Until last week, I had always thought we, the people, of New Orleans were a most agreeable lot. I mean, face it, the truths we hold self-evident truly are self-evident: Our Saints are saintly; our politicians are corrupt; and our city really does smell like a giant unshaven, unwashed armpit during the summer months.
But then, during a perfectly innocent, otherwise innocuous trip to the Rouses on Carrollton, I discovered that there is one topic on which New Orleanians do disagree, strongly: Popeyes.
Here’s how it went down: I was standing in the checkout line, mindlessly munching on a bag of Zapp’s Cajun Pork Skins (best 99 cents you’ll ever spend), when a man in the next line started unloading his basket onto the conveyor belt. Now, this being New Orleans and, especially, this being the Rouses on Carrollton, the gentleman didn’t just unload his basket.
He started a conversation with anyone who would listen about why he had selected said items in his basket. Turns out he was having foot surgery (right foot, in case you were wondering) and was about to be laid up for about five days.
“I don’t got nobody to take care of me, so I thought I’d make my first pot of red beans and rice to eat on.”
Just as he was asking the cashier to help him make sure he had all the right ingredients, a woman standing behind me chimed in, “Why would you make red beans and rice? Just go to Popeyes. They have the best.”
Well, that did it. All hell broke loose between checkout lines 5, 6 and 7. Right there at the Rouses on Carrollton.
“Why would you tell this poor man that?” the man’s cashier admonished the woman behind me. “Popeyes is fast food; it ain’t real food. Nothing beats homemade.”
“She’s right,” said someone from Line 7. “I eat at Popeyes when I’m hungover, but otherwise, I want the real thing.”
The woman behind me shook her head, straightened her back and said, emphatically, “No. Nothing beats Popeyes. I don’t even care about their chicken. Just give me the red beans and those biscuits.”
“That’s not red beans and biscuits you’re eating,” I interjected. “That’s lard.”
“Mmmm hmmmm,” agreed my cashier. “Lard makes anything taste better.”
Scanning my empty Zapp’s bag, she leaned in, pointed to the Popeyes gourmand behind me, and whispered, “Even her. Probably.”
Now, all of this made me curious. What was it about Popeyes that could make such agreeable people so disagreeable? I started asking around.
A native New Orleanian told me it is a matter of pride.
“Look, everyone knows that the best red beans, the best etouffee, the best jambalaya is the one your grandma makes,” he said. “Haven’t you ever been in a restaurant when the waiter comes by to collect some big-ass empty bowl of red beans and the guy says, ‘I ain’t paying for this. It’s not like my meemaw’s?”
Another local told me it was just a sign of the times.
“No one goes around eating lard anymore. It’s just not healthy.”
True dat, but be careful where you say dat. Case in point: I stopped by Popeyes yesterday to try some of their red beans for myself. While clogging my carotid artery with my third spoonful, two rail-thin twenty-something girls wallked in.
“I still think we should have gone to Wendy’s,” railthin #1 said. “I mean, they have salads.”
Now, you know that phrase, “You could have heard a pin drop?” Well, let me assure you, after that poor child uttered the word “salad” in a Popeyes, it got so quiet, so fast, that you could have heard a pin drop. In lard.
So, pride and health are part of the reasons why people become so adamant and passionate about Popeyes. I get it. But there has to be something else.
“Guilt,” my Facebook friend Claudia explained. “Pure and simple. You know all those people who run around saying they only eat at Popeyes when they’re drunk on Mardi Gras? Well, if all of them were actually telling the truth, Popeyes would have gone out of business a long time ago.”
Claudia is on to something. Maybe folks doth protest too much about Popeyes. Maybe they’re just covering their own spicy, buttery tracks by turning up their noses at the mere mention of Popeyes, while shoveling their faces when we’re not looking.
And that’s OK. Because if there’s any city that understands you sometimes have to lie to tell the truth, it’s New Orleans. And there ain’t nothing wrong with a little lie now and then … especially if it’s cooked in lard.
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love: NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Visit his site at ashamansjourney.net.