New Orleans: Culinary Mastery and Cultural Continuity in the Wake of Katrina

It’s an overwhelming idea, to think about visiting one of the most culturally significant and tumultuous cities in America for the 1st time in your life. The thought of “How the heck have i not been here yet?” lingering in your conscious. When people you’ve met all over the country and the world always say “That’s one of my favorite cities,” it makes you wonder what exactly makes it so wonderful. And in all honesty, it builds a bit of anxiety, cause you don’t want to go to NOLA and end up missing whatever the charm is or whatever that ONE thing that makes New Orleans so awesome is. This anxiety (fear?) is likely what led me to decide to make my first 2 day stop on a cross country drive, where everywhere I’d been up to that point was for a one day trip.

Not knowing much about the city, i logged on to AirBnB and booked an apartment in the French Quarter, a block away from Bourbon Street. “That’s where you’re ‘supposed’ to stay, right?” I thought to myself, whilst keeping the promise of figuring out what “it” is in NOLA with every decision. I fired off a few texts to seasoned NOLA veterans with “send me your recommendations” and off I was, rolling in just in time for dinner following the 8 hour drive from Atlanta. My apartment was a quaint unit, tucked away in a courtyard that despite being near the loudest street in the city, was pleasantly quiet. My host pointed out the hurricane doors on the unit:

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I strolled out onto Bourbon Street amidst a mass of drunks enjoying themselves following the week’s annual Jazz Fest. I walked around the French Quarter for over an hour, trying to understand how Bourbon St breathes in relation to the surrounding area. It didn’t take long for me to realize that unlike most of these people, I wasn’t really in New Orleans to get blitzed, but rather to get a glimpse of a city that i was sure i would hope to visit again and catch up on my writing & upcoming travel plans. I retired into a large seafood house on the outskirts of Bourbon St and drank Jefferson Rye and Voodoo Bengal pale ale over oysters and Creole shrimp.

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i couldnt resist eating a couple of these before snapping the photo.

The Creole flavors were out of this world, the type of sauce that balances spicy and bold flavors impeccably and lingers on your palette long after you’re done. I left relaxed and a bit parched, but felt content to discover the ups and downs of Bourbon St for another hour with a “big ass beer” before turning in.

I had a full day ahead of me on Monday and my quest to understand the NOLA paradigm began.  I settled into Stanley Cafe on Jackson Square on a recommendation from a friend who called it “the best breakfast i’ve ever had.” A bold statement which had to be investigated.

Jackson Square is a bustling plaza, likely the French Quarter’s largest and it boasts a colorful population of artists, fortune tellers (yes, fortune tellers…lots of em), performers, tourists and vagrants. A lone stool at the end of the breakfast bar helped me circumvent the line immediately, which looked to be a 30+ minute wait. I ordered eggs benedict with fried Louisiana oysters. Yes please:

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The hollandaise sauce was light and agreeable along with the three thinly sliced Canadian bacon discs on each english muffin, but the fried oysters…oh the fried oysters! THIS was a Benedict and something about having oysters for my last two meals in a row put a huge smile on my face.

As for the coffee, I couldn’t even tell you how many cups I had. In New Orleans, it’s customary to infuse the coffee grounds with a plant/herb called chicory. The result is a creamier bodied blend, with a smooth chocolatey taste which feels far less acidic.

I talked to a couple at the counter who told me to check out Frenchman St, which was in the Marigny neighborhood that was also on my radar. Frenchman St was littered with restaurants, music stores and jazz clubs and even on a sunny Monday afternoon, the music was playing everywhere from the street musicians along my walk, to the clubs/eateries along Frenchman. While there were clearly tourists perusing the area, (likely spillover from the nearby Farmer’s market/bazaar along the water) it felt like I was somewhere between where the touristy French Quarter tapered off and a pseudo-suburban village picked up.

I ventured deeper into Marigny to a coffee shop for the next few hours, only to arise with the hunger of a thousand southerners. After dilly-dallying up and down Frenchman St looking for the right spot to eat, i decided to go back to that Farmer’s Market and hunt down the local favorite, a Po boy sandwich. The market had a food boulevard of sorts and I posted up at a stand called N’awlins:

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I sat by the kitchen and listened to the cooks talking about cooking, paying rent, saving money, their families and having a few laughs. I had a bowl of seafood gumbo with andouille and a sautéed crawfish Po Boy sandwich that’ll go down as the best thing i had in the city. The “CEO” of the place, Arthur “King Creole” Humphrey, came out and asked me “How you doin’ oer there son?” I nodded and put a thumbs up as i took a bite of the buttery sandwich with the sexiest balance of mayo to hot sauce. Right on cue, King Creole replied with “We Got Da Kind Dat Stop Da Baby From Crying!”…I didn’t really get it and he must’ve noticed the look on my face cause then he asked “You know how to stop da baby from cryin’, right?” I made another puzzled look and in perfect rhythm, the King said “Put food in his mouth! Hahaha!”  What a cool dude and a helluva sandwich.

I was spent and it was barely 6 o’clock so I strolled along the river and made my way back to my room. But in a turn for the best, I decided to go on a run instead of sitting around. I’d been eating like a pig for the last 3 days and hadn’t exercised a lick.

My run took me along the Mississippi and then i got lost somewhere in the CBD (Central Business District). I looked down on my phone’s map and realized I wasn’t far from the historic Superdome, so to there I ran. When I arrived, the surrounding area was a ghost town. With football season over (The Saints play in the Superdome) and no major events on the horizon, there was no reason for anyone to be around. The nearby Smoothie King Center (yes, that’s what it’s called) where the NBA’s Hornets play, was also empty and i felt like the last survivor in a zombie apocalypse in that moment.

I walked around the building, admiring the changing colors on it’s facade with the sunset sky in the foreground and i couldn’t help but think of the thousands of families who came to the Superdome for safe harbor when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. My mind was blown when i replaced the lasting image of this building during Katrina in my head:

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with this image that was now before me:

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The breathtaking grandeur of the Superdome started opening my eyes to a rebirth and the strength of this city & its supporters following a devastating Hurricane which claimed nearly 2,000 lives, flooded over 80% of the city and caused over $81 billion in property damage. Think about that…$81 billion?!?! When I juxtaposed the idea of a city in shambles with this beautifully renovated facility, it represented a Renaissance and a transformation of a city that i would learn more about later that night…And with the emotional visit to the Superdome under my belt I ventured home, showered, packed to leave the following morning and readied myself for a walk to the finest beer pub in the state of Louisiana, Avenue Pub.

Avenue Pub is a bit Uptown, well off the French Quarter on St. Charles St and came highly recommended. I hadn’t realized what a craft beer mecca it was until i was reading about it on my 35 minute walk, but suffice it to say this beer geek was happy. I felt like most everyone I had talked to so far was also a tourist and I really wanted to post up at a bar top and meet some locals. Turns out this was just the place for that as I sat at the bar drinking Envie Pale Ale’s from the fantastic Parish Brewing Co in Broussard, LA. I met a dude named Phil, who grew up in St. Louis and had lived in NOLA for the last 6 years working as an attorney. Our interests were similar: beer, sports, cities and it was cool to compare living in New Orleans with life in the last two cities i had lived in, New York City and San Francisco.

The bartender was cheerful from the moment I walked in and there was a chef whipping up southern pub grub (I had 5 small crawfish pies. They did not suck.) In fact, everyone at this bar was cheerful. There were people watching playoff hockey (LA Kings fans?!), other folks who wanted to talk about beer and random barflies who clearly knew the ropes at Avenue Pub.

Phil took off and this older biker looking dude had moved into the stool next to me. We started telling our stories to each other, like where we’re from, where we’ve been, you know… typical bar fodder and he soon introduced himself to me as Beast. Beast was a bartender at a new Italian restaurant down the road and had moved to New Orleans 8 years ago, a few months after Katrina hit. Naturally i was curious about the role that Katrina played in his arrival and Beast had a wealth of modern history to tell. He arrived here a seasoned bartender and applied for a job at the House of Blues. They hired him on the spot and asked him if he could start that night. Turns out a lot of the food service industry had been hit hard following Katrina. The House of Blues company for one, offered a job relocation to any HOB NOLA employee at another HOB location across the country to get away from the Katrina aftermath along with their families.

Beast was part of a food service and culinary landscape that had been drastically altered after Katrina. Up and coming chefs who had to claw to get positions on the line of New Orleans’ finest restaurants were now finding it easier to slide into a notable spot in the years following the disaster. As a result, the beautiful food of the city was blossoming; mirroring the city’s growth into 2014 during my visit.

But as people came to New Orleans following the disaster, even more people left. The metropolitan area’s population had dropped from 489,000 pre-Katrina to 369,000 post-Katrina.  Low income families had relocated to other large cities like Houston, Atlanta and Dallas. The crime rates in those cities grew as the rate in New Orleans dropped historically. And through this conversation with Beast, I finally started to understand this city. Namely the transition and subsequent Renaissance that it’s been undergoing since the tragedy that struck 9 years prior. The dead space that I saw on my walk between the French Quarter and the heart of St. Charles St to the pub made more sense now as there were clearly areas that had yet to be re-developed. And the whole time, everyone who was there couldn’t be happier. This city withstood a catastrophic hurricane, but it’s people and culture had shown the strength to carry on and tout the things that endear the city to them and make it what it is: Food, music, culture, the people themselves and a prevailing attitude that’s as steady as the bridges that bind the city from end to end.

Even though I’ve left New Orleans,  I’ll be thinking about how full of life the Superdome looked even in the absence of people. I’ll be thinking about oysters, that crawfish sandwich and sublime coffee. I’ll be thinking about Beast, that Pub and what lies in the outer extremities of the city that I didn’t get to know. But that’s what makes a great city so great…that it leaves you with a feeling that you can’t wait to go back. One love.

Spinelli

St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square from the walkway along the Mississippi River.
St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square from the walkway along the Mississippi River.

 

The RoadTrip Soundtrack has new additions from the last post:

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