In Richard Manning’s book “Grassland,” the Missoula author suggests there’s a relationship between a thriving local craft brewing scene and a thriving local food scene. When I travel I’m reminded that the Northwest is beer central when it comes to the good local stuff.
Good local beer doesn’t necessarily cause local food cultures to sprout, but both thrive in the same climate. After spending a recent weekend in New Orleans, I’m now convinced a similar relationship exists between music and food.
Work duties prevented me from spending time doing what I’d have preferred: fishing. But I did spend considerable time outdoors in the Crescent City, just not in the classic Field and Stream sort of way. On this trip my outdoors time consisted primarily of walking from restaurant to club, and back again.
Even better, there were plenty of joints where both good food and music were produced under the same roof.
So I didn’t see much of the bayou, or anything resembling a decent place to fish. Other than the ride to and from the airport, I spent my entire stay in the French Quarter. I did get a glimpse of the steadily eroding Mississippi Delta from the high-rise hotel where the conference I attended was held. From the 41st floor you could see the Gulf out there, just beyond the meandering river that drains the continent.
I never left the city but the bayou came to me. It was sprawled out on the table every time I sat down to eat. Redfish, shrimp, crawfish, oysters. There it was: food of place in a way that’s hard to find in much of the country. And it’s especially hard to find in the Northern Rockies where it’s tough to grow things for about nine months of the year. After you get past the wild game and grass-fed local beef, there little that shouts of place the way blackened redfish does in New Orleans.
A few years ago I wrote a magazine piece about eating local foods from the Flathead for a week. It was surprisingly easy to do, so long as I allowed the slow-boat exception for products such as coffee, which can’t be grown in the northern Rockies, and which I can’t face the day without. But that was in summer, when the farmer’s markets are brimming with produce and a dude could make it a day or two on Flathead cherries alone.
Come winter it’s a tougher climb, unless you’ve got a sizable vegetable garden plot and a good root cellar. You’ll also need a large freezer or a tolerance for standing over boiling caldrons during the hottest time of the year so you can put up all that excess food that explodes on the vine in the long days of summer.
As my kids grew up and I was liberated from the grounding effects of living with school-aged children, I dispensed any lingering farmer-like tendencies and stopped gardening all together. I still maintain a few pots of fresh herbs that I rotate from the yard to the kitchen window when winter arrives, but otherwise I’m letting the professionals handle the food growing duties now. Farmers markets cover the bases during the summer, and a few producers of quality canned products (organic tomatoes) and the arugula growers of California keep me supplied in the winter.
Still, there’s no meal that speaks place in the Northern Rockies better than elk. When I have access to back straps, I butterfly and sear them medium rare with a cream sauce studded with dried Flathead cherries. In my mind that’s the blackened redfish of Montana. Washed down with a bracingly tart local IPA to cut through the richness of the dish and you’ve got all any foodie could ask for.
The difference between here and there is a difference of critical mass I suppose. In the French Quarter you can walk down the street and find a joint serving up local seafood every 20 steps or so. You’ll have to cover a bit more ground to hit all the Montana eateries with elk on the menu.
And the beer will be better, though probably not the music.
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