I still remember the first meal I ate as a brand-new vegetarian — or rather, the dish I didn't eat: fried rice at Five Happiness. I'd ordered it not knowing little fetal curls of plump pink shrimp would be nestled among the grains. I wanted nothing more than to devour them. But I'd given up seafood, the last remaining bastion between me and full-fledged vegetarianism, for Lent. And here seafood had arrived, unbidden, to tempt me on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003.
I didn't eat shrimp then or for the next 40 days. In fact, I wouldn't eat seafood again for eight years.
During that time, I had variants of the following conversation numerous times: "Does your menu have any vegetarian items?" "Sure. We have a shrimp quesadilla/grilled salmon fillet/seafood gumbo." After countless servings of limp grilled vegetables and baked potatoes, I wondered why this culinary epicenter couldn't make a decent meatless meal. I asked my other vegetarian friends if they'd encountered the same problem.
"No, I just order seafood," they said.
It's a phenomenon I've come to dub the "New Orleans vegetarian" — known as pescatarian in other parts of the country. Several of my friends consider themselves vegetarian but suck down raw oysters with relish and practically dive into pots of seafood jambalaya. The thinking is anything that's not meat is fair game for a vegetarian to consume.
I wouldn't bother to correct the New Orleans vegetarian, and neither would the Catholic Church. This spring, a New Orleans archbishop wrote that alligator is seafood. His letter to a parishioner ended up going viral and contains this charming, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"-tinged sentence: "Yes, the alligator's considered in the fish family, and I agree with you — God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana, and it is considered seafood."
It's not quite the same blurred line as the pescatarian/vegetarian collusion, but it's not far off, either. I suspect there's a similar impulse lurking just beneath the surface in both instances, which shapes our lives as invisibly and as indelibly as New Orleans' high water tables: the urge to engage fully with this region — its wetlands, lakes, Gulf, estuaries — and all its weird, delicious little swamp critters.
When I stopped eating seafood, I stopped participating in parts of Louisiana's culture. I'd sip a Coke at crawfish boils, spurning even the potatoes and corn because what if they'd absorbed fish juice? I nibbled pasta at holiday dinners instead of eating my grandmother's seafood gumbo. I was never tempted by meat, but even closing in on a decade of vegetarianism, I missed seafood.
In April 2011, I was assigned a story about August Moon, a restaurant serving Vietnamese and Chinese food. Owner Phong Nguyen, a smiling man wearing a white polo tucked neatly into slacks, told me the story of his restaurant. He spoke in a soft voice about how he'd grown up in communist Vietnam during the 1970s. He tried to escape at age 12 and failed. He made a total of 13 attempts. Each time, the government captured him. At age 18, Nguyen was sentenced to a year and a half in a labor camp. He attempted escape again and this time he succeeded. He made it to New Orleans and opened the restaurant in 1991.
After the interview, Nguyen offered me a meal. I accepted, thinking it would be nice to include a description of the food in the feature. He brought out an August Moon original: crispy shrimp seasoned with sweet onions and lemongrass.
I couldn't say no to this meal, and I didn't want to. The shrimp were delicious. Afterwards, I felt almost high, sated in a way I hadn't felt in years. I thanked Nguyen and told him how much I'd enjoyed the food, though I didn't share the specifics of why it was so memorable. He was very gracious and said it was a customer favorite, but he preferred a different dish.
Which dish was that, I wanted to know.
"Gumbo," he said, laughing.