Just Back From: New Orleans
New Orleans: A Culture All Its Own
New Orleans is a rare vacation destination that satisfied my curiosity but left me wanting more. The birthplace of Jazz is like its music: varied sounds play unexpected parts yet swing to the same rhythm. The city is not quite American, not entirely European, and not altogether Southern but all three and more. There is a mystique to the place a mash-up of belief, superstition and soulfulness that you can’t easily describe or put your finger on.
This time visiting the “city of saints and sinners”, I was looking for a more dignified experience than my college days. Nights were going to be as a series of fine dining experiences and music so the first evening walking past the smarmy Bourbon Street on the way to Antoine’s made me worried we made a mistake choosing to stay in the thick of it all at the W in the French Quarter.
This concern was tossed off very quickly on the day of the Easter Parade. Some girls were dancing in the street and I surprised myself by jumping in. As unseemly as it might have been I had learned wooble from Cookie in my Zumba class. There I was in my pink and white Easter sundress and pearls confidently breaking it down to the abject horror of my family. My husband with jaw clenched and eyes wild warned me that I might actually show up on YouTube. “Who’s going to see it?” I said…and “who cares” I added…“I’m enjoying myself!!!” Within 24 hours, I had the hang of New Orleans.
That night we had dinner at Antoine’s in the Tabasco room named after the condiment maker. Gracing the walls of their bar area were photos of all the dames that led the Mardi Gras “krewes” of old, donned in grand costumes and smiling proudly. This is the home of Oysters Rockefeller. Perhaps it is tasty but I was put off by the green foam. I prefer my shellfish plain with lemon.
It’s the history of New Orleans that offers the reason for this relaxed permission to be whatever you like. The early interracial melding between white and black early on has only been enhanced by the French, Spanish and American influences. With all the intertwined cultures, it makes sense the town would draw exotic residents from far away lands. Vietnamese ladies serve the beignets at the touristy Café du Monde, Sicilian muffulettas are sold at the oldest tavern, the Napoleon and in any given cute boutique shop, there is someone behind the register who is from Australia or somewhere else far away.
To really experience the native, you have to go to somewhere like Brennan’s for brunch. The old world décor is a pretty pink and pale green with a large green courtyard and a genteel waitstaff who offer gentlemen black serviettes in dark formal wear. The hostess makes sure to meet everyone and it’s clear you are invited into a home. If you don’t order alcohol for brunch, they take it upon themselves to make sure you will change your mind. This is not to build checks, it’s just a New Orleans thing. I had poached eggs on a fried cake of shrimp and lobster with creole mustard hollandaise; they call it “eggs cardinal”…divine. Every meal here is perfectly balanced with lots of spice or acid.
Proof that everyone’s invited to the party is the bizarre 18th Century Cemetery 1 – a must see. The most visited grave is that of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, buried (or is she?) with a crypt covered in crosses left to mark the prayers of the devoted. Also buried here is one of the most important racial activists in American History, Homer Plessy of Plessy vs Ferguson and around the corner from his remains is the empty pyramid crypt of the actor Nicholas Cage. The movie star must have dropped a good sum on his plot because he bought the perpetual care package (as in eternal gravesite clean up and care) from the Catholic Archdiocese. Someday he’ll be buried with untold remains here (because understandably they’ve lost track of who’s here over all this time). The rest of the cemetery tour group dispersed but I lingered opportunistically to see if one of the streams of girls who kiss Cage’s edifice would stoop to leave some of their red lipstick as rumored. No luck this time around but I will be back to try to get that photo op, believe me.
(contributor Aileen Ghee is a digital marketer with a television specialty. www.leen.solutions)