A Special Mardi Gras for Central Grocery Central Grocery, one of New Orleans' best-loved specialty foods stores, had to close for a few months after Hurricane Katrina hit. But one of its owners forged ahead to re-open in time for Mardi Gras and the Central Grocery's 100th birthday.
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A Special Mardi Gras for Central Grocery

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A Special Mardi Gras for Central Grocery

A Special Mardi Gras for Central Grocery

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And now, though many families have not been able to return to New Orleans, others have made their way home to the city and the many familiar institutions that do remain.

Central Grocery, one of New Orleans' oldest and most beloved food stores, celebrates its 100th birthday this Mardi Gras. It's a family business that began feeding dock workers, and became a culinary landmark. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates is back now to bring us the story of this tasty New Orleans store.

KAREN GRIBSBY BATES, reporting:

It's barely eleven o'clock in the morning, but tourists and regulars a like are lining up in the Central Grocery. Squeezed between the brightly colored tins of imported white anchovies and plum tomatoes, they want to be sure they are in time to snag one of the city's most famous sandwiches: the muffaletta. Co-owner Larry Tusa explains how the sandwiches are constructed as he deftly puts together a stack of muffalettas to go.

Mr. LARRY TUSA (Co-owner Central Grocery): And we start with a layer of the ham, imported ham, it's like a prosciutto, but it's cooked, it's not cured. Then we'll put down a layer of mortadella, which is an Italian-style sausage from Italy.

BATES: The muffaletta is a sturdy sandwich. It was originally constructed for the Sicilian immigrant workers who manned New Orleans port businesses at the turn of the 20th century. Larry's cousin, Sal Tusa, another one of Central's co-owners, figures the muffaletta developed soon after their grandfather opened Central's doors in 1906.

Mr. SAL TUSA (Co-owner, Central Grocery): The sandwich kind of evolved. All of this cold cuts were popular with the Sicilians, and ate it separate and breads were sold separate, and eventually, you know, made a sandwich out of it. But it was small, and it wasn't like this. You know, I mean, they might have made a dozen, or two dozen sandwiches a day.

BATES: The sandwich became a gustatory must-have - so much so that homesick New Orleanians order them air-shipped on ice. Sal Tusa boosts that the muffaletta can last all day without refrigeration. That's makes them the preferred sustenance for the folks who line up to watch hours long Mardi Gras parades, and for the people on the floats. But if you don't order your muffaletta early, says Larry Tusa, you might not get a crumb.

Unidentified Female: And once the bread is gone, that's it for today.

Mr. TUSA: We have to turn people away very disappointed, and they'll always ask for what's the second choice, but we're always telling them the next choice is to come back tomorrow and get another sandwich. So, you can come back tomorrow.

BATES: And people do come back. But even with customer loyalty, Sal Tusa says each generation of Central Grocers face challenges. For his grandfather's generation, it was the depression. For his father's, the price competition from supermarkets.

Mr. TUSA: Our biggest challenge of my generation is recent, with Katrina. This story was closed for three months. That's never happened. I mean, the first day when we walked back in, I just kind of sat on a chair and looked around, and said okay, where do we start?

BATES: The mess was overwhelming, and for many months, customers were scarce, because no one was back in the city. Today, Central looks much as it did before Katrina, and business is picking up. As for the future of this family business, Sal Tusa isn't sure if a fourth generation of Tusas will chose to make Central their life's work.

Mr. TUSA: You know, it's not for everybody. Some people don't like meeting the public. Who knows, maybe they'll come back later. We don't know. We'll keep it going as long as we can.

BATES: And with that, both Tusas excuse themselves to answer the phone and take orders for, what else? More muffalettas. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, New Orleans.

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