Vanessa Niemann of Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue
Interview by Stephanie Jane Carter
Edible New Orleans: You grew up in Maryland, a state known for its seafood.
Vanessa Niemann: Yes. I mostly grew up in western Maryland, though we moved around all over the state. Maryland is so small, but it changes so much as you travel from the East Coast to the central part to the western part of state—culturally, everything. You don’t find as much crab in the western part of the state, but Maryland is definitely for crabs.
ENOLA: Your adopted home, New Orleans, is also known for its crabs.
VN: Yeah. The preparation is different. We don’t submerge our crabs in water. We steam. We steam the crabs and they kind of sit above the water in a steam basket and they get coated with Old Bay. Of course, down here in Louisiana, a lot of people use crab boil—or Tony Chachere’s, which is a little salty, I think.
ENOLA: Compared to Old Bay?
VN: Old Bay isn’t salty as much as it is savory and spicy. I still, to this day, like to cook my shrimp in Old Bay.
ENOLA: Do you have Tony Chachere’s in your house?
VN: I do. I do. Of course, I’m with a Louisiana man. He would put Chachere’s on ice cream if he could. I use Old Bay on seafood. We put Tony Chachere’s on everything else—I use it in place of salt.
ENOLA: Your Louisiana man, Dave Brouillete, is from Natchitoches.
VN: We actually play at the Natchitoches Folk Life Festival every couple of years. Dave still has family there. When we are there, Meemaw will take us out to lunch. Even if we don’t stay in Natchitoches or go into the city, there is a gas station off one of the exits that has great meat pies. So, if we are traveling with the band, we’ll stop there and get a bunch of meat pies.
ENOLA: You wrote all of the songs from your newest album, Last One to Leave, on the road traveling with the band. It seems you barely have time to write, much less eat or drink.
VN: Eating on the road is an interesting thing. We try to do as much regional food as possible but there is no avoiding Waffle House. When we’re in New Mexico, we’ve got to get green chile. Or Christmas! Red and green chile. I’m also a big fan of pizza. I would eat it seven days a week, much to Dave’s chagrin. Whenever we are on the road and hear of a good pizza spot, I feel like I have to stop. Marfa, Texas, has some of the best pizza outside of New York City—thin, bubbly, crispy crust.
ENOLA: Where do you eat pizza in New Orleans?
VN: Pizza Delicious is my favorite. I really like their house-made sausage when they have it. They do a great margherita pizza—a little bit of spicy sauce and big slabs of mozzarella.
ENOLA: When you are on the road, what New Orleans food do you crave?
VN: Oh, god. Finding reasonably priced seafood anywhere else is difficult. We spent a couple years in Los Angeles and traveled back and forth to New Orleans. I eat a lot of shrimp. Shrimp is ungodly expensive out there.
ENOLA: Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue has played Jazz Fest since at least 2008, maybe 2007. That festival can be as much a curated food experience as a music experience.
VN: The crawfish bread is one of my favorites. And the rosemint iced tea. The Times-Picayune had a recipe for it back in 2003 or 2004 that I cut out and saved.
ENOLA: The rosemint tea is refreshing. But honky tonk evokes images of whiskey drinking.
VN: I’m definitely a whiskey and beer girl. When I’m performing at Three Muses, I’ll have white wine because Daniel Esses has great wine. I like red wine too, but that dries your throat out. I don’t do mixed drinks until the performance is over, since it is harder to tell how much alcohol is in each drink. While performing, I try to control how much I have.
ENOLA: What you drink really affects your voice.
VN: And what you eat too. I can’t have a big meal before singing. You push from down in your diaphragm—you are pushing from your belly.
ENOLA: You eat on a diff erent schedule.
VN: I eat late. Three Muses has amazing food and they are awesome about feeding the musicians. I love Kukhnya in Siberia. The food is unbelievable. It is Slavic soul food. They have lots of vegetarian options. I’m not vegetarian, but I do like to not always eat meat. We end up eating in bars a lot because “just one more drink.”
ENOLA: You used to work in a tattoo shop. You have a lot of tattoos. Any of food?
VN: None of food. Maybe I should get one.
ENOLA: Some musicians are known for their quirky tastes in food, like Elvis and the peanut butter and banana sandwich.
VN: I love the French fry po-boy. People like to get all snobby about po-boys, but they are one of the least pretentious foods there is. There are so many kinds—shrimp, oyster— but I love the French fry. Straight-up shoestrings with debris. Actually, I like it any way.
ENOLA: French fry po-boy. That’s your next tattoo.
VN: There you go.