New Orleans, 2017
The French Quarter
It’s been a long time since I spent that year in New Orleans. It seems like a lifetime away. So I was curious about whether or not I’d feel sentimental about the town and my past.
I didn’t. Which was good.
It allowed me to look at New Orleans with fresh eyes.
So it was that I decided to get up early one morning and just go walking. I started in the French Quarter.
I always enjoy wandering the streets. Being the foodie that I am (it’s in my DNA; I can’t help myself) one of my favorite stores is Lucullus, a culinary antique shop on Royal Street:
And of course, the standards like Napoleon House:
No to mention the street processions celebrating…anything and everything! Here are three videos I took while just strolling about. Let the good times roll!
Many New Orleanians have said to me that they couldn’t imagine ever leaving New Orleans. I can understand that. It’s a blend of history, heredity and a melting pot of culture that is unique. From Louis Armstrong:
The Warehouse District
I was curious to get away from the touristed streets and re-visit some of my old haunts further uptown. I started with the warehouse district.
Since Katrina, New Orleans has grown up. The entire warehouse district–which was definitely on the shabby (not chic) and dangerous end of the social spectrum when I lived there–has been totally renovated. It’s full of hotels and galleries and a serious cruise ship terminal. And now it boasts the National World War II Museum that is simply extraordinary. The museum inspires, informs, engages and awes the visitor, through film, artifact and emotion.
I am always moved by World War II history because my father flew in the 8th Army Air Corps as a navigator. It was a brutal job. The 8th army Air Force was tasked with the air war over Europe . It had the highest casualty rate of all the service branches.
My father flew two tours. Knowing what I know now, about history and war and as a pilot, I do not know how these men survived this, physically and emotionally.
But on a lighter note, the museum also captures some of the revelry of the day:
History, and war, always creates winners and losers. It’s seldom as black and white as it’s sometimes presented. Take General Robert E. Lee for example.
Lee is no longer atop the monument at Lee Circle. He had faced north because “you never turn your back on the enemy”. Lee and all the history he represents–of vanquished slavery, of a changing way of life, of the re-unification of this country under terribly difficult circumstances–was recently deemed to be “politically incorrect”.
Now an empty column sits awkwardly in the traffic circle.
Somehow his absence speaks louder than his quiet presence ever did.
In the ’80’s when I lived in New Orleans, the Civil War was just 100 years past. That meant that memories were still alive. People’s great grandparents experienced being on the losing end of a war, a war that ripped apart their traditions and culture and dramatically changed the trajectory of many lives.
That history–those very personal experiences– lived on through subsequent generations. The stories were of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, impacted by extraordinary events and times.
Like most history, the story that evolved was incredibly imperfect, unfair, uncertain, and full of imbalances. It’s one of the reasons that we need historic reminders. Not to celebrate defunct institutions or ideas, but to remember them with humility not hubris. For better and for worse, they are part of our human experience.
Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. -Winston Churchill
Such wise words.
The Garden District
I’m not yet ready for museum wandering this early morning . The sun is rising, and I want to head uptown. I snag a cab and head for the garden district using Commander’s Palace as a starting point.
Commander’s Palace will always have a fond spot in my heart. It’s my quintessential old New Orleans restaurant. Some prefer Antoine’s (where local families have their own waiter that looks after them) or perhaps Tujaques (which dates back to the 1850’s), both of which are terrific. But for me, it will always be those aqua striped awnings of this building nestled into the Garden District.
The elegance of the upstairs dining room looking out on magnificent greenery, coupled with that wonderful integration of “Haute Creole cuisine and whimsical Louisiana charm” lures me in every time.
My first experiences at Commander’s occurred when Emeril Lagasse was chef. At the time he was unknown, but his bread pudding souffle with a bourbon creme anglaise became rapidly known. Talk about decadent! Rich, yes. Lucious, yes. Yet it was never to sweet. Really just the perfect, totally decadent balance. Teamed with dark, rich chicory coffee, a dinner at Commanders was to be savored.
That perfect balance of decadence and delight has found its way into dishes at other Brennan properties as well. At Sobu, the bread pudding was absolutely perfect. Hot sweet rich crunch from pecan; cold ice cream over a hot, fresh from the oven casserole… I almost never eat dessert, but a few bites of this was irresistible and I’m glad I was weak of will.
“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” –Mark Twain
Mr. B’s, one of my all time standbys was, however, somewhat disappointing. I stopped in late in the afternoon and ordered a bowl of gumbo. the bowl arrived heaped with seafood. Yum. But it was cold. I sent it back.
The bowl returned, but it was only barely warmed. And that pile of seafood was gone.
In all fairness, it was late in the day, after lunch, but quite before dinner. And they didn’t charge me for the gumbo. But surely managing to serve a basic bowl of gumbo HOT in a premier New Orleans French Quarter restaurant isn’t asking too much.
My tepid gumbo aside, if you’ve never been to New Orleans, it’s almost impossible to be disappointed, It’s a fun town, ready to party. The food is both local and exotic; the architecture wonderfully dated and original; the weather, is well, gulf weather.
At the Garden District I lighted from the cab and started walking. I had no particular plans, other than to simply explore. The gates to the cemetery across from Commanders was open and the morning light poured in:
Cemeteries are a unique and fascinating part of the New Orleans landscape. These “cities of the dead” exist because the city is below sea level. Digging down six feet simply isn’t an option so bodies are buried above ground. This practice follows the Spanish custom of using vaults for burial. Wealthier families created ornate tombs, some resemble small houses complete with iron fences.
The cemeteries are scattered throughout New Orleans, and each has its own tale to tell. They say dead men tell no tales, but in New Orleans, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.
Just down the way from the glorious mansions of the Garden District is Magazine Street, a funkier area that stretches from the Garden District to Uptown. But it’s too early for any shops to be open, except of course for breakfast.
Now you have to understand that breakfast in New Orleans is a genre unto itself. Decadent, sometimes heavy, always creative, and usually mouthwatering.
I had a fabulous breakfast at The Ruby Slipper on Magazine street. Here is a link to their menu. Try not to drool on your electronic device as you read this.
There is an option to combine any two items on the menu so I went for the Shrimp Boogaloo Benedict:
Gulf shrimp sauteed with pork tasso and creole tomato sauce served over fried green tomatoes, a buttermilk biscuit and two poached eggs
And the Hot-Smoked Salmon Bennie:
Hot-smoked salmon served over a buttermilk biscuit, topped with two poached eggs, finished with red onion, flash-fried capers & dill hollandaise
Both were great, but the Shrimp Boogaloo had me nearly licking the plate.
The combination is simply irresistable as the slight acidity of the fried green tomatoes perfectly plays with the eggs and creole sauce. You’ll note that I totally abandoned my usual vegetarian diet here and it was worth every bite. (Life after all is about balance, rather than absolutes).
Let the good times roll!
While we’re on the topic of food, so many options, so little time! I had a wonderful dinner at Sobu:
Bartender Laura Bellucci also came up with some fabulous drinks including a milk punch with desert. I can’t say enough good things about my dinner at Sobu. It was sophisticated, well executed and creative. New Orleans at its best!
I also ate at Suzan Spicer’s Bayona. Suzan is a highly regarded NOLA chef. The dinner was good but I didn’t see a brilliance of creativity or execution that evening. The fried oyster salad I had to start was on the menu at Maison de Ville (a “hot” restaurant in its time) over 25 years ago. And the dish wasn’t executed with the attention to detail that makes this sing. The breading was heavy and less than artful. I don’t even recall what my main course was.
While we’re on the topic of restaurants, I also stopped int the Flying Pig Cafe near the World War II Museum for lunch. Another terrific meal in a luscious bowl of gumbo:
Uptown New Orleans
After breakfast at Ruby Slipper, I continued uptown. I walked off part of my breakfast (hah! I wish!) and bought a street car pass for the day for $3. While I lived here, I never rode the street car. My air conditioned car allowed me to insulate myself from the relentless heat and humidity and I used that to navigate town.
But the weather is pleasant today and as a tourist, it offered the perfect way to get around town. So along with some other tourists and a few locals, the car headed north. I got off at Audubon Park, walked and wandered.
The architecture throughout New Orleans is so magnificent. Having studied architectural history for a year in New Orleans was a gift. The course was divided into the Quarter, Garden District, Uptown and the Plantations.
My professor was the principal of THE architectural renovation firm in town, and he loved his subject. Everywhere we went, people knew him. So we were invited into numerous houses, mansions and places that one might not normally see. Between classes, field trips and new friends, I explored New Orleans.
Since those days, much has changed. Much has remained the same. A wonderful new addition is The National world War II Museum.
The National World War II Museum
This is a stellar museum. From the entry that simulates the experience of boarding a train to leave for war, to the films and the airplanes (and more!) this is simply a stunning museum. From the museum home page:
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today—so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.
May the lessons of history be learned, never to be repeated.
Here are just a few pictures from the Museum:
New Orleans is so much more than one can present in a brief post. In just a few days I covered all this and so much more. Pictures from my wanderings are in the Gallery, accompanied by some “”Nawlins” jazz, some chicory coffee and lots of luscious pictures. Do visit!
Final thoughts: I’m grateful for the chance to revisit this town. It’s a fun town. In many ways it is smaller than I recall, but then the characters from my stay here in the eighties were somewhat larger than life. They were all very real as were their faults and foibles. But these days, the appeal of a reality grounded in now rather than escapism or egotism, is more my style.
New Orleans will never be a place that resonates for me. But this visit reminds me that we take ourselves wherever we go, and whatever we encounter we view through our own prism of time and experience.
I think back to a woman who sat next to me at the bar at Mr. B’s. She loved New Orleans, and made it a point to come regularly. For her, it’s a three day party. And she’s quite right. New Orleans really needs to adopt that motto that what happens here, stays here. Viva New Orleans!
More Reading On My New Orleans Experiences:
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