VooDoo, Oysters, and Rebirth in New Orleans
I thought the question simple enough:
“Are you Priestess Miriam?”
She looked up from the gris-gris she was preparing,
placed the oyster po’ boy she had just taken a bite out
of on a paper plate and wiped her mouth with a paper towel.
“Some might say so. She replied. “Ours is not to reason why
but to sail the winds with faith and sincerity.”
That’s what I got for asking a simple question in this city of
overindulgence, of intrigue and superlatives. We collected
some written materials, purchased twenty dollars worth of good
juju, and continued up Rampart Street.
Intrigue indeed, or maybe just a bit too much eccentricity...
When Cindy and I walked through the wrought iron gate of our New Orleans Garden district B & B, our bellman was a street musician named Glen. He was also the designated fix-it man for the inn, and it turns out he was the ex-husband of the B & B’s owner, Beatriz. We came in on a Sunday, the last day of the French Quarter Fest- four days of music featuring two hundred bands on 20 stages scattered around the Quarter. It was a great introduction to the city, for this was the first time I’d visited here. When we next saw Glen, he had do-dads and thing-a ma-jigs hanging all over him, scratching and banging out the most incredible rhythms, and I knew I was going to like it here.
This was eight years after Katrina. The city was back, with exceptions of course, and I wanted to help celebrate that fact. We had driven in over muddy Lake Pontchartrain and above the districts and wards that had borne the brunt of the flooding and destruction of Katrina, and I wanted to get “down in there” and stand and witness. As we drove the interstate bridges, some sections below us still resembled the Homestead post-Hurricane Andrew that I had known first-hand back in Florida.
New Orleans is first and foremost a town of neighborhoods. Our B & B was in the Garden District, with the campuses of Tulane and Loyola Universities to the west and uptown (meaning upriver), and the Business District was downriver or "downtown." The French Quarter was just down river and to the east of "Downtown." Got it?
After checking in with Glen’s help, we ran to the St. Charles Street Car for the hop downtown and the Sunday Jazz Brunch at Antoine’s in the French Quarter. I am a disciple of Anthony Bourdain, and Tony’s Big Easy travelogues had convinced me that eating and drinking in all the city’s deserving establishments in three days, at my age, would be an athletic challenge.
Antoine’s wasn’t on the top of Bourdain’s list, but of course, as first timers, it was a must for Cindy and me. And brunch seemed a good way to experience New Orleans’ most venerable restaurant and still be able to afford gas for the trip back. Well- just barely.
We started with Bisque d’ecrevisses (de Saison)- a rich Louisiana crawfish gumbo, and Oysters Rockefeller. Then on to Soft shell crab for me, while Cindy ordered Oeufs Sardou- Poached eggs over steamed artichoke bottoms with Hollandaise sauce, all served with the rich black chicory coffee the New Orleans is famous for.
The room of head-shots and autographs of notable guests…
Recognize the main dining room from Oliver Stone’s film JFK?
After brunch, we were encouraged to wander around the place. And what a place- four floors of intimate dining rooms from another era. The lavish ghosts of the past accompanied us up and down the creaky stairs and grand hallways.
At the Festival
When we finally stepped out of Antoine’s, the music of the French Quarter Festival in the air tugged at us.
Bands with names like Ovi-G and the Froggies, Funky Butt, The Lake Pontchartrain Owls, Tuba Skinny, and The Canal Creepers blew the clouds away as we strolled from venue to venue, pausing to take in each remarkable act.
There was a most eclectic group of musicians playing in front of the same courthouse that Jim Garrison had unsuccessfully tried Clay Shaw after the Kennedy assignation. The cello player-singer was a hoot and very talented, belting out a jambalaya fusion of jazz and chamber quartet pieces that had several couples dancing.
Everyone enjoys what must be one of the great entertainment values in America
if you love music- The French Quarter Fest in New Orleans.
Over on Royal Street, a traditional jazz quintet oozed standards with a clarinet player/vocalist who, I am sure, would have stopped Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald to listen.
We passed Preservation Hall, then turned down Dumaine Street towards the river and that’s when we ran into Glen. Turns out he was a damn good musician. He sported sewing thimbles on every finger and had more clink-clanky stuff hanging off him than any anyone else of the genre we had seen so far- a most avant-garde one man band. He played a self styled zydeco- roots music from the delta- a Creole flavored treat dominated by the washboard slung diagonally across his chest.
We enjoyed the riverfront venues for a while, and then headed back to see Delfeayo Marsalis’ big band, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at the Jackson Square stage. Man, it has been quite a while since I’ve heard straight ahead big band jazz like that live- pow-er-ful! They brought the intensity down a bit with Hoagy Carmichael’s classic Skylark, which brought a smile to my face as we walked and hummed a long.
By this time it was getting along towards dusk and time to experience my first Sazerac, the original official cocktail of New Orleans.
Our destination was the Roosevelt Hotel, a grand dame of New Orleans- again, a personal suggestion of Tony Bourdain. Since we hadn’t yet seen the most famous of all party streets in America, we decided we would stroll Bourbon Street back towards downtown and the Roosevelt.
Let me say this to the uninitiated; you don’t “stroll” down Bourbon Street- you crawl, stumble, or swiftly shuffle depending on the time of day and duration of imbibement, or the number of people pitching drink specials, elicit substances or physical pleasure at you. Legendary bars like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, The Funky Pirate and, around the corner, music clubs such as One Eyed Jacks- complete with live burlesque trapeze acts over the stage. When I lived in the Keys I used to describe Duval Street in Key West to visitors as “Bourbon Street with palm trees.” No, no. That was wrong. Duval Street is Disney’s Main Street next to the debauchery I witnessed on Bourbon Street.
OK- been there, done that.
The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel’s is everything an up-scale drinking establishment should be; exquisitely decorated, inviting, quiet and romantic. Good conversation ensues and the bartenders are pros- crafting each cocktail by hand, long pouring, hand grinding the sugars, taking real care to pour as much love as alcohol into your cut glass. I had my required Sazerac- rye whiskey (Bourbon on request), Peychaud bitters (mine had Angostura bitters, for which I was grateful) muddled with bar syrup, ice-strained and served ‘neat’ in an absinthe rinsed cocktail glass with a peel of lemon. Non-traditionalists serve the lemon twist as garnish.
It is a snake of a drink.
Cindy, pulling from her San Francisco- Sausalito days, choose a Ramos Gin Fizz, another local favorite here as well and, again, hand made from scratch with our mixologists separating egg white and yolks, etc. This was a bar to linger in and appreciate simple, old fashioned pleasures, and we did so.
My favorite up-scale bars are ones where glass sparkles and tinkles.
The Sazerac bar did not disappoint.
We decided that our first day in New Orleans was calories deficient ( yeah, right ) so the next morning we woke early, had coffee and a croissant with Beatriz, and then took the Canal Street trolley down to Café du Monde near the river for espresso and beignets. The place was packed so we waited in the take-out line, gaping with disbelief once we got to the order window and saw the kitchen. Mounds and Mounds and Mounds of powdered sugar everywhere, destined for those deep fried yet delicate morsels. About half of it, went on mine. Since there was no seating available, we took our fancy twinkies and headed to the river, where we watched the morning’s ship and barge traffic start the day’s dance, while brushing pound after pound of powdered sugar off our laps. We were decadence personified.
A cup of chicory coffee and beignet at the foggy riverfront.
VooDoo and Po’boys
But we had just gotten Day 2 started. Have you figured out by now that this city is not the place to come to lose weight? Later in the day, after visiting Madame Miriam and the Voo Doo Temple that I mentioned earlier, we checked out St Louis Cemetery #1.
Being a city that lies under the water table, New Orleans does wicked things to its dead. As a result, this town buries its departed above ground, in cemeteries of private family sarcophaguses. This is where the great Voo Doo Priestess Madame Laveau is believed to be interned, and where the famous LSD tripping scene in Easy Rider was filmed. I walked as reverently as I knew how, feeling that a cemetery is a hell of a place to put a tourist attraction.
St Louis Cemetery #1
After St Louis Cemetery, we walked through near-by City Park among the Magnolias and Moss-draped live oaks. Unfortunately, the near-by Museum of Art was closed, so we hopped a trolley back to the Quarter where the next item on my gastric bucket list awaited- a po’ boy at Napoleon’s Bar and Grill.
I had the beef and gravy. Yeah I know- I opted out of the classic oyster, but we had oysters Rockefeller the day before and Tony had told me about these. Cindy ordered an equally classic Muffuletta. We noticed a beer on the menu called Voodoo Black Porter. Of course we ordered one. We expected a fantastic dark local micro-brew. It was great. But guess what? Brewed by- are you ready for this, Wisconsinites?- Huber Brewing, Monroe WI.
On to some shopping.
Royal Street is a wonderful strip of antiques and curiosity shops in the middle of the Quarter.
One shop that caught our eye was Vintage 329. Want an Eric Clapton autographed 1969 Fender Stratocaster? Or a Cocktail napkin from Reykjavik, Iceland signed by Mikhail Gorbachev? They are there- for a price.
We did some window shopping and headed back to our B&B for some wine enjoyed on our balcony- (accessed by simply opening a bay window) overlooking the quiet Garden District. As I mentioned earlier, New Orleans is first and foremost a city of neighborhoods, and we sipped our merlot watching folks come home from work as the shadows lengthened across old southern antebellum homes into twilight, allowing the soft sultry breeze to becalm us.
Enough for Day two. Day three we would outdo ourselves…
Roll me home…
The heart of the Garden district, roughly boarded by St Charles and Magazine Streets, and dating back to the Louisiana Purchase, is home to many historic places and faces.
Glorious antebellum and Greek revival architecture, as well as modest southern comfort beckons from every street corner, and we started our last full day engrossed in our own walking tour printed off the Net. We see many others strolling around with maps and books, pausing to point or take a photo, or draw on a sketch pad, so we were not the only ones. Later we would all meet for lunch- but we didn’t know it yet.
Novelist Anne Rice set her novels here, and William Faulkner penned, in my opinion, some of our country’s greatest short stories and personal sketches while observing these parts. New celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, and famous families such as pro football’s Mannings call this neighborhood home. Hollywood continues its attraction to this city and The Strange Case of Benjamin Button was filmed a block away from Archie’s place.
The Jefferson Davis’ house. Just another address... If you were Sandra Bullock, you would be home now…
We pass 1134 First Street, where Jefferson Davis died. Incredible history here, everywhere we turn.
In the middle of the Garden District is another historic cemetery, Lafayette Cemetery.
New Orleans buries it’s dead above ground, due to the fact, of course, that the town is mostly under sea level. Like New Orleans Cemetery #1, Lafayette Cemetery is a narrow walk of crypts that families have used and shared for centuries. Fascinating and a bit macabre.
It was now approaching noon. I was on vacation and I felt like a three Martini lunch.
New Orleans complied. Across the street was Commander’s Palace- one of the top rated bistros in town.
We went in, a little underdressed. The place had just opened and Cindy and I were one of the first to be seated. Within a half an hour, the place was packed, mostly of folks that had been on various walking tours. This was a place for ladies who lunch, and most were dressed to the nines.
The first thing I noticed were the 25 cent Martinis- three maximum per person.
Then came an app- The choices were:
1) Oyster & Absinthe Dome- “briny Gulf oysters poached with bacon, artichokes,
tarragon, Swiss absinthe, and a splash of cream under a flaky pastry shell” or
2) Spicy wild shrimp with Avocado Remoulade.
We did both.
Then, for an entrée, I ordered strawberry lacquered Quail and Cindy had the Creole Gumbo and the Turtle soup finished with aged Spanish sherry.
Of course we needed dessert: Creole Bread Pudding Souffle “finished table side with warm whiskey cream.” And coffee.
Somehow we got back to our room to nap. We would need it. We stopped in to the office to say hello to Beatriz. Cindy asked her about Katrina and we find out that this part of town saw very little flooding. “We who stayed to protect our properties had a party,” she said. More echoes of Andrew, I thought.
Still on the list for our last night in town was another of Anthony Bourdain’s must-dos, dinner at Cochon, followed by the biggest must-do we had planned for in our preparations for this visit; The Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar. Tony mentions it, as does every city guide and travelogue we had read: Quote- If you are in town on a Tuesday night, RUN- do not walk- to The Maple Leaf Bar to see the Rebirth Brass Band.
Crowds generally know what they are doing…
So, after a couple hours of R&R in our B&B, we rose once again to do battle, this time for the last time, in this municipality of excess.
We walked the half dozen blocks into the Warehouse District, close to downtown’s business district and Cochon, owned by celebrated New Orleans chef Stephen Stryjewski.
Like Tony Bourdain, I am a big pork lover, so this was a must. Being a Tuesday and a workday, the place was packed with downtown white-collar types. Seating was limited and the bar was small. The place reminded me a bit of Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach in the good old days, before they expanded it; a two hour wait standing hip deep in humanity at the bar before you got a table. But oh, what a reason to wait!
Wood fired roasted oysters followed by... yes!- crispy smoked ham hocks- with herb spatzle, Brussels sprouts & mustard cream.
I don’t even remember what Cindy had.
Where I found the room after stuffing myself at Commander’s Palace five hours earlier I do not know. As I told Cindy, I would be eating ramen noodles and Ritz crackers for the next six months to pay back for all this, but it was worth it. Actually, Cindy kicked in and treated me a share of the time but never mind- give me my grief, please.
Ok, the Rebirth Brass Band doesn’t start at the Maple Leaf ‘til 10 P.M. We relaxed a bit at our outdoor table at Cochon, enjoying more rich chicory coffee and then walked up to the St. Charles Streetcar for the leg out past College-town for the Maple Leaf.
Tulane and Loyola Universities are sister schools on the far west side of New Orleans. The trolley took us as far as the universities, then we hopped a bus for the last five miles.
“Why didn’t you just take the car,” you ask? Two reasons. One, my idea of a real vacation is one without automobiles and two, I hadn’t come to New Orleans to drink club soda all night.
The Maple Leaf Bar is a small bar on a small street with a dance room in the back. The Fire Marshall probably certified the place for 60-75 patrons. There were at least 450. I will need more time to come up with the appropriate metaphor and simile. I haven’t felt that claustrophobic since exiting Boston’s July Fourth Boston Pop’s celebration at the Esplanade in’87. But who cares?!
The Rebirth Brass Band is a cross between The Rolling Stones and a New Orleans Funereal marching band. And in that tiny confined space three descriptors come to mind; LOUD/ SWEAT/ JOY. Between sets the crowd would spill out into the street for some fresh air. A very smart local entrepreneur served Oysters Parmesan and sausages off his portable grill to the revelers, sucking in all the beer and oxygen they could in ten minutes.
Then the boys would start up again and four hundred people would cram themselves back in to grind away some more. It was loud and sweaty and dirty, yet polite and wonderful. Mass humanity at its best. Think micro- indoor Woodstock.
Nondescript club in non nondescript holds................The biggest act in town.
Well, you get the idea...
Three sets later, the band said goodnight. I was done as well. I mean, done in. Cindy wanted more. I think she fell in love with the trumpet player. I was simply numb. What time was it? We hailed a cab. What a day. What a night. What a town.
Driving out the next day I wanted to see the lower ninth ward and the main levee that was breached during Katrina, so we drove north through city streets rather than getting immediately on the I-10. Spray painted shells of houses, empty lots, and squalor was dotted with new roofs, new construction, and hope. I saw in the people of New Orleans the same kind of grit and fatalistic determination that South Floridians demonstrated years after Andrew. Home is home.
Speaking of home, I am back, and the hum drum intensifies. I’ll never listen to jazz the same way again, I know that. And I can add The Big Easy to the number of towns I can now picture in my mind; the streets, the faces, the personalities, the smells, the sounds. For one with such wanderlust, it’s a hell of a lot better than reading a story about- or hearing a news report from- New Orleans without knowing that Bourbon Street runs from northeast to southeast, the Superdome is on the north side of town, or where Treme is. I relish being able to place myself in the special corners of this planet, where every place can be special.
When you can do that, the world is indeed your oyster.
c. Someplace Else LLC