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Every few years, I head down to New Orleans. The place has had a magnetic pull on me, ever since my first visit there more than 25 years ago. The last time was in 2007, less than two years after Katrina. When the city was devastated in 2005, I wondered if I’d ever make it back to the Big Easy, one of my favorite places outside New York. Would the city ever recover? Well, foolish of me to underestimate the spirit of New Orleans. I could see even four years ago that the city was well on its way to shedding the blues and even more so when I spent a few days there earlier this week. The weather was perfect and the French Quarter Festival — little brother to Jazz Fest but still a sprawling, colorful celebration of the local music and culinary scene — was in full throttle. The wounds inflicted from Katrina can never fully heal, but it’s inspiring to see how the Crescent City has regained its vitality and sustained its unique character, flavor, and sound. The music, the food, the hospitality, the quirky denizens of the Quarter – it’s hard to capture it all in an extended narrative. So I guess my most recent pass through Nawlins is best recounted through a few snapshots in words and photos.
The Airport Shuttle driver was part raconteur, part tour guide. “Okay, let’s par-tay!” he shouted as we rolled onto the highway. As we approached downtown, he offered some valuable advice about the French Quarter Festival — “Ya’ll better off buying food at the Festival. What’s $5 there will cost ya $15 in the restaurants.” — and conducted a lesson in geography for first time visitors. “One thing that can be a bit confusing is the streets when they cross Canal. They change names. For example, Royal becomes St. Charles, and Bourbon becomes Carondolet.” Helpful advice if you’re heading back to your hotel late at night or early morning with a plastic cup (“Sidewalk Crystal”) of Abita Purple Haze in hand.
I ordered a crawfish po-boy at the Creole Delicatessen booth in Jackson Square. What I got was a dubious looking sausage on a roll. “Sorry, but I ordered the crawfish,” I explained. “Oh that is crawfish,” the woman said, amused by my Yankee naiveté. “It’s the meat of a crawfish encased in a sausage skin.” Sounded a bit dicey. I didn’t even know you could make sausage out of crawdads. But hey, if you can’t get bold with your food in New Orleans, you may as well stay home and eat tuna fish. I polished off the po-boy with great gusto, knowing it was well worth the risk to my fragile constitution. A little while later, feeling no ill effects, I devoured a slice of New Orleans bread pudding in whiskey sauce, followed shortly thereafter with a few peanut turtles from Southern Candymakers on Decatur. I was three steps from heaven and my stomach held up like a boxer with an iron jaw. The food gods were watching over me that day.
I was eyeing the work of a young artist, one of many who surround the perimeter of Jackson Square. The artist, noting that I seemed captivated by his work, peeked out from his sun chair. “Excuse me,” he said. “Can I ask you a question? Can you tell me what you like and don’t like about my work?” Talk about an open mind. How many artists would ask such a question of a total stranger, especially one who hardly looks the part of art critic? I responded that it wasn’t for me to criticize his work so I just told him what I did like. Particularly,his painted skateboards, which were colorful, folksy, and quite original. He pressed me further. “But what don’t you like? It would really help me to know.” I continued to play it diplomatically and noted that I liked the way he worked with narrow, vertical medium like the skateboards and some small works on wood. “You’re very talented,” I told him. “Your work is very colorful and imaginative.” He eyed me with some skepticism, and remarked, “But it’s not for you, right?” I paused, weighing my response. It was important that he knew I appreciated his talent and dedication. “It’s a little youthful for my taste. Not something I would display at home. But you have real talent. Keep doing what you’re doing.” With that he smiled and thanked me. I really think he appreciated my candor. And maybe even my sense of color.
Every section of the Quarter seems to have its own soundtrack. A guy playing steel guitar. A youthful, exuberant brass band. A cellist battling the street noise with the strains of Bach. One night, on a dark corner where Chartes meets Doumaine, it’s a Zydeco-lovin’ accordion player. I couldn’t tell if the musician was male or female. Long hair, androgynous features. Didn’t matter. He / she played like their life depended on it. The music, thick and lively with Cajun spice, rattled and hummed through the night air.
Bourbon Street is synonymous with New Orleans. When I first started going there, I thought it was such a neat place, like a 20-block long frat party. But over time, I began to see Bourbon Street as the antithesis of what is so special about the city. After all, the food is lousy, the music is cheesy, hospitality takes a back seat to hustling and hucksterism. But hey, for just a few buck you can still get sloppy drunk and crazy loud on Hurricane’s, Big A** Beers, and Hand Grenades and exorcise (or feed) the demons within you. Or you can do as I did – stay sober and head to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. I bought a voodoo doll — not the kind you stick pins in but the kind you hang above your door to ward off evil spirits and other non-desirables. When I got back, I gave it to the finance department. I figured they could use one. They named it Jojo Mojo.
I walked into Meyer the Hatter on St. Charles (“The South’s Largest Hat Store! Selling Quality Hats Since 1894.”) with hopes of upgrading my sorry headwear. During my previous trips to the Big Easy, I always viewed the store as an anachronism, a place where old southern gents go to replenish their straw-boaters and panama hats. Not anymore. In the windows were dozens of Bailey hats, the kind all the young (and not so young) guys wore around town to look hip and protect their heads form the powerful rays of the Gulf Coast sun. I walked through the front door hoping to rescue my scalp from the sweat-stained baseball caps that were a staple of my warm weather wardrobe. A pudgy, unshaven salesman approached me, eyed my Pat O’Brien’s cap with disdain and asked, “Other than what choo have on now, what else have you been wearing on yaw head?” I admitted that this was it and he nodded knowingly. “Well, it’s time we change that right ‘bout now,” he said, with a drawl thicker and gooier than pecan pie. He showed me a number of Bailey’s, none of which quite worked for me. “The toughest part is getting used to the way you look in a new hat,” he assured me. Yes, very tough. Me and the Bailey just didn’t seem made for one another. Maybe I should shop for a fedora.
You get a lot of value in New Orleans. Beers are $4. A streetcar ride is only $1.25. You order a dozen shrimp, you get 14. You ask for a biscuit and jelly and they soak it in butter as well. Merchants not only greet you with a smile, but thank you for visiting their city. Little things, but hard to find in most places.
Camellia Grill sits invitingly on Carrolton, right where the streetcar makes its turn off of St. Charles. Just a stone’s throw from the river delta. It’s my favorite spot in town. I first discovered this breakfast and lunch joint in 1984 during my first visit to New Orleans. My friend John, in law school at Tulane, lived just two blocks away. From the outside, it looks like a pint-sized, slightly worn version of the antebellum mansions that define the Garden District. Inside, there are no tables. just a long, curving counter and a few benches to sit on while waiting for space to open up. The place is always packed. The waiters, dressed in white shirts and black bowties, greet you like you’re a regular, even a long-lost friend. The only thing better than the hospitality is the omelets. The atmosphere and service are great, but it’s the omelets that really draw me uptown. They’re big and fluffy like hotcakes, brown and crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I doubt you can find a better use of eggs on the planet. I ordered a potato and onion omelet with cheese. The potatoes were actually greasy fries, so I guess I could have passed on the hash browns. But that would have deprived me of the best hash browns on either side of the Mississippi. I figure every time I eat at the Camellia Grill, it takes a few months off my life. So over time, I’ve probably lost a year. It’s been well worth it.
Laissez the bon temps rouler.