Having seen most of Treme when it aired earlier this year on HBO, I felt well prepared for my weekend in New Orleans. (I knew, for instance, that street musicians HATE “When the Saints Go Marching In” requests.) But busking, you learn, is only part of a much larger culture that encompasses exotic cooking, voodoo, and HOLY SH*T the biggest alligators this side of Peter Pan. Readers, welcome to Flavor Country.
A little preamble: It’s just about 1000 miles from Chicago to New Orleans on two days of driving, and that north-south divide makes itself known in a number of ways. The way Pilot gas stations gradually give way to a blanket of Love’s(s); the growing emphasis on Sweet Tea at McDonald’s (…which I’ll never understand). There’s that moment where it just feels right to start blasting Skynyrd.
But you want to know the most surefire confirmation you’ve reached the south? INSECTS. Hell, that might even be too pat a word to describe what are really card-carrying CREATURES — flying menaces of the road whose sole mission is the complete carcass-painting of your windshield. Suicide bombers of the four- and six-legged variety. The sooner you accept the fact that a) it’s just a part of the drive and b) swerving to avoid them is really something of a big mistake, the sooner you can make peace with how awful your Honda Fit looks the next day.
…Anyway, NEW ORLEANS. Literally the first thing you should know about the place is that no calls it “NOLA.” That’s for New Yorkers who can’t get enough of the name-shortening game and your mom. The second thing you should know, also on the vernacular front, is that beignet is pronounced “ben-yay.” (Third is that “beignet” is Cajun for “funnel cake.”) There, you’re practically a local!
Of course that you now know enough to fit in is only sort of a joke, since New Orleans may have the least insurmountable barrier to social entry of any American city I know. It redefines casual, and not in the obnoxious “YEAH, we smoke pot” or “you WISH you lived here” mode of other (otherwise fun) spots. People are too busy eating fried dough or tightrope-walking in Jefferson Park — all while enjoying the benefits of open container law — to be neurotic. Obviously my total lack of self-consciousness helped me fit right in.
Some cities are known for one or two food specialties they do really well. New Orleans is known for, like, twelve dishes it does incredibly well. Po’Boys, jambalaya, fried chicken, alligator sausage…not one was less than the best version I’ve ever had — first time or NOT — and I got to enjoy each in a completely non-pretentious setting. Just GOOD food in the truest sense of the word*. Some places to check out (for those weirdos among you reading for travel tips? God knows) include Willie Mae’s, Ignatius, and the Parkway Tavern, all of which are reasonably priced and casual.
* I know that this sort of “review” — i.e. “it is simply GOOD food” — is totally interchangeable with one of my all-time favorite movie critiques (“it is simply a GOOD movie”) and that in BOTH cases it is derivative at best, but maybe the terseness speaks to how little gussying up these things need? Or I’m a hack, your call!
“But lots of places have a distinct local flavor and permit questionable public drinking, Henning,” you say. “What separates NOL–what else makes New Orleans unique?” First, I don’t appreciate your tone. Second, I hear you — stomachs play a part in odysseys of the spirit, but should never have a unilateral vote. Stepping away from the dinner table, you’ll find that there is PLENTY to do in New Orleans that doesn’t involve eating.
For instance, do you like nature? (“Not reall-“) Just south of the city proper are any number of nature sanctuaries that let you see where that alligator sausage came from! My friend Dave took me to one, Jean Lafitte Preserve, that while named for a pirate with a not-at-all tough moniker, is home to at least nine species that can kill you. DEAD. Gators present the most obvious threat, sure, but add spiders, snakes, and swamp folk to the mix…and baby, you realize you’re living on borrowed time. Plus cellular coverage is weak, which means no hope of rescue. No last words to loved ones. Contemplations of mortality just around the bend from Mardi Gras hedonism — poets, I think we’ve found us some DICHOTOMY!
So long story short, New Orleans is beads and boobs and gators and etouffe all tossed and chopped up and covered in Creole seasoning, a grab-bag of competing elements that, like your Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Rob, somehow make it work. It is the same spirit of eclecticism that blankets Chicago…and Austin…and New York…and every major — or semi-major — city in these great United States, but it’s no less special for being widespread. It is DIVERSITY. And it should be celebrated.
When does Time do their “40 Writers Under 40” thing again?