We felt as if a dark god had cursed us. There in the king-sized bed of the Hotel St. Marie we laid, Becca and I, dehydrated, devoid of nutrients, and despairing over the state of our trip. Had our drunken walkabout on our first night in New Orleans led to such a binging of our souls that the future of our southern escapade was in doubt?
Of course not. Whatever voodoo spirits had haunted us on our first night were gone when we woke up at sunrise. We waited in bed for a bit to make sure that we were not still zombified, and once we got ourselves motivated, we decided that a bag of beignets and a cafe au lait would help wake us up a bit. So we dragged ourselves out of the hotel and down to Decatur Street, where the smell of coffee and powdered sugar emanated from the institution that is Cafe du Monde.
You probably cannot get more New Orleans than traipsing down to Cafe du Monde, ordering yourself a bag of three messy beignets and a cup of coffee with chicory, and sitting down to enjoy the music coming from up and down the street. The cafe has operated 24 hours a day year round since the Civil War, save for a few tough moments in its history. When you sit down at Cafe du Monde, you sit in the same chairs as the rats and royalty of the past, present, and future. I can think of few other distinct places in America that have such a quality about them.
We took our beignets and coffees to the steps of Jackson Square, where we faced the historic St. Louis Cathedral and watched magician Dusty Campbell dazzle a crowd of tourists. Seeing a magic show from behind while drinking powdered sugar directly from the bag – and therefore getting it all over yourself – is a fun experience. I highly suggest it. As the morning progressed, we watched artists, performers, psychics, tarot readers, puppeteers, and other entrepreneurs set up shop in front of the Calibdo and Presbytere, the two grand New Orleans museums flanking the cathedral. To sit out in the wonderful seventy-degree weather was enough to lift our spirits which had taken a hit the previous evening.
But after a walk through the Calibdo – where we learned about the history of Louisiana and the settling of New Orleans – our bodies ached with the need for more fuel. So we headed down through the French Market and finally settled at the famous Market Cafe, where we nabbed a table and sat down to listen to the five-piece jazz band play. We ordered two of the city’s most notable dishes: Red beans and rice and a half of a muffuletta. See below for the visual:
I’m afraid that I didn’t get the best angle on these beautiful dishes. The red beans and rice was simple: Kidney beans stewed in cajun broth and accompanied by an andouille sausage. The half muffuletta could have been a full sandwich: Cold cuts and cheeses pressed together and just crisped, topped with olive salad and placed in a soft sesame bun. People not of New Orleans, lend me your ears, your eyes, your stomachs: Your city has done food all wrong. You have failed gastronomically. New Orleans has claimed a clear victory over all other lands when it comes to feeding the masses.
We took our sweet time enjoying our meals and the music, regardless of our hunger. The food got us both back to a hundred percent, and I could see in Becca’s eyes that the red beans and rice had healed the lingering ailments still haunting her. Both of us stuck to water, with the thought of any more alcohol entering our system so far from our minds. But we could see that even at noon on a Thursday, folks were still slugging down daiquiris. I had to applaud their gumption.
After finishing up at the cafe and shopping around a bit, we visited the Presbytere and saw the Katrina and Mardi Gras exhibits on display. We did the Katrina exhibit first, and it hit too close to home to remember how the government failed folks in a desperate time of need. But then we went upstairs to the Mardi Gras exhibit and marveled at the fancy dresses and complete insanity of the festival. Again, distraction from tragedy and suffering by fashion and entertainment seems a little on the nose. Come on. You’re reading this blog right now and there’s still a pandemic going on. (Maybe you’re reading this maybe years after COVID, but I’m sure there’s some other horrible thing happening in the world to which you aren’t paying attention.)
We went back to the hotel to rest and freshen up a bit, having walked around the whole French quarter and feeling somewhat sweaty. As we walked back down Bourbon Street, we could see that even at 3:00 in the afternoon the night had already begun for some folks. Folks were already filing in and out of the Tropical Isle with their hand grenades. The bands were beginning to blow at some of the nearby jazz clubs. We hung around outside these clubs for a bit to listen to these matinee acts before going back up to our room and recharging for dinner.
That evening, we hopped over to the Royal House a couple of blocks away. We’d passed by the restaurant a few times over the course of our stay in New Orleans, and it was the only place that offered a seafood boil, which was something we wanted to enjoy before leaving the city. We took a seat on the balcony overlooking Royal Street and ordered a dozen oysters, the shrimp boil, and a round of hush puppies. Once again I declare unto you that every other city must kneel and cower before New Orleans’ culinary offerings. No other city does it better. I said what I said.
The oysters were wonderful, but the shrimp boil knocked us both out of our chairs, over the railing, and down the road straight into the Mississippi River. The spices had become trapped in every crevice of the shrimp, the potatoes, and the corn. Cajun spice burns sweet, so while it tingled our lips and left our tongues numb, it hurt too good. We licked the plates and our fingers clean. After finishing our meal, we had to head back to the hotel to wash the lingering spice off of our fingers and out of our mouths. Not that we wanted to; we feared it would knock over everyone who passed us on the streets.
Our final act for the night was a ghost tour around the French Quarter to learn all about – as the tour is named – the bad bitches of New Orleans. After a dessert of more beignets, we met up with our tour group and our guide Elaine, who showed our group all of the locations where the city’s most nefarious and criminal women throughout history thrived. We saw Gallatin Street, current home to the French Market and former home to prostitutes and murderers. There was the LaLaurie Mansion, notable for its role on American Horror Story and as a place of terror and tragedy. And of course, we saw the site of the home of Madame Marie Laveau, voodoo queen of New Orleans, and learned all about the magic she worked when she ruled the city. Plus, we visited the sites where more of Louisiana’s lesser-known female serial killers, sex workers, and lascivious high-society ladies did their dirty work.
I would highly suggest this tour if you’re going to do any walking tour of New Orleans; Elaine gave a lot of great insight into the history of the city and answered all of our questions, whether they applied to the tour or not.
After the tour finished, we headed back toward the hotel, but stopped for a bit at the Maison Bourbon to finish the night off with some jazz. The band played any and all remaining bad spirits away as we watched mesmerized by their awesome power. After about an hour or so, one which seemed to pass too quickly, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest for our trip to Houston and to sleep off the awesome amount of food we’d eaten and miles we’d walked. We had, after all, covered a lot of ground in the city, both geographically and gastronomically.
I first visited New Orleans when I was sixteen years old, as part of a cross-country youth group trip. We spent not nearly enough time in the city, and because we were all minors, our itinerary was strict and our ability to enjoy much of the city’s finer experiences – the food, the drinks, the parties – was severely limited. Plus, because our trip was under the jurisdiction of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, we couldn’t eat anything that wasn’t kosher. Do you know how much folks in New Orleans love to cook with pork and to mix meat and dairy?
Despite the limitations, I fell in love with the city then, and I swore I’d go back when I could enjoy more of it. Our two nights in New Orleans – despite the first night’s demons – were a highlight of our trip, and I can’t wait to go back with Becca and perhaps more of our family someday. It is truly a city that feels more alive than anywhere in the country, despite every disaster, disease, economic downturn thrown at it. No matter what, the food, music, and love flows through the streets. It seems like the only way to survive, and it’s a damn good way too.
Next time on the Great Southern Escapade, we’ll be heading to Houston to celebrate Christmas weekend with Becca’s sister and our niece. I’d only once before spent Christmas in weather warmer than seventy degrees, so I tell you it was quite the trip.