Stu and I fall into the iconic French Quarter entirely unprepared for its notorious Bourbon Street: sheer overwhelm edged with a sense of barely controlled danger and Kuta-esque hilarity.
Street drinking is not just allowed but encouraged. Each corner has its own stench. Music pounds. Neon glows at night, glares in the deserted daylight. Revellers and drunks, locals and tourists, surge and stumble. They can walk the street or sidewalk, Bourbon Street being closed to cars, but construction everywhere forces them into each other’s paths. Cars on the cross streets waiting to cross Bourbon wait listlessly to inch through gaps in the crowds. Potholes are filled with murky maybe-water.
Stu and I soon re-employ the warning system developed in New York: code word “MUDDLE” a warning to leap on or off the curb over a muddy puddle of what could be water, but might just as easily not be. Bouncers yell drink specials from doorways.
Drinks of choice are a world away from the traditional Vieux Carre found inside the jazz clubs, and most notably include the Big Ass Beer (comes in own novelty 1L bottle); Hand Grenade (green mystery fluid served in plastic grenade); Hurricane (red mystery fluid); Fishbowl (red mystery fluid in giant fishbowl, later seen slung round neck of drag queen keeping her tips in it); and the ever-classic $1 jello shot.
Street performance abounds, but we learn not to linger and watch because they will demand payment. Tiny children bang drum-sets made from sticks and upturned buckets with prodigious skill. We learn not to stop and listen to anything everyone says because they will manage to get money out of you through a breathtaking mixture of opportunism, charm and aggression. Tall, scary teenage boys with muscles and hard eyes stand silently with snakes around their necks. Real snakes. Big ones. Wizened old blokes stand around with big colourful parrots. We are pretty sure it’s another moneyspinner, so we don’t ask questions. We just laugh, enjoy the ride and try to keep our feet and clothes dry – we are invariably on our way to a restaurant.
We have largely stayed out of fancy eateries in the USA, finding early on that generally the style of food is international and prices (once you add tips, taxes, exchange rate) are too high to be worth it, given the similar styles and class of dining available in Perth. This is why we have concentrated on the more iconic, regional and less costly American dishes.
But it’s always been the plan to let ourselves go in NOLA. It’s home to Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s, Creole institutions. It’s my birthday week. It’s
Restaurant Week, when such places offer price-fixed menus that will let be high rollers for a week. We visit Goodwill. Stu gets a slinky black suit and I get a slinky black dress. We walk out $15 later and ready to get classy for the first time in months.
We’ve got a long list of cuisines and dishes to try, thanks to NOLA’s eclectic cultural history:
Creole and Cajun (jambalaya, andouille, gumbo soup); the po’boy sandwich; the Italian Muffaletta sandwich invented here (filled with mortadella, salami, mozzarella, provolone, and a special olive ‘salad’ of olives, cauliflower and carrot, all in an oil that soaks deliciously into the big round soft Italian sesame loaf, cut into quadrants for easier guzzling).
And that’s not counting the sweets; we have to try beignets (deep-fried choux pasty covered in powdered sugar); bread pudding, the local dessert of choice; pralines, king cake, snoballs, mile high pie…
We also have a list of musicians to hear provided by a journalism contact of mine – pianist David Boeddinghaus we were lucky enough to see twice, once at the Bombay Club then again aboard the Steamboat Natchez, where he played with the fantastic trumpet player Duke Heitger, who had also been recommended. We didn’t manage to track down pianist Tom McDermott, but we made up for it with a dinner at the Palm Court Jazz Café, where the band sang me happy birthday!
I’ve put a list of the winners food-wise at the bottom for the curious but overall the most spectacular meal was at Creole classic Commander’s Palace. The jazz brunch – where the band wandered in to each dining room and took requests – was was followed by a walk through the garden district: a far cry from the chaos and poverty of the French Quarter. A self-guided walking tour took us past some jaw-dropping homes, including the homes of Sandra Bullock and, drumroll, John Goodman! His house had double coolness, being previously owned by NIN frontman Trent Reznor.
We also saw Anne Rice’s house, which looked just like you would want expect the author of Interview with a Vampire’s house to look. We ended with a walk through Lafayette Cemetery, crumbling and beautiful, evoking the spooky scenes from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula in which terrified men wait by the tombstones at night for the vampire to emerge.
On a sunnier note, we spent a day on the bayous, kayaking with Canoe and Trail Adventures swamp tours. An unexpected bonus in getting there was driving for nearly half an hour across the world’s longest bridge, across Lake Pontchartrain.
Our passionate local guide told us all about the ecosystem of swamps, bayous and estuaries, and the roles these wetlands – or rather the loss of them – played in the scale of devastation Katrina wrought in 2005. The wetlands are disappearing in Louisiana at a rate of a FOOTBALL FIELD EVERY 90 MINUTES, which sounds unbelievable but was confirmed by a visit to the Katrina museum. The museum featured apocalyptic footage of the floods surging round roofs of the citizens, and told the harrowing stories of overwhelmed and unprepared authorities herding 12,000 of the city’s least fortunate citizens into the Superdome. Here they lived for days on end, surrounded by their own excrement, in the suffocating heat, in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the roof disintegrating around them.
And the worst part? Scientists had been warning for a long time that the risk of flooding was high and that the loss of the natural wetland buffer zones would mean the flooding would be catastrophic. And people wonder why I bang on about wetlands disappearing into subdivisions in Perth. We lack respect and understanding for the subtle roles ecosystems play in keeping our planet hospitable. Happily, New Orleans seems to have somewhat learned from its experiences, and there are wetland recovery efforts underway, but of course it will take billions and meanwhile the money is in the hands of politicians.
Anyway, back to dumb tourist mode: paddling behind our guide, we see two alligators! One a head, the other one a slinking tail! And then a turtle! Turtle gets all shy and belly flops ungracefully back into the water when we say hi.
We love New Orleans, our most intense experience of America since New York City. Its cracked and crooked streets and paths are marked by flood lines and devastating evidence of rampant homelessness, but they are also full of beauty and colour and life, and above all music. Tubas wander the streets, taking their humans for walks. Jazz spills from restaurants, houses, bars, cars. We arrived wondering why people wanted to go back and rebuild after Katrina; but we leave understanding. There’s just nowhere else like it.
A week’s not enough, but we’ve got a date with Austin, Texas, and then… with the grandest of all canyons!
Stumobservations: New Orleans
- The first night in any new place is spent finding somewhere to eat.
- Rest of the week is spent discussing where we should have eaten on first night.
- Light American beer has the same alcohol content as full strength Aussie beer.
- Blood and Sand cocktail tastes exactly like its name: like you’ve tripped at the beach and smashed your face in the sand.
- Do not put inedibles in my food. #Gumbo
- Hand Grenades and Hurricanes are reminiscent of unrefined rocket fuel concoctions from early-days drinking.
- Birthday drinks are even classier when consumed on a working carousel bar.
- Birthdays last 36 hours when there is a 12-hour time difference.
- 50 squats and 50 lunges are horrible. #Canyonprep
- Po-boys: Killer Po-Boys at Erin Rose – famous Parkway Po’Boys didn’t compare.
- Beignets: Café du Monde. It’s legendary for a reason. Bonus points for cafe au lait, the closest I have come to a flat white in a long, long time. We share a single portion, but get all giggly and high on sugar anyway.
- Muffaletta: Sorry, Frank’s, but Central Deli and Grocery won this fight.
- Best gumbo: Galatoire’s
- Best bread pudding: Palm Court
- Best meal overall: Commander’s Palace (Creole)
- Highly commended Creole: Dooky Chase’s and The Gumbo Shop