Corn Beef

New Orleans, the Fair Grounds Race Course & Corn Beef

New Orleans winters are the one hundred and eighty degree opposite of dry desert heat. The Gulf Coast humidity can make a cold front in New Orleans seem like a trip to the North Pole. This is especially so if you are a horse racing fan and find yourself at the Fair Grounds on a cold day for a day at the races. Some of us with memories of old times before the 1993 fire, remember ducking out of the frigid northern blast into to the old paddock area on the Gentilly side of the track and walking up an incline into the first warmth of the building. You were immediately greeted by a sensory treat from the paddock concession stand.
Once out of the cold, the heavy fragrance of Corn Beef and Roast Beef overwhelmed you. The carving station was unavoidable. Mrs. Jenny and her sister Mrs. Ruth greeted all with warmth, “How ya doin dawlin?” The thick slices of Corn Beef were lovingly placed on a French “Pistollette” Roll and slid across the counter. Customers with their $1 tip in hand knew the thick slices might get a bump the next time, if you were a regular.
In the old building, you might step out the front track apron door to the pathway between the bleachers and the building to break the frigid wind and savor the soothing comfort of the warm Corn Beef. This is a memory to cherish and part of the New Orleans culture for generations.
Why Corn Beef? Why New Orleans? Those are great questions. The answers are important to the food culture of the Crescent City.
In the Golden Age of Sport, all sports were truly seasonal. The seasons had a clearly defined begging and end with an offseason with no activity. This was especially true with horse racing. There were few race tracks and the racing season was the only focus of the sporting world in the area. The point spread had not been popularized and betting on horses made racing the center of the sporting page.
When the racing season was over, the horses and all of the supporting economy of associated horsemen, grooms and Jockeys moved on to the next jurisdiction having racing. In the Mid-West, New Orleans held the deep winter dates. In the spring racing moved to Kentucky and the summer racing was in Chicago. Not only did those working with the horses move on but also, the Dining Room, Concession, Mutuel employees and Racing Officials. In many instances the customers moved on to follow the sport. Relationships were as portable as the jobs. The Maitre D and Captains in the Clubhouse Dining Rooms greeted customers they knew from other stops on the circuit with regularity.
As these patterns were set, the support vendors for different facets of racing grew with the circuit. Telletimer became a national vendor for timing races at race tracks. Galjour Electronics became a major vendor in the Mid-West for filming and later video replay systems. Turf Catering became a premiere Food & Beverage vendor.
Turf Catering became the Food & Beverage operator at the New Orleans Fair Grounds in the 1930’s. Turf Catering operated at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs AR, Keeneland in Lexington KY, Hawthorne Park, and Arlington Park in Chicago. While each geographic area was culturally different, some of the menu offerings were staples. If New Orleans had great seafood, Shrimp Cocktails were an important element of the menu at the Fair Grounds. Once the supply chain was established, New Orleans style Shrimp Cocktails began to make an appearance at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR and at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, KY.
In the alternative, Corn Beef made its way down the Mississippi to New Orleans from Chicago and became a staple at Fair Grounds with Turf Catering. The full Brisket along with the Steamship Rounds of Roast Beef carving stations were eye candy and palate watering. Local Hotel food service must have developed along the same lines.
At the Fair Grounds, Corn Beef became as much a part of the Thanksgiving Opening day menu as Turkey & Dressing. When my family purchased the track in 1990, one of our focuses was maintaining the standard and tradition of top flight Corn Beef. We literally auditioned three Chicago based vendors to test the products.
The Fair Grounds Corn Beef had been cooked for years in a downstairs commissary kitchen by Joe Brown. Joe was a long time employee and wore a paper ice-cream service style hat every day. He was an institution. The duel large steam kettles used to boil the cured packer briskets were ancient.
Fair Grounds still serves Corn Beef and many of us will wax nostalgic about the old days and memories of times together at the track but for many of us a love for good Corn Beef comes from the tradition began long ago on Gentilly Boulevard.
From this experience, offering Corn Beef and Pastrami for Louisiana Craft Butchers must meet a very high standard. We hope you feel we meet your expectation with every bite. Just finished a new batch…