Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Orleans: Greatest City on the Planet

Okay, so I always want to move anywhere I vacation. At various times I’ve dreamed of calling New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tampa, and Rockville, Maryland home.

Flings, all of them. I’ve begun a lifetime affair with New Orleans.

The breathless tone of my friends and co-workers when I told them I'd be visiting the Big Easy let me know I was in for something special, but I didn’t realize how special. Every stranger is a character, every corner filled with music, every coffee laced with chicory, every street rich with charm. And the food, the food, the food.

Bellhops can argue over whether to eat at The Camellia Grill or the Trolley Stop Cafe for breakfast in the Garden District, but they’re both right. The barista at Community Coffee with a special recipe for frozen espresso can recommend Johnny’s Po-Boys for breakfast, and he’s right, too. Of course, you can always settle for simple beignets at Café du Monde… which is like “settling” for Eva Mendes because you’re not in the mood for Angelina Jolie.

At The New Orleans School of Cooking, Big Kevin taught us how to make pecan pralines (pee-Cannes praw-lines, never pee-can pray-leans), red beans and rice, pecan pie, and corn bread (why did my last corn bread go bad the next day? I added extra milk to make it fluffy but didn’t use a shallow pan, so it didn’t cook all the way through). And what better accompaniment to a ten AM meal than Abita Amber from the local brewery? Hey, when a guy who goes six-foot-nine and four-hundred-and-five pounds gives you a beer, you drink the beer.

Sidewalk entertainment ranged from ragged street duos to a crowd of acrobats, hippy homeless wannabes with bloody knuckles and dreadlocks slurring for change to hugely loud addicts cursing for the cops because they got cheated on crack deals, full brass bands in baggy jeans and t-shirts to a single tuxedoed man talking to himself between sweet, mournful blows on a slide trombone, a bus full of middle-schoolers hurling insults at a down-at-heels drunk who egged them on and lapped up the abuse to nearly-homeless betting they could tell you where you got your shoes.

The first time someone came up to me, grinned broadly and said, “Hey, man, I bet I can tell you where you got those shoes,” I misunderstood him. There are dozens of accents in Miami and parceling them out is usually a matter of paying attention, but the New Orleans patois threw me. I thought the guy was complimenting my Doc Marten Oxblood boots (of which I’m absurdly proud). Effusive with vacation vibes, pacing sidewalks along the Mississippi in my walking boots, I returned his grin and gushed, “Thanks!”

His face fell. If you don’t know the proper response - locals and veterans toss “on my feet” over one shoulder without breaking stride - than a sincere thanks will also deflate potential hucksters.

I know we were supposed to move from bar to bar on Frenchman Street to experience a variety of music, but Monday is Open Mic Night at Café Negril. Sign your name to a sheet, bring your instrument, and play a song or two.

It sounds like it could go horribly wrong, but imagine karaoke night outside of Motown in the sixties. Everyone we judged harshly as they passed the bar ("Check out this tool in the three-quarter shorts..." "Nice soul patch, douchebag..." "What is this guy, an accountant?") could play. The coolest thing is how they’d get up, murmur a few cursory instructions to their fellow musicians, launch into it, and the songs ended up sounding like they’d played together for years. Sure a lot of them were regulars, but it’s not like they rehearsed. And there were first-timers who did the same trick. To a musical idiot like your blogger, it was magic. We were riveted to our stools.

My last day in New Orleans began with a Royal Sonesta Omelette at Oceana Grill, a gator sausage, shrimp, onion, and pepper omelet topped with crawfish and mushroom cream sauce. I had hot sauce at the ready, it being breakfast and all, but the sensational blend of flavors didn’t need to be touched.

Then we ate like locals at Becky’s cousins’: boiled crawfish, Abita Turbodog (the dark one) and Strawberry Harvest Lager. Apparently there’s a strawberry farm forty miles north of New Orleans where the strawberries can’t be shipped because they’re so fat with sugar they’d rot, so you can only enjoy them on site. Strawberry beer sounds disgusting, but the farm and the brewery work on a batch every year. I wish we’d bought more.

Becky’s cousin taught us how to pinch tail and suck head. I’d like to call them mini-lobsters, but I hear Rachael Ray's cloying voice in my head as she describes capers; “They’re like little pickles!” Boiled crawfish are unutterably delicious - spicy, briny, and vaguely sweet. The only way to get through it is to not look too closely at your meal. Beer also helps.

I can’t wait to go back.


  1. Sounds great - except for the strawberry beer. Fruit and beer are natural enemies as far as I'm concerned.

    And I know you'll come back at me about that - and you won't be wrong - just not as right as I am!

    Trust me, it won't taste right anywhere else, and thats because holiday places mess with your head as well as your heart.


  2. Now I'm yearning for the Big Easy.

  3. Since I always prefer a dark beer - Warsteiner
    Dunkel and Guinness are my two pints of choice - my inclination is to agree with you, Al. I turned up my nose, I mocked, I made faces . . . then I tried a sip. Should you find yourself in NOLA, in season, I urge you to give it a day in court.

    Becky / Cleopatra is a fan of Blue Moon Belgian White on tap, best enjoyed with an orange wedge “to bring out the natural spices and subtle fruit flavors.”

    At a Books & Books Algonquin Party about a year back, I paired Anne Byrn’s Orange Birthday Cake recipe from “The Cake Mix Doctor Returns” with St. Ambroise’s Canadian apricot wheat ale. Until you try it, your taste buds have not truly lived.

    But when it comes to culinary rules (if there are such things) you’re absolutely right; none of these is what I think of when I think of beer. It’s like Hawaiian pizza. It’s yummy, but it’s not really pizza.

    Laura, Big Kevin also told us a great story about why it's called the Big Easy.

    He said you’d be invited out to lunch with a local, and the local would tell the server about you in French, and the server would write on a big chalkboard in French, your name and occupation.

    Then you’d be invited out to dinner, and the table would be a lot bigger. If you worked as a reporter, there’d be folks there with stories they wanted you to write up. If you worked textiles, they’d want you to do uniforms at their schools. If you worked construction, they’d have houses that needed refurbishing. You’d make more business contacts going out to lunch than the hours you put in the rest of the day.

    You couldn’t do that anywhere but New Orleans. Hence, the Big Easy.

  4. Becky told me you were bragging on me and this wonderful city on your blag-blog-thing, so I thought I'd say hi!

    Taking a day off work to eat crawfish on my back porch with the Miami part of my family was pretty awesome, but the fact that you guys have said continually that it was the highlight of your trip makes it that much more wonderful. I'm glad y'all (dat's right! I said it!) had as good a time bullshitting and sampling the local flavor on the back patio of this Katrina Cottage as I did.

    Alistair, I usually agree with you, sweet beers are just plain grossitating usually, but there's something about Abita's sweet-ish beers (Purple Haze and Strawberry) that is strangely wonderful. I'm just glad that people outside the city without the local bias like it too!

    On the subject of the Big Easy, I had never heard that explanation but it sounds like the "New Orleans Lunch" that happens here quite often. The New Orleans Lunch is when you manage to get a table at an excellent restaurant like Galatoire's (remember what I said about homeless people line sitting at that place because they don't take reservations?) and then eat and drink for hours. Lunch ends up running till around 3 or later so everyone blows off work and just decides to stay for dinner!

    Also, to me that moniker always indicated how crazy easy it is to live in this city comfortably and have a good time. Relatively low cost of living, plenty of fun things to do without murdering your pocketbook, and plenty of amazing places to eat that would probably cost double anywhere else in the country.

    I know for a fact that those stinky squatters that hang out on Decatur with their dogs find it insanely easy to live here just spare changing from tourists or asking people for their leftovers when they leave a restaurant in the Quarter.

    I'm gonna shutup now, once I get talking about NOLA I can't stop, its a problem definitely. Ok, one more thing: Treme is an awesome effing show and is hands down the most accurate portrayal of New Orleans I've ever seen. Check it if you haven't yet.

  5. Jorge, it was a great, great time. You're good people! But since you share DNA with Becky, I knew that going in.

    The New Orleans lunch sounds like...what we've been doing at Books & Books offices lately when we celebrate a birthday or anniversary at Fritz and Franz Bierhaus.

    I’m reading “The Wire: Truth Be Told” a behind-the-scenes of the greatest TV show ever. If you’re not familiar, it’s David Simon’s third show, after “Homicide” and “The Corner.” They keep mentioning Treme, and it totally has me salivating.

    I’m sure we’ll see you again – thanks for reading!