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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Central Grocery

Photo credit: wallyg@flickr.com

Central Grocery Co.

Although olive salad is its most common name, people with a bent for linguistics may find it interesting to know that for the better part of the Twentieth Century, the concoction was generally referred to as “wop salad.”

The old neighborhood is mostly gone now. There’s not much that’s French about the historic French Market and, for that matter, there’s not too much market about it, either. For more than half a century, the area was New Orleans’ “Little Italy,” but subsequent generations of immigrant Italian families emigrated first to Mid-City, then the suburbs, leaving the lower Decatur Street area without much of a cohesive identity.

You’ll still find a few trattoria and pizza joints tucked between Mardi Gras bead shops, Goth bars, boutiques prone to turnover, glorified convenience stores pumping ear-splitting zydeco into the streets and what appears to be a post-hippie, seemingly lost generation of runaways looking for something – meaning perhaps. You’ll find just about as much authentic Italiana at Olive Garden.

Yet in the middle of all this scrambled identity is an unassuming storefront. The address is 923 Decatur Street, and the name of the place couldn’t be more generic – Central Grocery Company – but take one step inside and you’re an ocean away in Palermo.

In the commercialized, Americanized lower half of the French Quarter, Central Grocery is the last paisano standing. Established in 1906, the storefront groceria has outlived countless competitors to gain a special standing in the hearts of New Orleanians.

While it may be true that time has taken its toll on Central Grocery, which keeps chipping away snippets of its charm more for the convenience of the people who work there and less for those who shop and buy, you only need to have one foot in the door and you’ve stepped into the Old World, redolent with garlic, cheese, olive oil, salami and so many other heady scents of home cooking, Siciliana style.

Photo credit: hanako@flickr.com

The front half of the room, which is the actual grocery store, is a treasure trove for aficionadi della cucina italiana, especially those who revel in its preparation. As generations passed, shelf space became so premium that the store’s inventory began expanding vertically instead of horizontally, forcing customers to carefully squeeze their way through tight aisles between tall shelves and display cases of imported Italian foodstuffs. In addition to tins and jars of peppers, olives, squid, anchovies, biscotti and more, you’ll find boxes of imported pasta, cases of salamis and cheese, loose beans and lentils sold from the barrel and even the stray dried stockfish from time to time.

At its core, Central may be an old fashioned groceria, but the true heartbeat of the place is the muffuletta, the city’s signature Italian sandwich, the creation of which is generally accredited to the store.

The muffuletta is named for its bread, a crusty round loaf eight or nine inches in diameter. The loaf is stuffed with Cappicola ham, Genoa salami, mortadella and provolone, but what gives the enormous sandwich its true character is the olive salad that’s piled upon the meat and cheese. It is sold and served in quarters, and a workable rule of thumb is that two of those quarters will usually satisfy anyone this side of a famished longshoreman.

Olive salad hearkens back to the days when olives were shipped in wooden barrels of brine. In transit, and even in the groceria, the weight of the olives in the top of the barrel would crush a number of those at the bottom, rendering them undesirable to the consumers of the day, who were willing to pay full olive price for full olives. Enterprising grocers would add garlic cloves, capers, parsley and oregano to the broken olives, chop up produce that had gone unsold, and then mix it all in olive oil and red wine vinegar. The result was not only a savory condiment, but also a highly efficient way to make use of inventory otherwise going to waste.

Although olive salad is its most common name, people with a bent for linguistics may find it interesting to know that for the better part of the Twentieth Century, the concoction was generally referred to as “wop salad.” While modern cultural sensitivity and political correctness have more or less relegated the term to the lexicological scrap heap, it still appears on some old-line New Orleans menus (most notably at Rocky & Carlo’s, a workingman’s Italian restaurant in the blue-collar suburb of Chalmette).

To accommodate rushes of business at noontime and the end of the day, the staff at Central Grocery fabricates muffulettas throughout the day. Surprisingly, to a great many people, the longer the sandwich sits unsold, the better it becomes because the olive oil in the salad soaks into the bread itself. Yes, it is messy, but eating a quarter of a muffuletta without having something spill out of the sandwich is an art few people have ever mastered. The most practical solution is to grab as many paper napkins as you can get away with, wear old clothes and dig in.

The back half of Central provides some very limited areas for eating in, but it is a cramped and soulless place, an obvious afterthought that commandeered valuable and profitable merchandise shelf space.

Far more pleasant it is to pick up a muffuletta and a Barq’s root beer, walk a block to the levee and enjoy an impromptu picnic on a bench, watching the ships glide by and feeling the breezes of the Great American River. Or walk two blocks up Decatur Street, grab one of the benches in the circle surrounding the statue of “Old Hickory” in Jackson Square, and listen for the bells of the city’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral.

One thing you might want to keep in mind before you enter Central Grocery for the first time is that the people who work there are an inexplicably surly bunch of characters, who take all aspects of play out of playful gruffness as if intent on elevating rudeness to an art form. In fact, it’s easier to find more convivial Italian gents on the losing side of a soccer match, driving taxis in Rome or brandishing cabbages when the tenor hits a clinker. Why this may be so eludes me, but I find the best way to get around this is, that when they treat me as if I’m nothing but another handful of cash, to ignore them right back.

Before you ask, yes, Central Grocery has muffulettas tightly wrapped in plastic and butcher paper and ready to go back to the airport with you. It is hardly uncommon to be standing somewhere in a Louis Armstrong New Orleans International concourse and catch a whiff of garlicky olive salad in someone’s purse or carry-on as it passes by. (I can’t help but wonder what the life expectancy is of a fragrant muffuletta in a jam-packed airplane that’s sitting on the tarmac waiting in line to take off or, even worse, for one of those mysterious delays that last an eternity or two.)

Along those same lines, quart jars of olive salad are available for those who don’t want the temptation of a whole sandwich under their nose. Perhaps it’s just me, but for years, I used to carry them home only to discover the seal was loose enough that oil seeped out onto the label and down the side of the jar, so you might want to make sure the seal is good and tight before you leave the store.

Like most dishes created by New Orleans eateries, the muffuletta has fostered a multitude of imitators not only in the city, bur regionally. Many feature a slight variation on ingredients; Napoleon House serves theirs warm, Liuzza’s on Bienville Street serves a “Frenchuletta” on French bread instead of the traditional Italian loaf, and a few years ago even Emeril Lagasse developed his own muffuletta pizza recipe. As happens in such cases, some of these have attracted their own followings, but those seeking the real deal need only sample l’originale at Central.

And feel free to snarl right back at the surly pagliacco behind the counter.

Central Grocery Company, 923 Decatur Street (between Dumaine & St. Philip Streets)

Open Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Major credit cards accepted

Telephone: (504) 523-1620

No website

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