Louisiana seafood festival

Fried catfish sliders with green tomato chow-chow

Ask backpacking Europeans what they love about traveling in the USA and you’ll likely get an answer that goes something like this: “When you order food in America, the portion sizes are huge!”

Sure we have a non-functioning congress that makes national parks shut down, an annoying visa process that turns away half the people who want to visit, a tipping culture that defies logic, and a public transportation system that’s close to useless in most cities, but you sure can eat well on a budget! As the owner of Kim”s Seafood and Po-Boy Restaurant in Shreveport told me, “The margins are very small on this kind of food.” Globalization has a strong effect on shrimp prices and as the crop has been bad this year in Asia, the price of shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico has gone up about 30%. But he can’t just pass that on: his customers are everyday working class people.

snapper with crawfish sauce

At least there are some vegetables…

You’d better be getting lots of exercise though, especially if you’re eating your way through the south for more than a few days. I’ve been reminded of this the past week as I’ve been touring through Louisiana. I could eat this stuff every day if it turned out it was good for you. But of course it’s not. Apparently butter, cream, salt, shellfish, and the tendency to fry everything in oil (even bread sometimes) are not recipes for a long and healthy life.

po boy

Soft shell crab po boy

But man is this stuff good. And you’re not going to pay a whole lot to indulge either. Sure, there are some fine legendary restaurants in New Orleans like Commander’s Palace, Antoine’s, and Palace Cafe where you can certainly enjoy it more if you’re on a company expense account rather than paying out of your own pocket. But there’s a reason the famous New Orleans sandwich is called a “po boy” and Louisiana is not exactly known as the land of the 1% crowd. In most places here, especially outside New Orleans, you can eat very well for what it’ll cost you for a very small, worse than average lunch in Italy or France.

I just spent a day wandering around the Louisiana Seafood Festival in New Orleans, where star chefs displayed their technique and gave out samples, next to a fairgrounds where 37 restaurants were selling a few choice items each for $4 to $8. None of the stands were empty, none of them were selling something that just looked so-so. Maybe you don’t want alligator sausage skewers or smoked oysters Rockefeller yourself, but there were plenty of others who felt differently lining up to try them.

Louisiana seafood

New Orleans smoked oysters Rockefeller

And the diners were all smiling, laughing, experiencing the joy of good food that hits your taste buds with a zing. Sure, there’s way too much salt, too much fat, too much cholesterol, too much too much of most things that are bad for you. So don’t eat this every day, or even every week. But now and then? It’s heavenly.

And here was one dessert from Cajun Landing in Alexandria, Louisiana. Bread pudding with white chocolate. I was with some other travel writers, so the place brought out a bunch of samples on top of this. As you can probably imagine, hard to pass up.

Cajun Landing

Bread pudding from Cajun Landing in Alexandria, LA

If you want to experience the tastes of the south without constantly getting a heart attack on a plate, head to the cities foodies watching their waistline still gush over. There are places in New Orleans that fit the bill, as well as some standouts in Nashville, Charleston, and Louisville. Otherwise, just figure you’ll hit the gym hard before and after your trip, because saying no over and over three times a day would get a little tiring.

I was in Shreveport and New Orleans as part of the annual NATJA convention for travel writers, where I was a speaker. Yes, they fed me a lot…