Road Trip: My Life Measured in Muffulettas from Central Grocery in New Orleans

"J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life in coffee spoons—mine could be described as a timeline of muffulettas."

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The stretch of I-55 between New Orleans and Oxford, Mississippi, is rather barren when it comes to good eats, so before my dad and I started our five-hour trek to the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, we knew we'd have to pack a good lunch. I'd been eying the soft shell crab po'boy at Stanley that morning, but my heart was set on another classic New Orleans sandwich. Say it with me now: The Central Grocery muffuletta. Luckily, it wasn't a Monday.

My dad and I have a very special relationship with this famed Central Grocery sandwich. Stepping between shelves of Zapp's Cajun potato chips [Ed. note: we're big fans of the Voodoo chips too] and tins of Amaretti biscotti was almost like a nostalgic stroll through my childhood neighborhood.

J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life in coffee spoons—mine could be described as a timeline of muffulettas.

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[Photographs: Katie Walsh]

The first muffuletta I remember was too fresh. It was winter break of my fourth grade year, and we were headed to Nana's in Florida for Christmas. We'd zipped through the French Quarter and were on our way back to the highway. I was seated snugly in the backseat next to the cooler. I could almost taste the perfect combination of olive salad and salty salami. I slid my hands quietly over the top of the cooler, doing my best to ease it open, but Dad's eyes shot to the rearview mirror at the first squeak.

"Katie, you have to give it time," he said. I knew perfectly well that the best muffuletta needed time to let the olive oil soak into the bread and drip down between the layers of salami and pistachio-studded mortadella. But as was quite characteristic of that time in my childhood, I was anxious.

Anxious to wear makeup, anxious to watch grown-up movies, anxious to eat my muffuletta. So I jumped the gun. Ignoring my dad's warnings, I sunk my teeth into the soft Italian bread. Olive oil gushed between my teeth and down my chin, and napkins were nowhere in sight. Sitting alone in the backseat, admiring the still-wrapped sandwich of my patient father while the olive oil of my own ran down my arms, I learned to wait.

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I'll never forget the muffuletta I ate the day I became a woman. Traffic was horrible as we rolled into the Crescent City, so my dad handed me some cash and told me to grab some sandwiches while he circled the Quarter. I darted across the street and pushed my way through the crowds, completely unaware of any strange looks I might have received. As I stood in line at Central Grocery, casually admiring jars of roasted red peppers and jams, my younger sister crashed through the door, wide-eyed and out of breath.

"Katie!" she said in a harsh whisper, "Turn around!" Confused and suddenly extremely self-conscious, I turned my back to the wall. Without having to be told, I instinctively drew my hands to my backside, confirming what I was afraid she'd noticed as I'd made my way down the street. It wasn't my mom who was the first to share in my transition from girl to woman, nor a caring aunt or best friend. I'd begun adulthood side by side with the shoppers of Central Grocery.

And then there was college—I have the muffuletta to thank for a snarky-yet-endearing college essay that, while very possibly stained with olive oil, got me admitted to every school I applied to. I bought that muffuletta with my own hard-earned $9.25. "I hope my college career will be just like this muffuletta," I wrote, "richly flavored, spicy, multi-layered and memorable."

I can't say that my undergrad years at the University of Texas turned out quite that romantic, but the sandwich we scored for the drive to Oxford sure was. Every time we meet, it seems I've grown and changed and it's stayed exactly the same.

Dad in the driver's seat, Gator Tators in my lap, muffuletta in the cooler, we'd made our last stop. And to think, the real eating hadn't even begun. It was off to Oxford.

Central Grocery

923 Decatur Street, New Orleans LA 70116 (map)
504-523-1620

About the author: Katie Walsh is a native Austin writer passionate about food and all things cultural. She holds a degree in sociology and Spanish from UT Austin and is both a columnist and senior editor for multicultural publication TODO Austin.

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