Where else can you find a box to grab an emergency pair of Mardi gras beads? Where else can you hear world famous music any day of the week, sit at a bar made out of an antique carosel, and walk along antique and haunted streets? No place on earth is quite like New Orleans. Perhaps it’s the rich, long, and sordid history. Maybe it’s paramount location at the foot of the Mississippi. Perhaps it’s the people with their proud and diverse heritage. Perhaps its a mindset and a way of seeing the world.
What is this specialness? How can I put my finger on it an really define it? This is what I’ve picked up from my travels:
The South is known for it’s charm and nowhere is that present than in New Orleans. Charm is setting someone else at ease whether it’s someone you know or a perfect stranger. It’s engaging in delightful conversation about anything without rudeness or without being nosey. Where I grew up, if someone asked me how long I was staying or where I was staying, I might be thrown into defensive action. Not so in New Orleans. It’s just conversation and in fact, one is expected to be able to carry on good conversation at random. Go with the flow here.
Locals sashay throughout the streets with a zen-like ease and contentment while tourists were zombie-like, walking without aim to and from one thing to another, their senses overwhelmed. Locals can be seen drinking at many hours during the day or night as well but, it’s what they drink and where. But, you will not find a local with a fishbowl of a fruity cocktail hanging around their neck. Tourists wore their Mardi Gras beads like amateurs. Locals are friendly but not noisy. They are confident but not rude. Locals wear stylish shoes but they are cobblestone friendly. Locals dress with flare, a wild fuchsia scarf or a paisley pocket square for example. But, their clothes breathed with the gulf weather.
Persians are easy to spot idly passing the time at a chic café or a surfer with his sun kissed skin and bleached hair in Southern California but flare in New Orleans is unlike anywhere else. First of all, personality is rich and celebrated and no one feels the need to hide their light under a bushel. This is true for all socioeconomic classes. This is a creative culture and it is expressed outfight. Ladies dress up with hats adorned with feathers and flowers just to go for an afternoon lunch. Any occasion warrants a costume. Accessories take on a special place for the wearer and is a must. Also, the countless balls, festivals, and parades all beckon a cornucopia of flare. When enjoying the tomato festival, why not dye one’s hair red? At Jazz fest, remember to bring an embellished umbrella that matches a blinged out jacket. Want to express yourself in steampunk attire? Go for it. As Cole Porter said, “Anything goes.”
Life is to be celebrated, relished, and enjoyed
As the saying goes, laissez les bontemps roulet! (Let the good times roll!) New Orleans was not founded by the puritans and so their culture is far from here. On the contrary, the French culture stresses, La joie de vivre, the joy of life. Life is to be enjoyed and celebrated from every angle. I wonder if the early colonists, a motley crue of former prostitutes from Paris or les filles de joie (ladies of joy) and convicts embraced this extra emphasis on enjoying life because they were the few survivors of the plethora of diseases that took so many. Locals grab a hold of life wholeheartedly and do not stress about the little things. And just like flare is added for any occasion, any occasion is worth celebrating.
Perfect example of New Orleans culture: I was walking along a street in the Quarter and heard blues music. I looked and could tell the music was coming from a taxi. The driver was an older man maybe in his mid-60’s. An older man is driving a taxi hustling it right. But, he’s jamming to the blues. But, that’s not all. As he caught my eye, I saw that his window was rolled down. It was 93 degrees. And, what’s more is that he brought up his right hand and in it was a tambourine that he started shaking to the beat of the music. This is all the while he was driving. That’s New Orleans flare right there.
Beauty abounds in New Orleans. First of all, the lush flora grows wild. Nourished by the mighty Mississippi and fed by frequent rain storms, tropical plants find their home here. And since the temperature never dips as cold as it does elsewhere, most plants survive all year long. So, while most of the country experiences dead looking trees, bushes, and grass, all the plants continue to thrive here. I am taken a back by the lavish ferns and flowers that grace the many balconies of the Quarter. Each and every balcony looks like a masterpiece, unique and special and boasting of beauty.
Beauty extends beyond the plant life. The architecture is a blend of French and Spanish. And since the city just celebrated their 300-year-anniversary, their architecture is older than most of the rest of these United States and reeks with history and old-world craftsmanship. No block is without a plaque of some sort exulting a building’s historical significance: from the Napoleon House, built by New Orleans’s Mayor from 1812-1815, to Hotel Monteleone which was built in 1886 and has been a haunt for literary giants such as Capote, to Congo Square (now called the Louis Armstrong Park) where slaves and free people of color from the pre-civil way era danced and inadvertently practiced their native voodoo on their 1 day off.
And while the Mississippi is known to be notoriously muddy, I have a working the bayous and lakes and waterways, like veins in our body, are a life-giving pulse of the city and region. The river and waterways have an energy to it and this is exacerbated by the frequent rainfall beset by frequent evening sheet lightening that graces the skies.
Food, oh the food!
Um, the food and drinks here are indescribable and should just be experienced.
Café D’Or: Try their coconut meringues. They taste like heaven and will melt in your mouth. They are wondrous.
Arnaud’s French 75: Try their cheese puffs. Lactose intolerant people, grab your lactaid. Holy sh#t. These little balls of cheese puffs are filled with delectable amounts of gruyere cheese.
Frozen daiquiri: Anywhere else, a frozen daiquiri may seem like a touristy thing to do. Only after several trips to New Orleans did my darling sister and I come to find out that frozen daiquiris are a local’s best kept secret. Yes, they taste amazing and most daiquiri joints have ridiculous flavors like, peach blini and coconut strawberry but, they are one of the few things that will take the edge off that New Orleans heat. I’m craving one now. What’s even more interesting is how the city even, dare I say, promotes this local classic. Drive-through daiquiri exist and only in New Orleans! To get around the law, or rather, to remain legal, the drinks must have a straw on the side (only with the drive-through stands. If you are not driving, you can just walk with daiquiri and straw in hand.) The daiquiri is technically a closed container because of the lovely provided lid.
Alligator: One can travel few places on the earth and see alligator on the menu and prepared in so many ways as it is in New Orleans. One native told me that good alligator is marinated in buttermilk to soften it. Try it on a salad, as a fritter, in tacos, or however suites your fancy.
One of my favorite restaurants that won’t be in a tour book is Voodoo Chicken. One of my favorite locations is on Saint Charles Street (1501 Saint Charles St.) and is on the trolley route. If I had a last meal, I just might have it come from Voodoo Chicken. Their sides are amazing to be a meal themselves: gris gris greens, corn bread pudding, sweet potato, baked beans. And the pulled pork, brisket and chicken are slow cooked to a succulent perfection.
One of my best meals ever in New Orleans was not from a restaurant in fact but from an older local man who, along with several other fellows, pulled up to the Frenchman St. area about with pick-up trucks hauling BBQ pits around 12 am. The man I encountered had 3 BBQ pits each cooking at different temperatures. I bought corn on the cob, pulled pork, and baked beans. If it didn’t bust with flavor, spice, and hickory! Best New Orleans meal ever.
And, how can I not mention the local favorites such as jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish, sweet potato pie. That’s enough writing about this-book your trip and experience the food. The temptation will be strong to go back to a place again and again because it’s amazing, force yourself to try different restaurants. Even the local Popeye’s on Canal street is so worth a stop!
If it’s not obvious from my writing, I am in love with New Orleans. I will die still in love with New Orleans. My love for New Orleans will grow with each passing day. And when I am not there, I want to make sure to bring back as much of it with me on a daily basis. So, catch me in the car line to pick up my kids jamming to the blues with a tambourine or drinking a frozen daiquiri while I’m wearing out cherry red lip stick.