July 16, 2010 > Travel: New Orleans, the City of Who Dat? (Part 2)
Travel: New Orleans, the City of Who Dat? (Part 2)
By Denny Stein
The generosity of Southerners is not to be questioned. We have friends in Monroe, Louisiana who drove five hours to spend two days with us, before returning to work the night shift. Our adventures included the New Orleans' Audubon Zoo, lunch at the Pontalba Cafe, The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, Faulkner House Books in Pirate Alley, dinner at Mr. B's Bistro, a drive through the 9th Ward, and then up St. Charles Street past Tulane and Loyola Universities. And of course, many beignets every day.
The Zoo had a new installation, The Language of Conservation, a collaboration with Poets House and the New Orleans Public Library. Mark Doty, as the Zoo's Poet in Residence, worked with conservationists and the zoo's wildlife and exhibit staff to bring home the importance of conservation. Around corners, hanging from trees, inscribed on walls and fences, the words of poets celebrated nature and the environment. The grim, melodic words of Langston Hughes were painted on one fence:
HOW HIGH HAVE YOU GOT TO BE?
HOW HIGH HAVE YOU GOT TO BE
TO KEEP THEM COLD MUDDY WATERS
FROM WASHIN' OVER ME?
Langston Hughes' "Mississippi Levee"
And swinging from a tree branch, "My heart on a string touched the sky," from Nazim Hikmet's "Things I Didn't Know I Loved." The Audubon Society's Zoo is alluringly laid out, with meandering paths, streams and misting stations to cool the heated visitor. Around each bend you'll find alligators, or giraffes, flamingoes, leopards, fresh lemonade, begging ring-tailed raccoons, peacocks, ice cream, or gorillas. Best to go early when there is some cool air, though the heat wasn't oppressive - just a constant reminder of the southern latitudes.
It was hot enough, though, that I wanted my short hair even shorter and made an appointment, through the Royal Sonesta concierge (who was, ironically, bald) at a hair salon just around the corner. I walked through the garage-like doors into a cool industrial styled space, where the exposed brick walls and distressed plaster needed no enhancements. The welcoming owner offered me a glass of orange juice, a Mimosa, or just water, whatever I'd like. Elisa, my stylist, was friendly, enthusiastic about New Orleans and her profession, her "total keeper" of her husband (a talented furniture maker and artist), their little house, and her tattoos. Up and down her arms blue-black creatures and vine-entwined stars drifted and flashed while she cut my hair. I left with a lighter head, (a lighter wallet) and another "Who dat?" moment.
New Orleans, among other things, is famous for its food. Having traveled to many places in the world, and dined in multiple Fremont restaurants, I can swear that there is no experience that competes with the food of this city. The Po-Boy sandwiches were extravagant in their abundance of fried shrimp or roast beef and lettuce "dressed" with tomatoes, and pickles, served on fresh, warm French bread. At the Acme Oyster House, on our last night, I was urged to have the Acme "10 Napkin Roast Beef "Po'Boy served debris style. Reluctantly, I gave in and found myself faced with a bateau sized French bread sandwich filled with shredded (debris style) roast beef, mixed with juicy gravy and fully "dressed." My first concern was how to pick it up; the second concern was how to fit a bite-sized piece into my mouth. After that . . . I had no concerns, and no leftovers.
Dr. Park partook of the famous grilled oysters and between the two of us there was no conversation until we had finished. Over the five days we spent in New Orleans, eating became central to our visit. Not because we are big eaters per se, but because around every corner, just like at the zoo, there was another soul-tantalizing experience.
We ate at first class dining establishments, sandwich joints, corner bistros and tourist-oriented seafood restaurants. I think our absolute favorites were the Acme Oyster House, and Mr. B's Bistro, an offshoot of the famous Brennan's. We also went to K-Paul's, another of Paul Prudhomme's establishments. Mr. B's Bistro makes an amazing dish called Barbecued Shrimp. It's not barbecued. It is in a red sauce that is so full of flavor your tongue doesn't know where to go next. Like much of New Orleans food, the Barbecued Shrimp is complex: rich with garlic, butter, lemon, pepper and Creole seasoning, it feels deep, and spicy but not "hot." The shrimp are served full on, so to speak, shells, heads, and creepy little feet. The diner gets a small loaf of bread, a bib, wet towels, and appropriate implements to work her way through the "scrimp" and the sauce. Nothing should be left behind in the end, except empty carapace. A leisurely, southern pace is unavoidable. When she was finally done, our server, Stephen, congratulated Dr. Park, instructed her to cup her hands and squeezed a half a lemon into them, to be briskly rubbed around, followed by a clean damp towel. Meanwhile, I was groaning in sheer pleasure over a plate of shrimp and grits with red-eye gravy. I won't go into minute detail over the creaminess of the grits, the plumpness of the shrimp, or the surprising sweet flavor of the light red-eye sauce, suffice it to say that it lived up to, and beyond, my expectations. Stephen has been working at Mr. B's Bistro for 25 years. I was interested to know what happened to the restaurant and the staff after Katrina and he told me that most of the workers waited for Mr. B's to re-open after extensive repairs and renovations. Some of the staff came in weekly to help with construction, others had jobs in near-by restaurants that had not been quite so damaged, and waited to be recalled, then returned. That quality of loyalty and caring is rare these days, but the people of New Orleans are a rare breed.
And it is this quality that breaks your heart and gives you hope as you drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. The French Quarter has renewed its facades and continues to beat out jazz rhythms amidst fairy lights and street revelers and the obvious lack of an open container law. But the Lower Ninth sits quietly in the sun, potholed streets outlining yards of tall grasses, square foundations mute markers of loss, and boarded up houses graffiti-ed with the score of the living and the dead. Famous names have taken up the cause here, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Ellen DeGeneres. And amongst these urban graves, new houses are appearing. Modern, daring, innovative homes rise on stilts announcing the beginnings of resurgence. Pitt's Make It Right home-building project is designed to construct affordable, eco-friendly houses so that the residents can return to what was once a vibrant community. After spending only five days in the City of New Orleans, I understand why it is such a tragedy to be one of its citizens and unable to return. It is not only the food that is rich, deep and complex, but it is the people and the community they create. Nowhere else on earth is New Orleans. Go. Experience it. Find out "who dat" is.
May 20-27, 2010
Editor's Note: If you missed Part I of this article, it can be found in the July 9 edition of Tri-City Voice which can be accessed at www.tricityvoice.com in the archives.