Next to San Francisco and New York, New Orleans is probably the best food destination in the US of A. That makes it hard to pin down the one dish that defines New Orleans food. But I will go out on a limb (or into the bayou) and say: Gumbo!
Other obvious nominees are crawfish etouffee, blackened catfish, the justly famous beignet from the Cafe Du Monde, jambalaya, and the po' boy sandwich.
My two visits to New Orleans were a long time ago, but were memorable, mostly for the food and of course the music. We made the obligatory stops at Cafe Du Monde and Brennan's, and I recall a surprisingly good dinner at an Italian place in the French Quarter. But the best was a very long and late dinner at Tujague's. Served family-style, the food just kept coming in dizzying variety. I ordered none of it -- our small group was hosted by a colleague who'd lived in New Orleans most of her life, so she took command and ordered every course, every accompaniment, every bottle of wine. She was like an orchestra conductor. I was more than happy to just try whatever she summoned from that marvelous kitchen. Can't even tell you anymore what we ate, but the feelings of adventure and surprise and joy are still with me.
The other New Orleans-related food memory is of gumbo. A friend's mother was a Louisiana native so the holiday tradition in her house was to cook huge vats of gumbo and invite every relative and friend and passing acquaintance to stop by for a bowl. The gumbo vat was kept stocked for the entire week between Christmas and New Years and the house was abuzz with visitors. It was a wassail bowl of a different sort; one we looked forward to every year. My friend's dad was a football nut, so amidst all the comings and goings and hubbub, he sat in his big chair and watched every college football game he could find, often stacking one TV on top of the other to watch two at once. He rarely left the living room. Somebody was always around to hand him another bowl of gumbo and another cold beer. He was sultan for a week!
Gumbo is one of those dishes for which everyone has a secret recipe or at least a secret ingredient, but the must-haves are Andouille sausage, file', and okra. The dish is often called file' gumbo because a powder made from dried sassafras root-- file' -- is used as a base or thickener.
Rather than post a recipe here, I 'll just say that whatever you use -- chicken, shrimp, leftover turkey -- you should try very hard to get some Andouille sausage and some okra in there.
Here's a poem by Richard Brautigan in which catfish, of all things, is a romantic image:
YOUR CATFISH FRIEND
If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, "It's beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I'd love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
and ask yourself, "I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them."
Next stop: Kansas City or Maine!