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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.

At barely 11 a.m., tourists and regulars line up in the aisles. Squeezed between the brightly colored tins of white anchovies and plum tomatoes, they want to be sure they're in time to snag one of the city's most famous sandwiches, the muffaletta. The huge round sandwiches are comprised of many layers or meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Larry Tusa, one of Central's co-owners, figures the mufaletta developed soon after Central opened in 1906. "The sandwich kind of evolved," Tusa says, "but it was small, it wasn't like this. They maybe made a dozen, two dozen a day."

The sandwich became an icon. So much so that homesick New Orleanians order them air-shipped on ice. The mufaletta can last all day without refrigeration, which made them the preferred sustenance not only for the folks who lined up to watch hours-long Mardi Gras parades, but for the people on the floats, too.

And while tourists and locals still line up for the muffaletta, the store's owners wonder whether the family business will continue in future generations. "You know It's not for everybody," says co-owner Sal Tusa. "We'll keep it going as long as we can."

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.