Powered by a substantial boom box mounted on the rear of his LED bedecked tricycle, a black dude with dreads was rolling down our ramshackle block looking for a party. Not two minutes later a school bus rolled past packed with young black women screaming out the windows, waving glow sticks and shaking their booties to some pounding bounce tunes. There were no aggrieved neighbours shaking their fists from their stoops, no-one blinked an eye. They were too busy getting on with their own parties to care.
I’m a trumpet player, a singer and a chef. It feels like New Orleans has been beckoning me all my adult life. After watching three seasons of Treme, I was whipped into a frenzy of desire. My foodie husband Murray and I booked the tickets.
We rented a shotgun house with some friends of ours from Dallas on Frenchman St in Fauborg and Marigny, the neighbourhood that’s adjacent to the elegant and historically debauched French quarter. A shotgun house is so named because you could fire a shot through the front door and have it exit through the back door without hitting a wall. It allows you to open all the doors and get a breeze going through to blow out the funk during the many hot months.
Frenchman St is like all the other neighbourhood streets around here. Narrow and bumpy and lined with beautiful wooden houses covered in detailed and decaying wooden fretwork, gussied up in lots of bright, festive colours. Sky blues, canary yellows and rich burgundies. They reminded me of the villas in Auckland that pacific island families used to paint bright blue to cheer them up a bit. There are still many uninhabited or abandoned homes in this neighbourhood. There were three of them bordering on our back yard. It’s hard to tell if they will ever be excavated from under the wall of kudzu vines by some entrepreneurial New York couple or left to rot by a local who’s thrown in the towel.
Unlike most neighbourhood streets, Frenchman ends in a three block stretch of clubs and restaurants that have live music from three in the afternoon till very, very late. Our approach to this hedonistic paradise was to walk the length of it, case out the music on offer and then work backwards hitting all the spots with music suiting our current state of mind.
You can’t really go wrong here. All the bands are phenomenal. If you like brass, you’re in luck. Every night a brass band consisting of a sousaphone, four trombones, three trumpets, bass drum, snare and tom tom, would fire up on a corner in the middle of the clubs on Frenchman St. They were young black men in their late teens and it turns out that this is a youth program to train young local kids in the complex and downright difficult arts of New Orleans brass band culture. They seemed to be excelling. Within five minutes of starting up they had a crowd of us dancing and hollering along. An enterprising local was snaking through the crowd selling beer from a cooler to fuel the party. We opted for grabbing a takeout beer from the bar next door and kept on shaking it.
Starting a morning tradition for our stay in New Orleans, the next day I strolled two blocks down to St Claude Avenue and grabbed a sausage, cheese and egg po’ boy from Gene’s Po’ Boys. I didn’t expect much when I prised open the foil package that first morning, it looked like a mess. Not so! The sausage was coarse, spicy and fragrant with fennel seed, the whole sandwich lubricated with a strong garlic mayo. Grumpy as they may have been, they still make their food with care. This was a theme through all the food I ate down there. They’ve got a lot of heart.
That morning we strolled through the French quarter and had a look at the stunning Creole buildings. A mishmash of French and Spanish architecture, festooned with iron details. Balconies everywhere, my imagination played out all sorts of sultry scenes around me. Royal St took us to the other side of the French Quarter where we grabbed the St Charles streetcar to the garden district. Many of the street cars from New Orleans were fully restored and pressed into service in San Francisco where they run very reliably up and down Market St as the F car. Unfortunately they crawl along here, cost too much and generally drove us nuts. Public transport is not really happening in New Orleans. We jumped off at Washington St and strolled down past the venerable Commander’s Palace restaurant (where I made a booking for lunch the following Monday) and Lafayette cemetery no.1. The streets are lined with live oaks in the Garden District and the houses are stunning. Plenty of neo-classical columns and immaculate gardens. Azaleas were in full bloom and languid dogwoods graced the front gardens of stately antebellum homes. A local out walking his dog pointed out Sandra Bullock’s and then John Goodman’s house. Luckily for the Garden district, Katrina was kind here. All that this local found when he got home a month after the cyclone was a downed telephone line.
At the corner of Constance and Third St we fell on Parasol’s for sustenance. For all of the high tone aspects of this neighbourhood, their local watering hole is one of the best dive bars I’ve ever been to. Loosely Irish themed (it’s right on the border of the Irish Channel where Irish immigrants made their home), Parasol’s is famous for its Roast beef and Firecracker shrimp Po’ Boys. Heading up the rickety steps to the restrooms at the end of the bar, you find yourself in the restaurant. Gloomy lime green walls and black and white checked floors are barely illuminated from the light fighting through a tiny window by the fire exit. Thinking of it now makes me miss it so much. We ordered the aforementioned Po’ Boys plus an oyster Po’ Boy, some onion rings and a potato salad smothered in debris gravy. Debris (pronounced day-bree) is all the burnt ends and tasty pan scrapings from the roast beef turned into unashamedly coarse gravy. Such a great idea for a potato salad topping, I didn’t even realize potato salad needed a topping. Damn, they were fine sandwiches too, the fire cracker shrimp being the favourite. Hot sauce marinated shrimp that was then breaded and fried, crammed into the roll with fried onion rings, lettuce, tomato and mayo and washed down with local Abita ale. We retired to the bar after lunch for a cocktail. For me, a very large Old Fashioned. The room is comfortably care worn. Drawings and letters of complaint are plastered all over the ice machine, a Sandra Bullock movie plays silently over the bar, the concrete pavement continues uninterrupted from the exterior to the interior and right across the street is a pristine antebellum mansion.
It was raining now, so it seemed the perfect time to take a turn through Lafayette cemetery no.1. Due to the fact the river is higher than the land; everyone is buried in Mausoleums here. As a result there is a lot of cool graveyard architecture to be found. Obelisks and angels under a brooding grey sky, Madonnas draped with mardis gras beads. Each mausoleum was packed to the rafters. Apparently it’s nearly impossible to find space for burial in New Orleans any more.
That night we headed deep into the Bywater, the neighbourhood to our east or upriver if you like, to a BBQ place called The Joint. It was exceptional. Great cocktails (Lynchburg lemonade for me, $6!) and the best ribs I’ve ever had. Succulent and falling off the bone. I’ve never seen a smoke-ring like that either, it almost looked like char sieu pork with its 5mm deep ring of red smoked flesh penetrating the meat. We headed out the back and had a look at the smoker. It was something like an industrial stainless steel beer fermenter turned on its side with a fire in the bottom and a hatch in the side to access the ever rotating racks of meat inside. The sides were great too. I was particularly taken by the leaf salad with smoked tomato and onion dressing.
Later that night we headed down Frenchman St and caught the Jambalaya Brass Band. Bands in here take their time to warm up. They don’t come out guns blazing. As the band tightens up and gets their game on, the punters get some drinks under their belts. Pretty soon the place is jumping and people start flowing through the door. We stayed for a couple of sets and then headed straight over the road to The Spotted Cat for more brass from a smaller ensemble.
So far on the trip we had skirted around The French Quarter at night, preferring the areas where the locals play. The theory was that it was better to catch this hedonistic mecca when it was in full swing on a Friday night so we could really check out the local fauna. After bracing ourselves with a couple of drinks on Frenchman St we headed in. Bourbon St is closed off to traffic in the heart of the quarter so the sex and booze crazed tourists can stagger around freely. This also provides plenty of room for women to flash their tits to men lining the balconies to earn Mardis Gras beads. The men have usually paid $30 per ½ hour to rent the balcony space. The whole scene seems demeaning for everyone involved, participants and spectators alike. Plunging into the throng we eventually located Pat O’Briens’ bar, home of the famous Hurricane cocktail. This is about 1 litre of bright pink, medicinal tasting cherry-flavoured hell. I struggled through half of it and then handed it over to our roommate Rob to finish. At this point I was convinced I was nailed and wondered if I’d over imbibed. Once seated in the relative calm of a local gay leather bar, I realised it was just a raging sugar rush that was now finally abating. Bourbon St was interesting in an anthropological kind of way, but I wasn’t keen to head back anytime soon. It struck me as something that was on many peoples bucket lists. Flash tits to strangers on Bourbon St. Check.
Saturday morning found us cruising up the I-55 to Manchac where Middendorf’s seafood stations itself on the narrow strip of land between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. They opened in 1934 during the depression and made their name by serving shaved catfish. This is really a dish that defines a cuisine of austerity. Take an abundant trash fish, shave it into incredibly thin slices, then bread it in cornmeal and fry it. Slathered in tartare sauce, it’s fantastic. I also grabbed a small bowl of gumbo. It was a rich dark brown and to my delight not that thick. The okra and meticulously browned roux added a great depth to it. Sweet crab was strewn all through it. It was my first Gumbo. It won’t be my last. Middendorf’s is a big place. They had to move out of the older building that sits deserted next door into this very similar yet much larger version of the old restaurant. It seats around 700 people and has 17 wait staff working at all times. Everyone orders catfish. That’s a crap-load of fish. They own their own farm, in fact, to keep up with the supply. Surprisingly, only two people are responsible for shaving all of that catfish. It does my head in thinking about it.
Back in New Orleans that afternoon, Murray and I strolled down to the levee at the end of Frenchman St and finally set eyes on the Mississippi river. On the way we stumbled upon the New Orleans food festival. Stall after stall of regional food lined the levee. We couldn’t believe our luck. We grabbed a plate of BBQ Brisket from Louis Mueller’s BBQ from Williams, Texas. Williams is the self-proclaimed capital of Texas style BBQ. It’s deserved in my opinion. This was the most tender and moist brisket I’ve ever had. Onto Miss Linda and her famous version of the local hangover cure, Yakamein. A spicy beef broth filled with thick noodles, boiled egg, spring onions, beef and prawns. She ladles boiling broth over all the ingredients in a soup cup, pours the broth back out, seasons it carefully with Worcestershire, tabasco and soy and then adds it back to the cup. It tastes so much better than it sounds. I can really see that helping after a night on the tiles of Frenchman St. Apparently ghetto versions are available from corner stores all over the city.
The festival was also on the next day, so we decided to head back the next morning with our travelling companions to sample all the stalls we missed. It was one of the best breakfasts I ever had. Gus’ world famous fried chicken from Memphis? Delicious. Royal St Oyster House’s oysters grilled in the half shell with garlic butter? So good, I ripped it off for a party as soon as I got home. Possibly the most exciting thing we had that morning was a crawfish boil. After a brief tutorial in how to peel the little critters (suck the head, pinch the tail) we grabbed a plate of them with the accompanying corn on the cob and set up on the table to the rear of the stall. The liquor in the heads is incredibly tasty. The finest seafood soup I’ve ever had. The tails are pretty much the same as scampi but a little smaller. The lady who was running the boil up kept coming back with treats from the pot: soft, sweet and nutty garlic cloves; tender, supple and sweet layers of onion. Due to the hands on nature of all of these southern classics, there are wash stations spread around the place. So practical! I’d like to see these in New Zealand. Despite the fact that the festival was clearly licensed, it wasn’t fenced off and there were no stupid ID bracelets required to purchase alcohol. It was just so damn civilised and easy!
Later that night our travel companion Tony and I hit the leather bar around the corner from our house. Inside the bar was a leather store providing all your kinky needs and upstairs was another bar that provided space for you to try them out. It pretty much sums up the permissive nature of this city. Locals don’t make a big deal out of all of the hedonism that goes on here, they just want you to relax and have a good time, however you care to do it.
We didn’t have breakfast on Monday morning. We were preparing for a long lunch at Commander’s Palace. This restaurant is an institution in this town and also nationally famous (It’s featured on Top Chef twice). Emerill Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme (famous for the Cajun seasoning that took the world by storm in the 80’s) made their names here. They specialise in refined versions of many iconic New Orleans dishes (Shrimp and grits) as well as new dishes that they have pioneered (bread pudding soufflé). What they really excel at is the service. They’re professional and prompt but always happy to hang out at your table and spin a yarn or give you tips for further local eats. We walked out of there pretty tanked and stuffed full of food. They make a fine Sazerac too (the true cocktail of the big easy. Essentially a Manhattan, but made with absinthe or herbsaint instead of vermouth).
The next morning we headed up into the Treme to try “The best fried chicken in America” at Willie May’s Scotch House. It was very much like eating in someone’s dining room. Tongue and groove walls, a fireplace. In no time at all, the table was filled with a huge basket of golden, crispy goodness. The coating is a batter rather than a dry coating. Somehow it froths up while it cooks and produces a bubbly super crunchy crust. The chicken inside is juicy and tender. It ticks all the boxes. I opted for red beans and rice on the side which was delicious. Lovely, soft beans in a rich sauce redolent of white pepper and sweet with onion. I love this kind of food. I couldn’t care less how simple it is to make or how cheap it is to produce, it’s got soul. This is food full of history and care and is firmly rooted to this place.
We took a stroll round the block after the meal to check out the neighbourhood. The buildings were not in good shape and the footpaths were barely detectable. Silt was settled in the gutters. Apparently this part of town sat under nine feet of water after Katrina. A black guy sitting on the stoop of his house told us the city kept trying to get him to vacate but he wasn’t going anywhere. Behind him, his house was barely holding it together. Like a gunfighter putting on a brave face after the firefight, struggling to stop his insides from spilling out.
Returning to Willie May’s to get the car; we found a queue of cabs disgorging gastro tourists into this marginal neighbourhood to try the legendary chicken. I realized our white dodge charger made us look just as ridiculous.
Our final show in New Orleans was the legendary Treme Brass Band. A little more traditional in style than the other brass bands we’d seen but they really get the crowd going. After the first song the vocalist and trumpet player asked the crowd to move up the front. I’ve never seen such a large crowd obey so quickly and completely to a lead singer’s demand. In no time he was down amongst the dancing masses singing “High heeled sneakers” in his gravelly Satchmo style voice. I was elated and sad at the same time. I wanted to spend the rest of my life there.