Progressive Dinner

Progressive Dinner

A New Orleans Culinary Bike Tour

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Wearing an old-fashioned Kangol hat and flip-flops, Jeff Shyman is easy to spot as he pedals through the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Slowing his roll, he gives a nod and wave to every person he passes. The fat-tire bicycle is his transportation to work, the market, and his kid’s school; but he’s best known as the line leader for his culinary bike tour: Confederacy of Cruisers.

Eighteen years and thousands of meals ago, Jeff created Confederacy of Cruisers because no one offered a tour of New Orleans he wanted to take. He decided on the two-wheel itinerary because he said walking limited you to the French Quarter and cars went too fast to absorb the slow, friendly vibes of the city. He wanted a food tour that crept into the neighborhoods where real folks lived and showcased the dishes locals enjoyed.

“From the frosty bite of a raspberry snowball on a hot summer day to the soothing slurp of gumbo thick with fresh shrimp and andouille, a day in New Orleans is defined by what we eat,” he says.

The city has always been a melting pot of flavors brought by everyone who has ever called this place home—from the earliest French settlers to free and enslaved Africans, Sicilians, and the city’s country cousins, the Cajuns. 

“Our history makes New Orleans a culture that not only loves great food but lives it,” Jeff says.

Unlike restaurants from a Google search, the Confederacy of Cruisers goes beyond the highlights. Guests pedal through 200-year-old quarters to learn the story of the real New Orleans and how it became defined by what ordinary people eat.

In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a culinary tour; an eating tour is more accurate. That’s because guests visit family-owned places where the food is mouthwatering but far from fancy. Jeff jokes that any good New Orleanian loves a meal at Galatoire’s, but it’s not where they head when they get off work.

“We go to cheap spots that make ridiculously delicious food and are beyond the average tourist beats,” he said. “While tourists head straight for Cafe du Monde, we veer toward Loretta’s for a classic beignet stuffed with everything from fried chicken to pralines.”

Carin Orzo took the tour with her family of five. A former NOLA resident, she’d returned to give her kids an honest look at the place she called home before Katrina forced her to relocate.

“People think if they’ve gone to the French Quarter, they’ve been to New Orleans,” Carin said, “but very few locals actually live there. The outer areas are where the real city lives, in tight shotgun houses where families have been for generations. It’s sometimes gritty, often loud, and the best place to eat.”

Jeff’s culinary, cocktails, and culture tours cycle through these local districts, snacking on Crescent City classics along the way. Every neighborhood has its favorite spot and everyone has a family recipe. Take for instance gumbo; the hearty stew is a combination of all the cultures who’ve ever lived here. But ultimately, what appears on the table is always someone’s grandma’s take on the dish.

Jeff also craves a good crawfish boil where folks gather around a newspaper-wrapped table overflowing with potatoes, corn, sausage, and seafood. He especially loves showing guests his favorite local dive: Cajun Seafood.

“It’s run by a Vietnamese family,” Carin recalled. “The Vietnamese came here after the war and thrived in the familiar climate that let them fish and farm like they had back home. While running a Cajun restaurant might seem strange, it's classic New Orleans: someone comes here and adds his own history and culture to the mix. I've been to the hot spots, and hands down, this is the best.”

It’s the classic American story. 

“Take for instance red beans and rice,” Jeff said. “The dish traces the migration of slaves from Africa to Haiti to New Orleans. It’s the history of people in a bowl.”

So, if you’re looking for something to do in New Orleans—something active, a bit further afield, and all-together tasty—hop on a bike and pedal your way to our favorite kitchens.

As the French say, Allons manger! Let’s eat!