After the new year, in mid-January, I took a trip to New Orleans. I had never been there before and got the opportunity to go. I had a friend who lived there. We went to camp together years ago when we were kids. So, in a sense, we grew up together, even if wasn’t a constant. We were bunk-mates and slept next to each other, both of us on the bottom bunk, or as I called it, the first floor. We managed to stay in touch over the years sporadically, but more so, in the past five.
She had left with her then boyfriend, now husband, after they were wiped out from Hurricane Katrina. They ended up in Nashville for a few years and liked it enough, but New Orleans was always home to them, so they moved back. I can see why. There’s a spirit there. An eclectic melding of various cultures and influences, one equally as strong as the other. I loved New Orleans, with the flavor of the south, the islands and strong French influence. I only wish I could have stayed a bit longer, but I won’t be greedy. I had an opportunity to visit. I can go back.
We stayed in one of the converted mansions on St. Charles Street. It was beautiful, with carved detail throughout. The friend who flew me in, knew the area well. He had gone to school there and went back a few times a year. Streetcars divided the middle of this wide avenue. My Camp friend pointed out number 922. “That’s the “Streetcar named Desire,” she said. “Or the number on the car anyway.”
I arrived to 80 degree and humid weather. While Tucson had a temperature of 17 and L.A. paired with New York, I was in a thin T-shirt and jeans, wiping my brow. I was happy though. I knew sooner than later, I would come back to the winter winds of the east coast, only to survive the days or weeks of frigid weather.
One of the things I found so striking about NOLA (as it’s called) is that almost every area felt like a neighborhood. No matter what pocket of the city you ended up in, there were shops and restaurants intertwined among those streets, occupying residential houses. What made it special and unique, was that these businesses operated in what was once someone’s home. Unlike most cities, where commercial districts were well defined, and large, glass, buildings dominated the landscape, NOLA felt quaint, casual and accepting. No matter how much architects and designers tried to make these sterile, cold buildings warm and comfortable, especially the restaurants, they failed sharply. The only exception, were and are, the small pubs and mom and Pop establishments.
The French Quarter was different though. Modeled after a small French village, or areas of Paris, the narrow streets, lined with small specialty, gift, antique and other shops had the character of any hamlet in Europe. Walking down Royal Street gave one a variety of options, with the largest, deciding which shop to visit or walk on by. I could already hear the music pouring on to the streets.
Traces of Mardi Gras were prevalent in every shop, on every corner. They were already preparing for it a month away. Masks everywhere. One more intricate and fantastic than the next. I almost bought one and then I thought, what am I going to do with this ? Sure, it was colorful, but it’s not exactly an accessory vital to one’s wardrobe. Or do you place it on a wall in your home, like displaying a piece of art ?
It could be fun at a Halloween party. Being disguised. Even better, I thought it would be great to have a costume party, where everyone HAD to wear a mask. All night and not remove it. I wonder how much people would get out of their comfort zone then.
The Mardi Gras tradition includes something called a King Cake, which is believed to have originated in France around the 12th century. It was to honor the 3 kings, or 3 wise men, confusing King Herod, who was trying to kill the Christ child. The New Orleans, King Cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors. Purple is for Justice, Green for faith and Gold for power. I heard people raving about them, so I tasted it. I can’t say it’s something I’d go out of my way for. But that’s me.
The food in NOLA was fabulous. In a sense, I was glad I had a limited stay. I had been warned. I wanted Louisiana fare only, cooked New Orleans style. The second night there, we went to an up-scale restaurant, which was owned by a heavy-set, older woman. She had been there for 29 years and of course, following New Orleans tradition, it was in a house. Homey, warm and comfortable. A good veneer for the high prices. There were colorful paintings that covered the walls of each room. It wasn’t my taste, but I could appreciate her support for local artists and the subject matter, much of it framing NOLA’s highlights and city notables, past and present.
It was there that I had an appetizer of fried green tomatoes, with a shrimp remoulade. I can still taste that fabulous combination, but not reproduce it anywhere. That was followed by a Drum fish dish, which I had never heard of, but didn’t care. It was served in a Habanero sauce over Jalapeno cornbread. Scrumptious and I can still taste the cornmeal crust. The side of mustard greens for the table, had no bitterness and was a tasty accompaniment.
Despite the fact that the entire table urged me to go for the restaurant’s delicious honey glazed, pecan bread pudding, I opted for the pecan pie instead. It was the best pecan pie ever, hands down. After one of the women finished tasting it, she said, “That’s the lightest and most delicious pecan pie I have ever had. If you can ever call pecan pie light.” But I knew what she meant. It wasn’t wrought with the typical thick, sugary filling. This had a light, syrup middle, with fresh nuts oozing out between the perfectly baked layers of crust.
The night before going home, I found the spicy Crawfish dish I was so determined to have before leaving and somewhere in between coming and going, I was served Red fish, whatever that was. I had never even heard of that either.
Someone from back east, who owned a high-end restaurant, once said that writing about great food, in a descriptive way you could taste, or couldn’t wait to, was like writing food porn. Feeling excited and passionate about it, craving it, to the point that an over abundance of saliva is produced, until you are satisfied. As a culture, we are obsessed. Look at all the chefs with books and shows on the food channel. They even have their own network.
NOLA isn’t just about the food though, although I have to admit, it was quite memorable and certainly in the forefront of my mind. It is also the ambience, the diversity, the vibrancy of this city that lures you in and seduces you. The friendly warmth of these resilient people, who came through a ferocious, devastating storm and out the other side, picking up the pieces and each other. That is what makes NOLA so unique.
I know why so many came back. I know why these people re-built their city and go on. Despite the new, improved levies, this city is below sea level, making it vulnerable. There’s no guarantee this wouldn’t or couldn’t happen again, even on a lesser scale. But like any other group of people in an area, they laugh, eat, party, work, enjoy and visit with close friends and family, maybe even a bit more than the rest of us.
This city is festive and alive. Perhaps there’s a looseness here, a tendency not to hold back, to enjoy life a little more than the rest of us, to show up and be more present every single day. It’s a feeling you can’t convey, unless you’ve been there. You have to see it for yourself. Explore it, taste it, be a part of it. Then I wouldn’t have to explain any of it. You’d just understand. You’d get it.