the business of New Orleans food. And once again in 2016 our city and its chefs and restaurants raked in prominent honors and accolades, showing the resonance and popularity of our culinary brand for a food-crazed age.

But when it comes to our actual food culture, that thing that stirs our hearts, fuels our debates and anchors our loyalties, taking the full measure has to go beyond particular dishes, restaurants or personalities.

It's time to recognize the key ingredient that is never up for awards or included on all those round-ups, run-downs and best-of lists. 

It is New Orleans people, and it is our connection, devotion, even protectiveness of a lifestyle that revolves around food.

New Orleanians are not just an audience or a customer base. We have a relationship. We are active participants, analysts, historians and ambassadors for a richer idea of a shared food culture.

That's the difference. Remove it from the equation and we'd be left with another tourist town with a high tide of restaurants, a parade of food trends and more interchangeable fodder for the social media feed. 

You can't track a relationship like this with data points or restaurant industry stats. It's our way of thinking about food and the importance we give it in our lives.

This is not necessarily a unique relationship. People in other cities love their food, of course. But this one is ours. Its depth registers in the stories that emerge from the New Orleans food world, and the way New Orleans people love to tell them.

It shows in how we relate to each other and weave family stories around our food and restaurants. It's part of our civic pride and it's a way to celebrate our own blessings. It's how we build our tribes, and how we share the experience of living in this one-of-a-kind place.

It turns up in new ideas from fresh faces, and it’s in deep yearnings that feel universal. It’s in the way people in the New Orleans food world respond to the losses life inevitably hands us, and how they step up when the opportunities they strive for finally arise.

Like any living, thriving culture, this one does not follow a single narrative, but is instead filled with subcultures and niches, moments in time and long memories, old traditions and new additions.

This is the time of year for gratitude and reflection, and when I think back on the great food, unforgettable stories and generous, big-hearted New Orleans people that have been part of my own 2016, I’m thankful for a food culture that is different, vibrant and ours.

What makes our city such a great food town? Take a bow New Orleans, it's you.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.