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Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Crescent City

It took me all of two hours to make the big mistake that all visitors to New Orleans eventually make: Visiting the French Quarter. The French Quarter is strictly a tourist trap; I knew that going into it. It exists to do two things to all those who attempt to thumb their noses at its unique jazz inferno: The first is to overwhelm your senses, and the second is to take a hefty chunk of change from your wallet. What inexperienced visitors don’t realize about the French Quarter is that it’s not some small, brief four-or-six-block out-of-the-way radius. The French Quarter is a real neighborhood, with real residents, and it is fucking massive. The main, tourist part of it is also covered in all manner of restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs, and cabaret shows, not one of which is priced even halfway reasonably. 

 

I tried to be conservative about my spending on that first night, walking up to a random bar and grill to order a bowl of seafood gumbo and a bottle of a local beer called Ambita. The gumbo was fantastic, but the beer didn’t impress me very much. When I saw the total for these two food items and realized how ridiculous it was, I decided on making a bit more of a splurge and set out in search of a decent dessert joint. Eventually I ran into another bar which served a giant hunk of chocolate fudge cake, which I washed down with a drink I now can’t even remember. My total bill for the night surpassed $30, and that was going into cheaper, lesser-known joints. It was a good thing most of the nightclubs and music clubs I walked into didn’t charge for covers. But of course, they have so many people coming and going that they wouldn’t need to. 

 

The locals all hang out on a street at the very edge of the French Quarter called Frenchmen Street. Another traveler and I were led there by a longtime resident in the wee hours of one morning. The atmosphere there was considerably different; it was a lot more down-to-Earth, welcoming, and friendly. It’s a kind of difference between the two views of New Orleans; the first group that sees it strictly visits in order to get as drunk and fat as possible, and the group that lives there and sees it as a breathing embodiment of their very being. The second group was the group of little secret spots of the city, where any people fit in and were welcomed into any outside conversation. The travelers who revel in the party atmosphere of the French Quarter are from out of town, and so most of them gravitate toward their own little cliques. It felt like on Frenchmen Street, I could walk up to anyone and start gabbing away about any random subject without a wave of dread washing over the person I was talking to. The fact that I was in this secret little corner of New Orleans making conversation with residents who had never seen me before at 2:00 in the morning lent weight to this perception, although I can’t rule out the involvement of alcohol. It also made the long walk back to Saint Charles Avenue worth it. 

 

New Orleans oozes the charm of the old-world Victorian era. Even the houses in poor neighborhoods have a certain visual appeal, be they complexes or shotgun shacks. The streetcars are spotty and inconsistent, but they look cool, and the city made a culinary tradition of tossing ingredients onto a piece of french bread and calling the sandwich a po’boy. Bus shelters have been made into murals. There is so much ultra-retro charm that the existence of palm trees in the city almost ruins it. 

 

New Orleans also booms with its own soundtrack and style. To an extent, this is true of all cities, but no visitors to Buffalo talk about its peoples’ collective devotion to traditional guitar-driven hard rock, nor do they speak of the fantastic banking business atmosphere surrounding Saint Louis. Tennessee Williams, a onetime resident of New Orleans, once said something to the effect of the Crescent City being the last true bohemian outpost in America. And this is true – a sort of creative mindset is required to walk into the city and not be looped by the street art and a jazz sound which plucks you with one hand, palms you, and then repeatedly smacks you with the other hand, as if in applause. Jazz is the most prominent export of New Orleans, and the city will force you to recognize that. It’s tough to keep track of all the music clubs, which ones I had been in and which ones I hadn’t, because finding good music in New Orleans is like finding the blue in the sky. 

 

During the hot days, I photographed some of the regular sights – Audubon Park, Tulane University, and Saint Louis and Lafayette cemeteries – while running around soaking in as much of the city as I could. I also took a steamboat ride on the Creole Queen to the location of the Battle of New Orleans, and on Easter I attended mass at Saint Louis Cathedral. I stopped at a couple of coffee shops and would have looked in bookstores had any good ones been available. Throughout my wanderings, I noticed that the city had taken the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and turned the rebuilding effort into a slogan. I liked that, because I saw something quintessentially Buffalonian about it. I tend to talk about toughness of people in a city a lot, and when Buffalo people talk about cities they think are tough, New Orleans doesn’t crop up on the list too often. But here, people survived the worst hurricane of all time, baked on rooftops, and lived in the Superdome, which housed dead bodies at one time. Yet, it also thumbed its nose at this same storm by rebuilding itself and turning Katrina into a collectors’ item. And the people here didn’t seem to hold a grudge, as they were quite happy and friendly and courteous to me the whole time I was in town. 

 

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Biscuits

Saint Louis is a northern south. Right on the border of Illinois – which cannot in any way be called a southern state – sits a clearly invisible dividing line. On the Illinois side, I was a little surprised to find large belt buckles with the unmistakable embossing of the Confederate flag on them, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me for two reasons: First of all, I was technically seeing this in Illinois. It was the Saint Louis metro area, granted, but a state line is a state line and there are no actual cities which cross state lines. Second, while sympathetic to the Confederacy, Missouri never actually went through with secession.

I understand that the former Confederacy sees its famous ensign as a piece of its history and a symbol of regional pride and don’t-boss-me-around rebelliousness. Then again, I also understand that Indian Hindus keep the swastika as a symbol of good luck.

The southern accent dominates the region, and I’ve been subjected to a few y’alls and other forms of regional dialect. I did know a few southerners in the north, only a next-door neighbor still had a think layer of her deep accent to go with a husky drawl. The other southern natives had accents which were faded at best, and they had adopted the Chicagoan slang of their northern friends and neighbors.

What surprised me most, however, was a recent stop in a small Belleville restaurant. I wanted a light meal, and looked at a breakfast menu which featured biscuits with gravy. Not as a side dish, but as a standalone item which allowed the option of having one or two biscuits with it. My hosts, Kevin and Christi, had both been regulars to southern culture at some point in their lives. Christi’s parents, who had dropped in unexpectedly for a quick visit, were both ornery southerners. All were shocked when I asked just what to expect with the biscuits.

Now, I had always loved biscuits, but we don’t glorify them in the north the way they do in the south. Biscuits in the north are strictly a side dish which is to be served with butter instead of bread with butter, and only on occasion. It took about ten minutes – during which Christi and her parents all expressed disbelief that I had never had biscuits and gravy before – before I decided to expand my horizons and try this southern comfort delicacy. The food came quickly, and I was given two normal-sized biscuits and a large bowl of white gravy with chunks of sausage. The proper way of eating them, I was told, was to cut the biscuits in half and just dump the gravy all over them.

After doing that, I was a little perplexed as to whether or not I eat them the traditional way or with a fork. I took the traditional method, grabbing them by hand and eating them between my fingers. The density of the gravy was greater than the density of the biscuits, and that sadly resulted in the biscuits slowly falling apart. Even so, I think I discovered a new favorite breakfast dish.