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There aren’t many gleaming skyscrapers in New Orleans. Its version of World Trade Center is a forlorn and seemingly neglected building. Beyond the city are crocodile-infested swamps and bayous, the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico, and the mercurial Mississippi River all menace this city that has sunken below sea level with their muddy waters.
Sometimes called “the northernmost Caribbean city,” it has the same elegant decay of colonial heritage that can be found in many Third World countries. Termites and the humidity constantly threaten to reduce its historic and picturesque architecture of wood and wrought iron filigree into so much rust and rot.
Instead of high-speed trams and subways, New Orleans has snail-paced streetcars. Its people walk with a lugubrious shuffle and many talk with a slow, nearly indecipherable drawl.
There is none of the much-vaunted Protestant work ethic or traces of American Puritanism here. Predominantly Catholic, the people of New Orleans indulge the flesh on their most famous occasion, Mardi Gras— literally meaning “fat Tuesday” in French—with orgiastic abandon before going to church on Ash Wednesday with black crosses smudged on their foreheads and eyes still bleary and hung over. Among those who come to kneel before the altar of saints are devotees of a different kind—practitioners of voodoo—for whom these figurines are but proxies for their loas or African deities. The grave of 19th century voodoo high priestess Marie Laveau in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 garners more pilgrims than that of Elvis Presley’s. Once a major port of the shameful Atlantic slave trade, present-day New Orleans is a predominantly African American city that still has to resolve some of its haunting past. Race relations simmered to boiling point after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the government neglect and lawlessness that ensued.
And yet New Orleans today is the very definition of “cosmopolitan.” “Familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures; having an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures,” the dictionary says. That’s New Orleans.
New Orleans boasts a culture enriched with generous infusions of French, African, Native American, Spanish and Anglo-Saxon heritage. It is the birthplace of jazz, zydeco, ragtime, Dixieland the delta blues, and bounce. It is the home of Creole and Cajun cuisine such as gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, pralines, beignets with café au lait. It is the setting for literature cinema as disparate as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and the highly acclaimed HBO miniseries Treme.
Despite its fame, New Orleans defies stereotype.
The weather is tropical. The vibe is Caribbean. Any yet this is very much the USA where even the drinks— descriptively named “huge ass beers,” “hand grenades” and “hurricane” daiquiris—are supersized. In the French Quarter the streets are named Decatur, Dauphine, Bourbon, and Burgundy. The city is itself is named after Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans, Regent of France. But no francophones live here anymore. Then there’s Tchoupitoulas Steet, named after the original Native American inhabitants, now extinct. All around the city is Cajun country and beyond it, the rest of Louisiana. But hardly anybody in the city speaks with a southern accent, much less a Cajun lilt. Instead, most New Orleanians talk the way people in Brooklyn do, sometimes called the “yat dialect,” as in “where y’at?”
Their palate and their history call for ingredients as exotic in origin as African okra and Choctaw (Native American) filé powder, French chicory and Brazilian coffee, Guianaian cayenne and Calabrian capicola, Caribbean red beans and rice, Louisianan catfish, crawfish, and alligator. Everything that has been transplanted has been made and grown locally. Beyond signature Creole dishes, there’s also Italian-inspired muffuletta and pseudo-Asian yaka mein, too—all uniquely New Orleanian cuisine.
Here is where Western orchestral instruments such as the trumpet, trombone, violin and piano first collided with African-American intuition, spontaneity, improvisation and syncopation. But while traditionalist jazz players abound garbed with suspenders, fedoras, slick back pompadours playing for lindy hop dancers in vintage dresses and perms, there are also marching brass bands that fuse Dixieland with rap and delta blues rock bands that marry their sound with hip-hop and jazz. New Orleans is the birthplace of both Louis Armstrong and Lil Wayne.
Just as a gourmand can only truly savor food with a hungry stomach, likewise the traveler must appreciate New Orleans with an open mind. Despite all the novels, plays and movies about New Orleans, this city will always offers pleasant surprises
The invisible city
The city offers no temples or ruins that can compare to Petra or Abu Simbel. Neither are there galleries of the same grandeur as the Louvre or the Hermitage. And as gorgeous as the quaint avenues of the French Quarter are with their wrought iron terraces and hanging gardens, the greatest attractions of the city are invisible to the naked eye.
New Orleans is best enjoyed with one’s palate and with one’s ears. Food and music are what define the Mecca of jazz and Cajun cuisine. One can close one’s eyes and still taste and hear the true New Orleans.
As famous as New Orleans may be for its Mardi Gras and its New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the city’s true wonders reside here year round well after the crushing throngs have come and gone. Though cities such as Montreal and Montreux host equally renowned jazz festivals for but a few days, the globetrotting musicians desert these thereafter. In contrast, New Orleans is where many artists call home. Here, jazz is not a one-night stand; it is daily life.
Neither the food nor the architecture is just a contrived themed restaurant chain for tourists. Here culture is not just a matter of taste; it is sustenance.
When the crowds part and roaring din quiets, the intimate side of New Orleans is revealed. And intimate is the only way to truly get to know a city and its people. Marie McAdory, 32, a paralegal born in Charleston, South Carolina with primarily Irish heritage, once resided in New York before settling in New Orleans a year ago. Prior to residing in the city, she had visited New Orleans several times. “Each time I came here, I didn’t want to leave,” she explains. It takes an enchanting place to get a girl to leave New York. New Orleans is such a place. “Most of us dance and drink a lot, but you could say that about most New Orleanians. I guess that’s why I like it here,” she explains. Despite their infectious joie de vivre, most New Orleanians come and stay in the city not to escape harsh realities, but to confront them.
Kirstin Freed Sullivan, a 38-year-old Investigating Officer for the Coast Guard, born in San Diego, California of Irish, Slovenian, Swedish, Magyar and Lithuanian descent, recounts, “I settled here just after the storms. I was stationed in Miami and [was] working on a boat in Haiti when Katrina hit. It was tremendously frustrating; we had a 180-foot ship with capabilities to bring shelter and supplies to New Orleans but somehow the higher ups didn’t see the benefit. So when I got the chance to transfer here I jumped at it.”
This is the side of New Orleans that few tourists and even fewer newsreaders get to understand. As beguiling as its music and its cuisine may be, it is the city’s resiliently joyful people that are its most endearing attraction.
The spice of life
As with any metropolis, some of its most authentic epicurean delights are not to be found in haughty fine dining restaurants. Better to trust word of mouth than a Zagat online restaurant rating.
“The best places are the ones that locals invite you to,” advises McAdory—all the more reason to get to know the locals intimately.
Café Du Monde is famous for its beignets—fritters topped with a generous heaping of confectionary sugar—paired café au lait—half n’ half milk and coffee, tempered with roasted chicory root. Though the café has now many outlets located inside malls, only the original establishment at the heart of the French Market on Decatur Street offers a genuine experience. The floors and tables are perpetually dusted with the fine white coating confectionery sugar. The sweet white powder will inevitably find its way onto one’s fingers, cheeks, and lap. Do not be alarmed. That’s the way it should be.
Chicory root was once used as an affordable extender to precious coffee. But now that chicory is more expensive than coffee, locals still prefer their hot brew flavored with these herbs that impart a subtle bittersweet taste.
Enjoying an entire platter’s worth of crawfish boiled in Cajun spices (mostly cayenne and brown molasses) as well as crispy fried oysters, catfish, and crab cakes are an essential culinary experience in New Orleans. There is a proper technique to shelling crawfish and sucking the fat and the spice-infused juices from its head. It is best to take a cue from the locals.
One of the better establishments to enjoy crawfish, oysters and catfish is Montrel’s Bistro, a family-owned establishment at the center of the French Market on Decatur Street.
For its part, Meals from the Heart, a small eatery also within the French Market that claims to be the “Home of Crab Cake Passion,” lives up to its name. Its crab cakes are simply beyond compare.
Meals from the Heart also excels with its recipe for gumbo. Curiously, they thicken the stew the original African way with fresh okra instead of using roux—a mixture of heat flour and butter—which Cajuns prefer. Regardless, no gumbo is complete without the Cajun “vegetable holy trinity” of celery, bell peppers, and onions and filé powder—a spice derived from the ground leaves of the sassafras tree by the Native American Choctaw people. The very word “gumbo” comes from the Choctaw word for filé.
Étouffée, another essential epicurean delight, literally means “smothered” in French. It has rice-topped shellfish that has been simmered and in dark roux with the “vegetable holy trinity” and spiced generously with cayenne, paprika, and pepper. Easier to prepare, jambalaya is a somewhat similar dish based on rice and meat and bears some influence from the Iberian paella.
Though neither Creole nor Cajun, muffuletta, a sandwich invented at the Central Grocery on Decatur Street by Italian immigrants, is without doubt a New Orleans original. A huge heaping of meat and cheese slices garnished generously with olive salad is laid between two slices of round Sicilian sesame bread to create a monstrous submarine sandwich.
Another submarine sandwich New Orleans is famous for are Po’ boys. These are stuffed with either fried seafood such as soft shell crab, shrimp, or crawfish or meats such as roast beef or sausage. These can be found just about everywhere, even in the Louisiana-based fast food franchise Popeye’s, which serves shockingly good chicken tenders.
With such hearty fare, New Orleanians, have the energy to stay up all night and dance to red-hot jazz music.
The real thing
To find authentic jazz music, it’s best to stay away from the very touristy Bourbon Street and its row of stripper bars. Just outside the popular French Quarter is Frenchman Street, where one can find such renowned venues for authentic jazz such as The Spotted Cat, DBA, The Three Muses, and The Apple Barrel. Inside these bars, both local and visiting lindy hop dancers make the music come alive with this highly athletic form of swing dancing.
Great bands include the Cotton Mouth Kings, Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, The Moonshiners, King James and the Special Men, Glen David Andrew, and Galactic. But one doesn’t even have to enter a bar to listen to fantastic music.
New Orleans is home to the best buskers on the planet. These street performers vary from roving brass bands to a solo guitarist play for one’s change. Many even sell their CDs on the street.
Besides musicians, the bohemian atmosphere of Frenchman Street attracts street painters, poets for hire, pantomimes and even hemp candy vendors. No night is ever the same. And one night is never enough.
For those preferring a more traditional and less boisterous atmosphere, there is the Preservation Hall on Peters Street. As its name suggests, it is a museum of sorts, keeping alive musical traditions night after night.
Food and music is always best shared. And with New Orleanians being such a gregarious people, one doesn’t even need to bring company to end the night with friends. “The best travels are those where your experience is defined not by the sites that your guidebook told you to see, but by the friends that you made,” says Sullivan.