Old Sober


My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018

Ask anyone who’s ever awakened with a bass drum in the skull after a night out on the town and they’ll tell you: There’s no shortage of ways to imbibe in New Orleans.

You could spend a romantic evening, go-cup Sazerac in hand, meandering the streets of the Lower Garden District beneath the live oaks. You could glug down a few technicolor delights on Bourbon Street, the neon signs growing just a little bit fuzzy by the night’s end. You could (as I have one too many times) begin a lazy Sunday with an outdoor brunch — champagne flowing, of course — only to wind up needing something (anything!) else to eat to help sop up one too many mimosas by the time midday rolls around.

Fortunately, for as many ways as there are to create a hangover, there are just as many means by which to begin the slow walk towards recovery. And while doing the ol’ hair of the dog might seem tempting, it’s yakamein — known locally as “Old Sober” — that’s the morning-after, get-right potion you really need.

Yakamein — sometimes called Ya-Ka-Mein, Ya-Ka-Mee, Yaka-Meat, or, occasionally, simply Yock — is a hybrid of African-American and Asian-American flavors. A corner-store stalwart soup, the dish combines a ream of noodles (sometimes spaghetti, sometimes whatever’s around) and beef in a salty, soy sauce-rich broth. Most of the time, there’s a hard-boiled egg (sometimes sliced, sometimes not) bobbing around on the top, and a dusting of green onions to round out the dish. There isn’t a playbook for what can go in a yakamein — some tinker around with chicken or sausage, others load up on the holy trinity of bell pepper, celery and onion — but one thing’s for sure: It’s slurp-worthy proof that, sometimes, food itself is the best medicine.

Traditionally served out of small (often family-operated) neighborhood groceries and corner marts, half the beauty of yakamein is that, typically, it’s completely portable. With a Styrofoam cup as its signature vessel and a plastic spoon as its tool of trade, yakamein is the kind of dish that’s meant to be eaten standing up, walking along a second line or on a hurried lunch break — no muss, no fuss. It’s the kind of dish that truly wants to make you feel better on your own terms, no sit-down commitment required.

This edible prescription’s origin story, however, remains curiously murky — and hotly debated. Some lay claim to the long-held rumor that the dish was created in New Orleans after the Korean War, when African-American soldiers returned home with a desire to re-create the soup-and-noodle dishes they’d enjoyed abroad with local ingredients that were readily accessible.

The more likely genesis of this dish, though, is much earlier than the mid-20th century. Throughout the late 1800s, New Orleans was home to a bustling (now vanished) Chinatown: an area along Tulane Avenue populated by Chinese immigrants who worked, primarily, as railroad construction workers and laborers in the sugarcane fields. Here, residents combined their traditional dishes with ingredients sourced from the Louisiana markets, creating an early version of the under-the-radar favorite that would come to be known as yakamein.

“I keep telling people all the time that yakamein is New Orleans’ best kept secret,” says Miss Linda Green, a chef and New Orleans native known as the “Yakamein Lady” to locals and visitors alike. “A lot of people here in town still don’t even know what it is.”

Miss Linda learned how to cook yakamein from her grandmother, Georgia, and her mother, Miss Shirley, while growing up in the Central City neighborhood.

“In our community growing up, yakamein was known as a poor man’s dish, but also a delicacy. When my grandmother would cook it, the aroma would go out the window and into the streets, and folks would say, ‘Mama Georgia’s cookin’ her yakamein!’ They’d come with their bowls to sit on the porch and eat it.”

Eventually, Miss Linda’s mom began selling the dish at a former local bar known as Bean Brothers Corner, which was located around the corner from the house where she was raised.

“My mother, grandmother and aunties — they taught me everything. I’d just sit in the kitchen and watch them. When I got big enough, I’d help with cutting up all the seasoning,” she explains. “My momma would say to me, ‘Linda, baby, I know you like to cook for looks, but you need to cook for taste.’”

That’s advice she’s clearly taken to heart. Miss Linda has achieved national and international acclaim for her flavorful yakamein, becoming an unofficial ambassador for the dish with hungry second-line revelers and in-the-know tourists alike. When Anthony Bourdain, culinary travel maven and host of the television show No Reservations, visited New Orleans in 2011, he deemed Miss Linda “a premier vendor of a vital component of New Orleans drinking culture.” Soon, she found herself featured in magazines like Rolling Stone and on television programs including Food Network’s Chopped, where she was crowned “Chopped Champion” on the “Pride of New Orleans” episode.

“Growing up, everyone knew that Monday was the day for red beans, and Wednesday you’d have greens or something like that. Friday would be for seafood, but Saturday was always a potluck. When you’d walk in with that yakamein to the potluck? Baby, everyone would get excited!”

Today, you can find Miss Linda popping up across the city at festivals and events (she’s a Jazz Fest staple and at Ogden Museum After Hours each week), and a version of her yakamein graces the menu at Bywater Bakery for those who need their fix on a more regular basis. All this success, though, hasn’t slowed her desire to continuing expanding, exploring and innovating. She recently competed in a drink competition at the New Orleans’ Bloody Mary Festival, where her version of the morning-after pick-me-up was, naturally, inspired by yakamein flavors.

“The name of my drink’s the YakaMary,” she says, laughing. “It goes down real easy!”

In recent years, chefs across the city have started to experiment with their own spins on the classic yakamein preparation. In 2013, Ralph’s on the Park in Mid-City served up a version with a sous-vide egg and pork belly, while Oxlot 9 in Downtown Covington added kimchi and a bacon consommé to their take on the dish in 2016. On the outskirts of the French Quarter, the cozy, bistro-like Meauxbar offers a daily, souped-up yakamein with an ever-rotating combination of ingredients, including shrimp and bacon.

At its heart, though, yakamein is a dish that’s all about comfort, and the traditions that endure from generation to generation. Whether it’s a solo tradition, like gobbling down a Styrofoam cup of the stuff after a long night, or a family rite of passage that’s practically in your DNA, yakamein is the kind of tradition that strengthens the individual, and in turn, fortifies an entire city.

“I taught the recipe for our yakamein to my daughter, and now I’m teaching the grandbabies,” says Miss Linda. “I always tell them something my mom said: ‘You have to respect yourself in order to respect everyone around you.’ I believe that’s the truth.”