Monthly Archives: July 2010

New Orleans, Day 5

There is a warmth here in New Orleans, which encourages you to come in, to sit down and enjoy.  Perhaps it is just the service oriented economy, with people choosing employment in tourism and food industries, or maybe it’s just in people’s nature here to be friendly.  But it shows through.  It appears from the cook out back of the restaurant, having a smoke on an upturned bucket, nodding for us to come back and have a good time in the city, from the taxicab driver who welcomes you to New Orleans.

It is perhaps the first place I’ve ever visited which I’ve thought to myself, I’d like to return again.  Certainly other tourists we meet all seem to think the same thing.

The night before we went to the Praline Connection, a local diner just east of the French Quarter near Frenchmen St. where the jazz clubs are.  I had meatloaf and Siobhan had ribs, with sides of collard greens, alligator sausage and macaroni and cheese.  We have been eating a lot here and while the food is fantastic, we haven’t had a lot of vegetables at all.  I think there was a point where I leaped out of the chair and grabbed for a salad which floated by with a server.

Today we went to John Besh’s August for lunch.  Similarly, our waiter immediately made us feel at ease, offering us sourdough bread but warning us not to fill up on them as better things were to come.  We had salad with blue cheese and a handmade pasta with a deconstructed pesto cream sauce and heirloom tomatoes.   We both had fish for lunch, which was quite nice, because it made for a nice light meal.

In the morning, we took the St. Charles Avenue streetcar out west from Canal Street towards the Garden District.  The street cars are old classics, their heavy trucks squeaking around turns, windows open with a gentle breeze as rolled along.  Again, as we passed on the west side, the city looks completely different.  In the Garden District, large stately manors are framed by beautiful old trees in this part of the city.  We walked towards an old cemetery, which are often listed as highlights in New Orleans guidebooks.  Like houses here which don’t have basements, the dead are entombed into above ground structures, often for a family or social group like firefighters from a firehall.  I can’t say I enjoyed it, it seemed a bit voyeuristic, although they are very popular, especially with tour groups at night.

The afternoon brought us to the Warehouse District, which, to the west of the French Quarter, featured museums.  I went to the National World War II Museum, which features exhibits on the Normandy and Pacific D-Day campaigns.  When you walk into the front door, you can see the giant wing span of a Douglas C-47 cargo plane, hung from the rafters, a common sight overhead during World War II.  There’s also a film with Tom Hanks in the nearby building, which describes the fronts America fought on during that conflict.

It’s interesting how the museum ends with the question of whether the use of nuclear weapons was the right decision, given the first exhibition’s detail on the thousands who died to retake Europe during and after D-Day.  Having visited the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum, their definitive answer is quite different.  However fundamentally different, I enjoyed visiting the Museum– it was quite a change from our previous days of jazz and bayous.

Our last night in New Orleans, we went to see more jazz on Decatur Street and had dinner at the Praline Connection again, as it was close by and I was craving the macaroni and cheese.  The waiter there recognized us from the night before and encouraged us to come back.  He referenced, like many folks here, the need for more people to visit and to see that, in his words, we’re getting right back to normal.  I am glad we came to New Orleans.  It is a city of excess, to be sure, but a warm and friendly one like no other.

New Orleans, Day 4

There is a simplicity to the presentation of New Orleans by the locales we’ve visited.  One such was the visit out to the Bayou this afternoon, where we took a tour of the swamp just outside the city.  The tour took us tourists, including a church group summer program of teenagers, out on the canal waterways that are still and motionless, save the rain, tidal upheaval and movement of the star attraction, alligators.   We got to feed the alligators, pet a baby alligator, and enjoy the tall tales and humour of our guide.  Good ol’ fun, in any estimation.

However vicious in description, the gators are in fact quite sedentary, quietly swimming around their habitat until we come along, occasionally snapping at a piece of chicken or marshmallow offered to them.  I had a good time using a telephoto lens instead of venturing my limbs over the side of the boat though.  Everyone liked the alligators.

Such also is the simple presentation of jazz at Snug Harbour, a local club just east of the French Quarter on Frenchmen Street.  The performers tonight, Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a big band, were outstanding with little adornment, save their individual solo prowess and their combined tight arrangement.  Perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming Louis Armstrong week, a rendition of What a Wonderful World, with only trombone quietly leading, then sax replying, accompanied by piano and drums.

Perhaps not so simple, is the presentation of plantation life, which we went out to visit on tours.  We visited Laura Plantation, a Creole house in nearby Vacherie, as well as Oak Alley Plantation, both along the banks of the Mississippi River.  Each combines a history of trade and slavery in the antebellum times before the Civil War.  There is a great contrast between the manor homes of the owners, their histories and families, and the slave quarters, small shacks filled with large numbers of people.  It is interesting to see the economy of sugar cane and pecan production, juxtaposed with the plantation culture here in the South.  On one side, the colonial traditions and conventions in the layout of the architecture and the usage of the rooms in the house, on the other, perhaps more brutal, the corralling and pricing of human beings in the production economy.  To see a list of slaves with prices, listed like auctions on eBay is disturbing to say the least.

On our fourth day here in New Orleans, it is obvious to see Katrina has affected the tourism industry, so much that the people we meet overtly encourage us to come back and to bring our friends.

New Orleans, Day 3

Today Siobhan and I took a class in Cajun cooking.  An instructor showed us how to make gumbo, jambalaya and pralines.  It was a lot of fun!  After the class we went visited the The Historic New Orleans Collection, a small museum which featured an exhibit about Hurricane Katrina and the five years past.  They had small kiosks where you could hear first responders recounting their stories of the disaster and another display where they showed a government film about the 1965 hurricane Betsy.

There are tours, of which we will go one one tomorrow, of plantations and the Bayou, but also of post-Katrina New Orleans.  I found that a bit disturbing and am not sure I really want to see that now that I’ve seen this exhibit.  I have decided myself I would rather portray the vibrant, exciting reborn New Orleans instead of the one affected so badly by the storm.

Tonight we went to Elizabeth’s for dinner, a restaurant in an old house on the corner out in an industrial area of town.  Walking there, we passed a new media school, an abandoned satellite dish farm, and a car junkyard, but we eventually got there, amidst tens of cars, parked along the side of the road.  Fearing we didn’t have reservations, we went inside, to find the upstairs floor filled with a meeting of the young professionals of EngageNOLA, a civic interest group.  Out front, a politician encouraged me to go upstairs and participate, thinking I was from the area.  I did venture upstairs to see a throng of young people my own age, interested in changing the city and participating in the public interest.  That was heartening to see, despite floods, hurricanes and people leaving New Orleans, that there were many who were committed to making things work and changing the status quo.

Despite being asked to join some governance committees and commit to participate in the upcoming election process, Siobhan and I sat down for dinner instead–I had a roast duck with cherry sauce and Siobhan had an octopus dish with lime.

New Orleans, Day 2

Yesterday, we ducked into the Louisiana State Museum to avoid the sun scorching us from above.  The Museum has an exhibit about Mardi Gras and the elaborate world of parades and balls that surround it.  Societies of paraders, called krewes, contract float builders, stage balls and theatrics, and toss beads and cups to revelers on the street during the celebration.  To be honest, it is strange to peer into this unusual structure of float riders and their antics, replete with rich history and traditions.  But then of course, I did pledge allegiance while holding an iron chain in some secret ceremony about ten years ago, so…

Today Siobhan and I ventured out into the French Quarter, using a walking tour she found online.  In my ongoing quest of tourist process improvements, I have graduated from the hastily prepared guidebooks I printed in Berlin in 2004 to having the information on a microSD card using a Blackberry.  Walking around the French Quarter is both mysterious and commercial.  Old buildings, once homes to great writers such as Tennessee Williams or meeting places for masons, now turned into curio shops and boutique art galleries.  We visited the homes of industrialists, artists, the Hurricane, as well as traditional New Orleans jazz.  In the morning sunlight, as the sun dries up overnight puddles, they look much the same, each with rustic iron work and shuttered windows and doors, colorfully preserved like seaside houses in Spain or Italy.  Yet at night, they take on an energy, a power at night.  In the day, they are still asleep.

We finished the morning at the Croissant D’or, a place which sells buttery pastries.  I think a fitting lunch, given the excess of last night’s dinner.

Tonight we made the trek across the French Quarter and past Canal Street, towards Cochon, a noted New Orleans eatery, suggested by friends.  While Nola is definitely on the tourist board list, Cochon is more of a web-foodie kind of place.  Once you cross Canal, the entire city changes, less of the European world and more American as we entered the Warehouse District of the New Orleans.

Cochon, as suggested by many friends both from the area and tourists alike, was excellent.  We had a selection of starters, including a corn fritter on heirloom tomatoes, a small half rack of ribs, spicy oysters with garlic and rock salt, and a roasted peach and goat cheese on toast with a candied bacon rind on top.  We also had a pulled pork shoulder with turnips and cabbage for our mains, and smoked rabbit stew in a pan with southern greens and cornbread “dumplings”.  It was really good and perhaps the best part of it, was done without pretense in an inviting and clean environment.  However friendly and professional, I did note the service was not like Nola’s, where our waiter Travis went out of the way to be supportive of all of our choices with a certain down home flair.

On our way back to the hotel, we went through Bourbon Street, where the shooters are plentiful, both vodka and photographic.  As bar girls jumped out of their doors to encourage you to have a shot, music blaring from the open doors inviting you in, other photographers stood with tripods taking pictures of the neon lights, partiers swirling around them in a haze of motion and light.

We ended up at the venerable but famous Preservation Hall, damaged in Katrina five years ago, to listen to Dixieland jazz.   The musicians sat in one end of the room, tourists and music lovers packed into the other end, a sweaty but captivated bunch.  As everyone strained to get pictures in the subdued and warm light, the jazz band played, again, with skill and excellence and little pretense.  The beauty of these performers is their effortless skill, it appears, obviously with many many years of practice and experience, they play so well, so naturally.

Perhaps to maintain artistic integrity and keep from playing it too often, a hilarious sign offered requests at two dollars and When the Saints Go Marching In at ten.  At the start of the second set, the bandleader offered requests but for patrons to keep them traditional.  I suspected if someone actually requested Britney Spears, a Louisiana native no less, these consummate professionals would probably do just as well, riffing and jamming along regardless.

New Orleans, Day 1

Today, as we descended into New Orleans, the dense Louisiana swamp, a tapestry of greens punctuated and divided by the brown canals and causeways gathered below us, spread out to the side as I peered through the window at my seat.  The decision to go to New Orleans is a strange one, as Siobhan and I had a list of places which we wanted to go to, but given timing and summer high season, we broke down to typing in random destinations into a flight booking website and found the Big Easy was the cheapest place to fly in America.  Fueled by the likes of Tony Bourdain and travelogue exposure, a patois punctuated by the bams of Emeril Lagasse and the Food Network, we decided to give it a try.

What interesting things will greet us here?

Immediately after we clicked the confirmation page, I started to wonder why flights were so cheap.  Part of it, I found out was that July in New Orleans is ridiculously hot.  Another reason, as I found out from a colleague, was the fact we were in hurricane season, the same season that produced Katrina and was about to deal with Bonnie, which thankfully made landfall in Florida yesterday.

Coming out of the airport, you see that New Orleans, or at least Jefferson County, is your typical American city, dotted by Best Buys and Big Lots along the side of the freeway.  Entering the French Quarter, however, is like transporting yourself to another world.  The streets are designed to the tempo of a different time, with the large SUVs and pickup trucks favoured here carefully navigating a sea of pedestrians.  After finding our hotel, we ventured out into the steamy summer heat, lenses fogging up.

The French Quarter is filled with old houses, framed with old iron work and shutters.  We walked along the eclectic set of shops and bars, antique places filled with paraphernalia and joints hawking Hurricanes made in a plastic beer cup.

In the evening, as we went out towards our dinner at Emeril’s Nola, we ended up near the nightlife of Bourbon Street. At the famed celebrity chef’s restaurant, you can come in your running shoes and shorts, and the portions are giant, yet the food is great.  We started with a crab cake and fried duck livers on collard greens, then a hickory smoked duck and a pan fried redfish.  There may be rather bold overtures of spice, however, the subtle flavourings aren’t lost and all the tones are there in the dishes. Bam, indeed.

New Orleans is a place of excess, of fried oysters and walk up bars, yet it sings of music in the streets and and a vibrancy so lost on North American cities.   Perhaps this sums up New Orleans the best.  In other towns, including Toronto, bars and clubs focus on exclusivity to entice patrons.  Here, with the street hawkers and bouncers motioning you to come in, you can’t but feel swept up in the energetic invitation, the music of a dozen bar bands presenting an utmost uniform quality.  There is an earnestness in this place, if it is a waiter or a musician on the street, a validity.