Friday, September 18, 2009

Missing you, New Orleans

Ahhh, New Orleans. You lusty, insatiable thing. You have a piece of my heart always, it turns out. Not that I should have been surprised.

There are places that I know without ever being there that I will love. They are inevitably places of history, places of culture, places of tradition, places of music, places of food, places of art, places that are no one's but their own. On paper, I could check each one of these items off for New Orleans. But walking around its streets, shoulder to shoulder with its people, well that's a different thing entirely. The real deal.

[Sidenote: The angst I have about the place I currently live and why it's not happening for me? Reference against the above list and get an idea of the disconnect.]

We arrived under the guise of celebrating T's birthday, but we really just needed an excuse to get out of town. As expected, Dean and Jeanne were quite the traveling companions, full of the inside scoop thanks to Jeanne's sister and brother-in-law, who teach at Tulane, and their own storied history of Nola adventures, dating back to the late 1960s.

Eating, of course, was of primary importance. On Friday night we ended up at K-Paul's, an old-school Cajun restaurant where I sampled my first-ever shrimp etouffee and had the first of many delicious cocktails. Our favorite morsel of the night? Fried oysters in "Hot Fanny Sauce," which we jokingly ordered because one of our cats is named Fanny, but quickly realized the sauce is so delicious we might have named Fanny after it had we tried it first.

After dinner we walked around the city for hours, poking around little streets and taking it all in. D&J took us to a stretch known for tiny jazz clubs, where we found out that because we were in low (read: hurricane-prone) season, a bunch of places were taking their annual vacation. So instead, we headed back to Bourbon to our hotel. I decided that for my first trip to Nola, we should stay right in the middle of the party, and the Sonesta did not disappoint. Inside the hotel is Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, so we spent the rest of the night wildly applauding incredible musicians and sampling more delicious Nola drinks.

Saturday... such a full day! We started with brunch at Elizabeth's, a fantastic hole-in-the-wall, locals kind of place recommended by J's sister.

 HEAVEN. Funky and art-filled and low-down (I wanted to buy at least two pieces hanging on the wall), and the kind of menu I love... we're talking crab and grits and fried green tomatoes and sausage and strong bloody marys and rich coffee and PRALINE BACON. Nomnomnomnom. With a menu like that, the four of us spent hours sampling and chatting. It's to Elizabeth's, also, that I credit my new obsession: boudin balls.

Boudin balls are a local and regional specialty; they're sausage-balls, in essence, served in a mustard sauce. It's safe to say that I'm about to begin an in-depth study on how to make the best boudin balls outside of Cajun country. It turns out that Central Market sells boudin sausage (love you CM!!!), so I don't have to worry about making my own authentic boudin and can simply begin to fry balls (ha!) and concoct mustard sauces to my heart's content. Watch out, arteries.

After brunch, we drove around New Orleans so I could get my head around the city a little bit. We spent nearly an hour driving through the Lower Ninth Ward, and I think my heart was breaking the entire time. I have friends who visited Nola shortly after Katrina and still talk about how overwhelming the destruction was to see at that point. Four years later, it's humbling to admit that I'm not sure I could have handled seeing the area right after the catastrophe. Nearly all of the homes still standing are marked with the rescue tags from various agencies - "3 Dead" spraypainted on one house, "Dead dog" on another, and then thankfully, "0" on the next. It was raining when we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, which seemed fitting for the tragedy still taking place there, and also eerily unsettling. The area is so far below the sea level that an average rainstorm like the one that afternoon was already filling up lawns with water. The place truly makes you think about the struggle between humanity and nature. It's ever-present there.

But then, amidst the horror still spraypainted on homes, there is progress. There are blocks of brand-new development sponsored by universities and sustainability programs and yep, Brad Pitt. There are people out and about, looking onto a levee that seemed perilously close to full from our perch on the bridge above it, but which locals are accustomed to as their front door to the rest of the city. Maybe that's the Lower Ninth Ward in a nutshell: beside one emptied-out home missing glass in its windows and marked by death, there is a new home, brightly painted and looking forward. Both face that levee. One was lucky. One was not. I did the best I could to get my head around that kind of force-of-nature nonchalance that says more about human intervention than blanket natural disaster. Again: humbling.

Here's the thing about New Orleans, though. As leveling as seeing "3 Dead" spraypainted on the side of a home is, you cross the bridge and you don't see it anymore. Our day was structured like that - that night's hotly anticipated event was eating at John Besh's Restaurant August. Did I forget what I saw? Temporarily, sure. But the spraypaint stays with me, I can assure you.

On to August... oh, August. We all know that I've been crushing on John Besh for some time now. After eating at his restaurant? It's on.

We dined with Dean, Jeanne, Judy, and Ken, and even our locals hadn't eaten there yet.We each ordered a starter and an entree, and really... I just can't say more. Except that I will eat there again. Soon. Very, very soon.

A funny note on the chef: John Besh wasn't at August during our meal. The chef de cuisine responsible? An equally charming and handsome kitchen magician named Michael Gulotta. How do I know that he's charming and handsome? Because our table requested a kitchen tour, to which we were greeted by applause in the kitchen and whereupon Jeanne and I took turns flirting with Michael, who showed Jeanne how he made the foam accompanying her fish dish. I'm not sure if Michael is single or not, but he's around 30 and single ladies... you might want to go and request that kitchen tour. Pronto.

Saturday night there was more music and more cocktails. My first Sazerac... hello! We witnessed an extremely awkward marriage proposal and saw a girl wearing a dress that was begging for a "What Not to Wear" intervention. People-watching is fantastic in New Orleans, actually... there's just the funniest mix of high- and low-end on every corner. I love that kind of juxtaposition. I don't care about seeing designer gowns and shoes at every turn. But a designer gown next to a guy wearing terrible shorts and a tacky t-shirt? Now that intrigues me.

On Sunday morning, we were supposed to get up early and walk to Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee, but a torrential downpour made walking impossible (note on Nola flooding: an hour of rain and the streets in the French Quarter were flooding the sidewalks... and that's on high ground). Once the rain let up, T and I found a local beignet spot near the hotel, aptly named Cafe Beignet, and got our sugar high on for the day. Yum.

The day revolved around Sunday Jazz Brunch at Antoine's, a legendary New Orleans establishment. This history of this place is just extraordinary. We were probably cheating by going for afternoon brunch instead of dinner, but they were closed until Saturday for their annual vacation week, and it was the best we could do. Brunch was delightful - Oysters Rockefeller, invented at Antoine's, eggs in decadent sauces and crabcakes made to perfection... all very good. The music was good, the service good... but our tour of the restaurant after brunch was over? Now that was the stuff of legend. There are fourteen dining rooms at Antoine's - really, go see - and it would take days to look at every item on the walls in every room. Days. We laughed at the icky pairing of middle-aged "Kings" with teenage "Queens," were in awe at the amazing artifacts about prohibition and various festivals and secret societies and Nola ruling classes. We peeked into a wine cellar that stretches an entire city block. The rooms are like stepping back in time, quite literally. The mind transports back even though you're clutching a plastic takeout bag and wearing a decidedly modern sundress. The place just stands still. Amazing.

Our last stop on Sunday before heading out of town was to The Columns, a legendary old hotel in the Garden District, for a last New Orleans cocktail. Like every other place in town, this building is so chock-full of history that the mind boggles... the perfect setting for a goodbye drink. Once inside, we realized it was where Pretty Baby was filmed, and the place really does still look exactly like an early-century brothel.

So... we're planning another trip. Because we have to go back. And honestly, we made a deal that as long as we live in a city we don't love, we might as well take advantage of traveling to cities that are relatively close by that we do love, which someday might be more difficult to travel to. That said, we're returning later this fall or winter. On tap?
  • Staying at The Roosevelt, which is oozing with history and was recently reopened post-Katrina
  • Eating at August again (duh) for more Frech-Creole deliciousness
  • Eating at Domenica, John Besh's newest restaurant, conveniently located inside the Roosevelt
  • Eating at Galatoire's, which rivals Antoine's for the most legendary New Orleans restaurant award
  • Eating at Cochon! Eating at Bayona!
  • Eating at Willie Mae's Scotch House... and Mother's, too
  • Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches - po boys and a Central Grocery muffaletta
  • Hitting up Kitchen Witch, this fantastic out-of-print cookbook store we found... but this time with a list! I was unprepared in heaven!
  • More music!
  • More art!
  • More history!
  • (Okay, this might take a few more trips)
Some pics from our French Quarter afternoons (as high-brow as some of our culinary adventures were, you'll see that my photographic interests are at the other end of the spectrum):



  1. Great post! I feel like I was there with you. You got my mouth watering! And sounds like I need to check out Restaurant August and Mr. Michael Gulotta! So glad y'all had a great time.

  2. Oh NOLA, how I long for you! Glad you had a great time, isn't The Columns amazing?! I must confess that I have actually patronized the burlesque establishment pictured above. Let me tell you that those world famous acts, were not acts of love.... ;)

  3. Sounds like a great trip! I love hearing stories about people's travels... especially (as is the case with New Orleans) when the stories are of a place that I have on my list of places I must visit.

  4. Thanks for your beautiful essay about your visit to my home town. I'm very happy you had a good time.

    I write because I think you might be unintentionally misleading your readers about our flood. You implied that it was just the Lower Ninth Ward that flooded and that the Lower Ninth Ward was nearly the lowest part of the city, but both those things are common mis-perceptions.

    The previously densely populated but now desolate Lower Ninth Ward is but only 2 of the 140 urban square miles (in just Orleans Parish) that flooded when the flood control structures fell down.

    When you were returning to the heart of the city from the Lower Ninth Ward, after you crossed that bridge, everything in front of you and to your right, all the way to within a few hundred feet of Lake Pontchartrain and all the way to the 17th Street Canal suffered massive flooding too.

    There are so many damaging myths about New Orleans and its people and that flood.

    Do people know that 90% of the metro area evacuated before the storm? It was the most successful evacuation of a metropolitan area in this country's history. Could their city do as well?

    Do they know that 70% of New Orleans home owners had flood insurance? - a rate higher than almost anywhere else in the country.

    Do they know that the flood, proportionally, killed just as many rich, middle class and poor as well as black, white, Hispanic and Asian New Orleanians? The only demographic that suffered more than the rest were our elderly who suffered the worst, by far. Do they know many thousands of New Orleanians died in the months after the storm from stress and depression, and are still dying?

    Do they know that 50% of New Orleans is above sea level?

    Do they know ships must travel 96 miles upriver from the Gulf to reach New Orleans? - we are not a 'coastal' city.

    Do they know the Corps is mostly responsible for the losses of our wetlands that use to serve as a storm surge buffer for New Orleans?

    Do they know that New Orleans has a higher percentage of residents that remain lifelong residents of their home town than any other major metropolitan area in the US?

    Do they know the vast majority of New Orleanians are honest, hard working, tax paying, law abiding US citizens and deserve their respect?

    Why do outsiders believe these myths?

    The myths seemed to stem from journalists parachuting in with preconceived notions and lazy but flowery language and they typically reported it all wrong. Countrymen and politicians used our problems as partisan political fodder. New Orleans and its residents have been ruthlessly slandered like no American city has ever experienced. Lazy media reported a 'natural' disaster and too many of our countrymen feel we deserved our disaster and should even be denied the right to exist. It is plenty enough to hurt your feelings. Our fellow US citizens, even folk from all over the world, don't care that all the misinformation has seriously disillusioned and disturbed so many.


  5. And then there is the real reason for the flood...

    Our outfall canal floodwalls fell down without even being overtopped by storm surge water (at less than half their design loads) because of negligent engineering in the design of those floodwalls' foundations by engineers employed with the US Army Corps of Engineers as reported in the official levee failure investigation reports and reported to Congress by Corps leadership in June of 2006 and as decided by US 5th District Judge S. Duval in January 2008.

    i.e. it was not a 'natural' disaster! The classification is 'MAN MADE'! - human error, engineering mistakes. New Orleanians deserve vindication on this issue.

    The Corps drove the floodwall sheet-piles only 17.5 feet below sea level when they needed to be 60 feet to have not fallen over if water had risen to the tops of the floodwalls. The water didn't rise to within four feet of the top of the floodwalls before they failed. Simply put, New Orleans was short-sheeted by the USACE.

    The levee failures and subsequent flooding were NOT because of our corrupt local levee boards and politicians or because of weak soil, barges, wind, rain, land elevation, levee heights, levee maintenance, subsidence, budgets, democrats, republicans, crime, an act of God, school buses, our culture, environmentalists, neighborhood groups. It wasn't even caused by FEMA, our Sewage and Water Board or our state's Department of Transportation, or our poverty, lack of education or any of the other red herring issues very successfully promoted by so many. It was not the fault of flood victims.

    Blaming levee and floodwall failures on Katrina is like saying a bridge collapse was because of traffic. It seems some would blame the drivers?

    The levees did not fail because they were 'overwhelmed'. Federal engineers made lots of big stupid mistakes. Our disaster was the worst engineering catastrophe in the history of North America and the engineers that designed and built and were responsible for those failed levees are the same engineers tasked to rebuild our storm surge protection system. And, the federal government gives us no choice (and never did), but to accept the Corps' work. Locals were only supposed to mow the grass.

    Anyway, please visit our city again. We love showing people a good time. Next time, stay longer. Weather is best mid October to mid April. To me, it sounded like y'all could have squeezed in a little more music and drinking. And remember, always bring an empty ice chest to fill with to-go food for your trip home.

    red beans and rice,

  6. Thanks for the wealth of information, Ray. I did notice the signs of severe flooding on the other side of the bridge; you are correct, of course. And you have nothing to worry about - I will most definitely be visiting again soon! LOVE your ice chest idea, by the way - if only TSA would look upon New Orleans takeout so kindly ( of my constant pet peeves). Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I just had to comment on the boudin balls! My husband and I visited some friends in Baton Rouge and had our first taste of them there. Those things are heaven for sure!! Hubs made his own when we got home and they were so, so good!!

    Glad you had a great time!

  8. I love that your travels center around food! I love eating my way through new cities, too. Oh, and I can't wait to check in on your boudin balls experiments.


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