My first – and only – visit to New Orleans was when I was 17 or 18 years old. Before I knew what I know now about food and food culture. Before I could drink or appreciate a great cocktail. Before Hurricane Katrina. We did the usual tourist stuff organized by the school – beignets at Cafe du Monde, jazz at Preservation Hall. The New Orleans institutions. For my return visit – 18 years later – I wanted to experience New Orleans as authentically as I could. No standing in line for powdered hunks of dough (don’t get me wrong – they’re delicious), no lines waiting for a muffaletta, no jazz club stereotypes. I wanted to see as much of the city as I could – walk everywhere and let the music (and smells) in the air guide us.
When I try to sort out where to begin, all of the details of the trip swirl into one sultry, vibrating experience. As soon as you hit the streets of New Orleans, you feel it – this palpable, magical, historic “it”. The city is alive all the time – it differs from hour to hour. In the daylight, it’s groundbreaking boutiques like Avery Fine Perfumes, who chose NOLA as the spot for their first permanent retail location. It’s also the throngs of people lined up for cocktails and charcuterie at spots like Cochon Butcher. It’s mid-afternoon beers and games of pool with regulars in bars like Mimi’s and Half Moon (if you stop by Half Moon, ask for Woody). It’s brunch, burgers and Brussels sprouts and Sylvain – one of my favorite discoveries of the trip.
As the sun starts to set and the day dims just a bit, it’s street musicians that rival anything I’ve ever heard. You’re standing on the corner with a plastic cup in hand – I had to ask 10 times before I believed I could walk around with a cocktail – listening to the wailing of the most brilliant brass instruments when you hear a similar tune and the stomping of feet coming around the bend. You look around and here comes a wedding parade – complete with second line – filled with the most jubilant, glowing wedding party and their band of characters. It all fits, somehow, and Mike and I both looked at each other and raised our glasses. The New Orleans I’d been hoping to see.
At night, New Orleans is tasting menus at Coquette – I had a crab salad with asparagus and mustard flowers that made me swoon. It’s gastronomic institutions like Delmonico or Dickie Brennan’s. It’s also competing for bar seats with vampires at places like Pravda and Bar Tonique. One evening while we were there, the power went out at Tonique and, while some folks paid their tabs and hightailed it, we sat there in the dark…finishing our drink while watching the bartender not miss a beat. That, too, was the NOLA I’d been hoping to see.
I’ve struggled with what to say about the remnants of Hurricane Katrina and the lasting effects it has had on the city of New Orleans – nothing I say here is any different or more powerful than all the words and photos we’ve seen. We spent a good amount of time visiting neighborhoods outside of the Quarter, where we were staying. My desire to see some of the remaining Banksys – the ones that haven’t been demolished or painted over – was tempered by my desire not to be a tourist in the lives of folks that still live in Tremé and the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods throughout the city. You won’t see any photos of tags spray painted on houses. Sofas sitting out in yards of abandoned houses nearly 6 years later. Collapsing roofs and front stoops. You know why? Because people still live there and sit on those stoops. Families sitting on steps in front of houses that seem barely held together. Water lines and mildew crawling up the sides. This isn’t a tourist spot – this is real life for many people who chose to stay after the storm.
Banksy went to New Orleans in 2008 – two years after Katrina – and left behind close to a dozen works that were a commentary on the state and speed of the clean-up, as well as a dig at the “Grey Ghost”, an un-named man who covers up graffiti and street art with the same ominous color of gray paint. His placement of these pieces – near St. Roch, tucked away in Tremé, and the most moving being in Lower Ninth Ward – was no accident: a way to draw attention to the slow pace of help and recovery in these neighborhoods…and if people like me wanted to see his work, we’d have to go see it for ourselves. We’d have to make ourselves uncomfortable. See something that isn’t perfectly pastel old world charm. The boy with the bugle – his horn facing what is now a shell of a house that’s deteriorated even further since the storm – pointing at blocks of neighborhoods that look like an atomic bomb went off. That look like people dropped what they were doing and simply evaporated. The thought of a tidal wave of water rushing through city blocks. It’s an image I’ll never forget – I can’t talk about it without choking back tears.
Despite it all, many people chose to stay. To come back to New Orleans and help rebuild. Note that I don’t say “help make it better”. In the eyes of many people that live every day in NOLA, there was nothing wrong with their city before the storm. This notion of martyrdom and sweeping in to “fix things” is, for all practical purposes, frowned upon. The people of New Orleans want their city to be back the way it was. We don’t need your help. We need you to come here and contribute. Build something of use and of beauty in this community. Live with us – don’t just think that by tearing something down and building it new that you’re making it all better. Live day to day here with us and be a part of us. People in NOLA still talk about Katrina but in a way that isn’t full of sadness. There’s a matter-of-factness with a tinge of pride thrown in. We lived that and we’re still here so have a drink, new friend. That’s the message I heard over and over again and, more important than any photo I took there, brought home with me. I’m counting the days until I can do it again.
So many folks have asked where we ate while in New Orleans that I thought I would include a list of stops we made on our trip – food or otherwise. These are the places shown in the photos or referenced in this post. All the places listed are spots I’d visit again…and recommend to others. It is by no means an exhaustive list or a final itinerary – as Angie Mosier said to me, “eating and drinking New Orleans could be one’s life work”.
Full disclosure: This ain’t no media trip or sponsored post.