New Orleans: We Be Jazzin’

Adventure No. 53: Visit New Orleans

With only a month to go before our wedding date, Deanna and I walked out of the St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift shop with armloads of goods we had found to use as decoration at our ceremony and reception. We went in strategically, with a mission to try and pick up as many decorations as we could that could be reused to decorate our apartment after the wedding. So far, this visit was a success. We found lanterns and vintage cameras and old pieces of camping equipment that could fit that adventure theme we were going for.

My own personal mission was to find old Lonely Planet style travel guides for some of the places Deanna and I had been to together to use as centerpieces on our tables. Since these guides get outdated, thrift shops were perfect places to get them for a buck, sometimes even less. I pulled one off the shelf for Bangkok and for Glacier National Park and for Belgium. One hallmark of mine and Deanna’s relationship had always been a mutual desire to have fun together, and this little errand gave me a chance to remember some of the adventures we’ve been able to share. I looked forward to being married, for the chance to continue to adventure together for years and years.

I carried a stack of guides to the cash register and paid less than ten bucks. To round it out, I looked over to the rack of magnets that were sitting on the counter. 99¢ read the sticker on a white ceramic magnet with dancing stick figures and saxophones which read New Orleans: We Be Jazzin’

“You’ve never been to New Orleans,” Deanna reminded me when I showed her my loot. True to her point, I had a decent collection of magnets from places I’d been, but never had I set foot in Louisiana.

“True, but we want to go soon, don’t we?” I proposed. “This will save us from getting one for six bucks on Bourbon Street.”

“I guess.”

“I mean, you wanna go too, right? I think that’s on our list.”

Deanna and I had been compiling a list, adding to it gradually, of adventures we’d like to go on together once we got married. Some of the items were simpler, like wine tasting or going to a baseball game, but we also put on a good number of places we had really wanted to visit, New Orleans being one of the big ones.

I’d long wanted to see New Orleans, if for no other reason, than being the most likely piece of Louisiana for me to visit as a part of my long term goal to see all fifty states. But more recently, that desire intensified and became more pulling. As I’ve gotten more and more into food and cooking, learning lots about the particularities of bayou cuisine, a visit seemed all the more overdue. Add that to the jazz and the architecture and the liveliness of the city, I was primed for a visit.

We put it on our list. A month later, Deanna would switch jobs which would allow us to extend our honeymoon. With the extra time, we rerouted our return flight to New Orleans, ensuring us a few days in the Big Easy.

•••

•••

Here’s a fun fact– it’s a matter of debate whether or not the bread used in a po’boy sandwich could properly be considered a French baguette. The recipe and the style of preparation were notably brought over by the French colonists before Thomas Jefferson’s shopping spree, that much was clear. The humidity of the Southern Gulf, though, altered the cultures in the bread so much that its taste and composition is quite different than anything you’d find in France. It was this sort of culinary education that was a hallmark of our time in New Orleans.

Deanna’s favorite meal for a long time has been a good bowl of gumbo. Stewed and richly flavorful. After doing our homework to figure out the best place to get a bowl, we settled on the aptly named Gumbo Shop. We were given a nice outside seat, and we both placed orders for cups of stew. She opted for a chicken andouille gumbo while I went in the direction of shrimp and okra. To my surprise, I was a bigger fan of the dish than she was. I thought the stew was really well done, carrying a bit of the taste and texture of the okra. She was a bit less impressed by that texture.

While in town, I tried everything from gator to pralines, but the winning dish in my opinion, was a basket of fries. Crawfish etouffé fries, actually. The roux of the sauce perfectly coated the fries without making them terribly soggy, and it was one perfect meal.

Before we arrived, we were advised to make sure to try a muffalata– a sandwich made up of a gigantic piece of focaccia bread, with numerous kinds of deli meats piled inside, flavored with olive tapenade. Most of what we read suggested that the Central Grocer, an Italian grocery store in the middle of the French Quarter, would be the best place to grab one. We swung by, but we didn’t order one there. We had a tip from Deanna’s parents, who had lived in New Orleans for four years, that we should actually head towards the Napoleon House for one.

That recommendation led Deanna and I to one of her favorite places we’d been to all year.

Elderly men with white pencil mustaches greeted us at the door and elegantly seated us inside the dark, aged interior with black and white checkerboard floors. With live music and a personable wait staff that seemed like something out of a Pixar short, they took our order– a muffalata, large enough for us to split, a cup of jambalaya for her, and a piece of boudin sausage for me, along with a ginger julep.

We struck up a conversation with the woman at the table next to us. The restaurant was at the lower level of an apartment meant to be a refuge for Napoleon in case of an exile from the French mainland. It’s setting was dark, warm, and comforting. A newspaper article on its wall chronicled the story of Joe, an elderly customer who had kept dining there well into his late nineties, where he happened to reunite with an old childhood friend at the table next to us. It seemed fitting for that restaurant. It was the place where that sort of thing happened.

•••

•••

The beignets at Café du Monde were pleasantly huge. For 2.50, we scored a bowl of three, very large, fluffy beignets. The humidity demanded that we order our coffee and chickory iced instead of hot.

Before coming to New Orleans, Café du Monde was the one spot I wanted to visit the most. Not only did we accomplish that goal, we accomplished it three times in one day, thanks to its 24 hours of operation.

Café du Monde serves as sort of the unofficial city gates of the French Quarter. For the amount of time we had to spend in the city, we would end up spending most of our time centered around the French Quarter, which would be okay with us in the long run. Next to the beignets, we found a mediocre bloody mary stand, and I decided to test out the city’s open container law on a bottle of Abiqua Purple Haze. After we’d gotten our fill, we went on a long walk around the neighborhood.

Wandering around the streets, with its distinct architecture, the ornate green railings of the balconies and the brightly painted yellow façades of the nearby storefronts brought back memories of exploring major European cities, each with their own distinct aesthetics and their own unique atmospheres. It’s not a feeling that comes attached to every major American city, but there definitely is one present in New Orleans. It’s a rare pocket where the air seems to carry a sense of the history of everything that’s happened in the place, from the French colonial era to the devastating hurricane only a decade ago.

I remember a Swedish friend of mine once telling me that he needed to live in a “city with soul.” He had never been to the U.S., but he asked me where he should visit if ever given the chance. I don’t think I included New Orleans among the cities I mentioned to him, but if I’d ever have the chance to amend those mentions, it would most definitely be among them. Walking through the French Quarter, with the names of the streets embedded into the sidewalk like a house address, with Jackson Square inviting us to walk in front of the cathedral, I started to think that this is what a city with soul looked like.

As we walked around with no real agenda of where to go next, Deanna leaned over and let me know that she had been having a great time. I was having a great time too. This was a lot of fun.

•••

•••

Our fantastic few days in New Orleans came courtesy of our friend Ryan who moved to New Orleans about a year ago. Ryan graciously opened up his guest room for Deanna and I and gave us all kinds of pointers about what to see and do while we were in town. He even treated us out to a dinner at Cochôn, one of the most impressive restaurants the town had to offer, where we ate really well.

On our second night in New Orleans, Ryan accompanied Deanna and I to the historic Preservation Hall. We were familiar with the venue from Sonic Highways, but really, we should have been even more familiar with it because of its historic significance in the world of music. Jazz in particular. It was the place to go to get the feeling of listening to some lively blues influenced jazz in an old, dark, and dusty room, overcrowded and lowly lit.

After waiting outside in a long line for nearly an hour, we were let into the small room. The small, rustic space gave the impression that the fire marshall looked the other way on this one on account of its history. Photography was prohibited, but you probably wouldn’t have gotten a good shot anyways. The room was almost entirely dark, but the few lights that were there reflected the silhouettes of the band members.

The troupe’s leader, a saxophonist grew up with his dad a member of Duke Ellington’s band. They launched into a performance of Chloe.

Jazz music will always take me back to high school, where one of my best friends was a budding jazz artist. We would go out on weekend nights to jazz clubs and be the only two anywhere near our age. There wasn’t much talking going on, just getting lost in the improvised solos and the polyrhythms of the drum beat that I could never understand. It would be a chance to mentally create a freeze frame of what was going on in life at that particular moment.

As the Preservation Hall band launched into an easily recognizable Ray Charles cover, I stopped to take account of my newlywed life. The honeymoon thus far and the years that lay ahead. Deanna was having a great time and I found joy in the fact that we always knew how to have fun together. We of course had a natural drive towards adventure, but at the root of that was the fact that it came pretty natural for us to enjoy a good time together.

On our way out, we walked again by Jackson Square. Now it was night. A number of fortune tellers had set up their stands, lit by candle, with tarot cards spread out. One of them, a younger woman, managed to simultaneously interpret the cards for a tourist while breastfeeding her child. That, to me, was an image that captured night in New Orleans.

Advertisements

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s