Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
24.05.2013 - 27.05.2013
A common question people ask me is “How do you decide where to go in your travels?” I struggle with this question because I don’t put a lot of deep thought into my travel destinations. I just get an idea to go somewhere someday and it sort of sticks in my subconscious. Sometimes I see a pretty or interesting site on TV and I make a mental note to go there, and other times a fellow traveler enchants me with a story about someplace. There are times when I happen to be in the neighborhood and go searching for what it has to offer. And, on rare occasions , it seems like the universe whispers in my ear and nudges me towards someplace somewhere.
I have long wanted to visit New Orleans, but had never put real planning effort behind it. A slightly freaky set of small coincidences convinced me the universe was trying to nudge me to New Orleans over Memorial Day weekend. It all started when I attended a social function for a club of international residents and world travelers living in Atlanta. I chatted with a girl from Spain, and she was impressed that I had seen several parts of Spain than she is still meaning to visit. Then she told me she was headed to New Orleans, and I confessed I had never been there despite my travels to the far reaches of the globe. She phrased it perfectly when she said “We tend to miss the gems in our own country.”
A day later I was hanging out at my friend Chris’s place. Yes, this is the same Chris featured in my Costa Rica blog. Without any prompting on my part, Chris said “I am thinking about getting out of town this weekend and heading to New Orleans.”
The third siren called the very next day while I was at my dentist’s office. I mentioned something to him that I was thinking about going to New Orleans, and it turns out he lived there for several years. He gets so many recommendation requests from other dentists that he put together his own New Orleans insider travel guide. He emailed a copy of it to me, and it was like receiving divine guidance from above as it revealed unto me secrets of New Orleans only a local would know. At this point even a doubting Thomas like me couldn’t refute the universe. I was going to New Orleans.
Be Prepared to Enter A Foreign Country
My friend Chris tested my mettle before I climbed into his car for the road trip. He told me New Orleans might as well be another country, and I would question if we were still in America at some part of the trip. I ignored his warnings and jumped in. We had a smooth, eight-hour car drive to New Orleans, and the highlight our conversation was formulating a quest for the weekend. Every life needs a purpose, and every impromptu road trip needs a quest. After some discussion we decided we would seek the perfect po boy sandwich New Orleans had to offer.
This brings up the deep philosophical question about what distinguishes a po boy from just a regular sandwich? I convened with the Wikipedia spirits to find the answer. Po boy is short for Poor Boy. According to Wikipedia: “A key ingredient that differentiates po' boys from other submarine sandwiches is the bread. Typically, the French bread comes in two-foot-long "sticks". Standard sandwich sizes might be a half po' boy, about six inches long (called a "Shorty") and a full po' boy, at about a foot long. The traditional versions are served hot and include fried shrimp, and oysters. Soft shell crab, catfish, crawfish, Louisiana hot sausage, fried chicken breast, roast beef, and French fries are other common variations.”
My First Taste
New Orleans hosts some of the best restaurants in the world. One of the best known is Acme, which offers some of the best oysters known to the universe. Their kitchen is open to public viewing, but they wouldn’t let me take a picture lest their secret get out.
I tried my first crawfish at Acme as well. I remember hunting “crawdads” for fun in streams and rivers as a kid. I never thought about actually eating them because they looked gross. For those of you who have no idea of what a crawfish/crayfish/crawdad looks like:
Chris shook his head in disbelief when I confessed that I had never sampled crawfish before. He kindly walked me through the savoring process:
Step One: Pull the body out of the head socket.
Step Two: “Suck” the back end of the head. Note – you will not get any meat or juices, you are doing this to build the flavoring in your mouth.
Step Three: Remove the outer shell of the tail and consume the meat.
Step Four: Repeat process with another crawdad.
Crawfish meat is brown in color and bittersweet in taste. I recommend everyone try one at some point in their life, but I won’t be making a habit out of eating them.
Bourbon Street: Into The Heart of Darkness
When Chris told me about New Orleans being another country, he was mainly referring to Bourbon Street. A New Orleans tour guide I met calls it “Frat Boy Hell.” The scene reminded me of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island.
The best part about Bourbon Street is the music. Almost every genre can be found, and the bands here have a real knack for getting people dancing and singing.
I never knew a washboard could be used as a musical instrument.
Alcoholic beverages are cheap, large, strong and plentiful on Bourbon Street. The law permits people to carry beverages on the street as long as they are not in glass:
I thought this girl was a paid entertainer in one of the music joints. It turns out she just loves to hula hoop dance to music. I chatted with her for a few minutes. To get the conversation going I said “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” She led off with “Well, I am a bit of a mess…”
A voodoo shop on Bourbon Street:
For the record this shop doesn’t do curses. If you read my blog post from the Virgin Islands back in January you may recall how I was annoyed at a Microsoft-induced problem on my computer. I stated I was going to sick some voodoo on them. I didn’t have anything serious in mind: I just wanted the engineer responsible to spill his coffee or stub his toe. I didn’t see any voodoo shops in the Virgin Islands, so I thought to settle the matter in this one. I jokingly inquired about the price of curses and the shopkeeper said “You have no idea what you are messing with!” Then he asked me to leave. While I waited outside for my friend Chris to come out, I checked my body over to make sure nothing odd was happening. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to be so flippant with someone’s belief system. In my defense though, the place is set up on Bourbon Street – an epicenter of tacky gimmicks. I misjudged it as another gimmicky tourist trap store.
I told this story to my friend from Spain and her eyes lit up as she had also been kicked out of the same store. She missed the sign that said “No Pictures” and they got very vocal with her when she snapped a picture. The attendant told her “Kharma will catch up to you!”
I also told the story to a waitress later that day and she freaked out a little bit. Her family had lived in New Orleans for several generations, and someone had put a curse on their first-born children about 100 years ago. She gave a summary of how many first-born members of her family had suffered unusual and untimely deaths since then.
A local corrected me on my pronunciation of her city’s name. I said “New Or LEANS” and the correct way to enunciate it is “New Or LINS.” Another acceptable pronunciation is “Nawlins.”
Strange History of New Orleans Tour
The brochure for this tour caught my eye as it promised to go into the history of New Orleans which few guides would cover.
The tour got off to an interesting start as my tour guide got into it with a street evangelist over the evangelist’s use of a microphone, which is a violation of a city ordinance.
Here are some of the highlights from the tour:
- New Orleans started as a French colony. The original colonists named New Orleans in a way that twisted French grammar rules on gender. This was a way of poking fun at a cross-dressing duke in France who was sitting on the throne until Louis XV came of age.
-The colonists named several streets after the bastard children of Louis XIV. These streets were deliberately left off of city maps sent to France.
- The officials in France had a sense of humor as well. When the officials in New Orleans requested France send women of virtue (they meant women from good families for courting and marriage) the officials in France took revenge for the name games by sending them nuns.
- No one wanted to live in New Orleans when it was founded. The French government emptied out its prisons to colonize the city. They paired up male and female prisoners, connected them with chains, and a priest gave them a 5 second wedding as they walked onto the ship. Later in the tour we walked by a building which housed public records. Our guide explained how people from prominent families used to sneak into the building with hidden razor blades to cut out records tracing their family history back to criminal origins.
- The tour covered the history of dueling. Our guide described how the French typically chose swords, and the duel stopped when the blood was drawn. Deaths were not common. The Americans took dueling to a different level as we liked to use our guns for the duels, and the death toll shot up. Our guide explained how most duel propositions just went back and forth in the posturing phase. One could get out of a duel if they applied a little bit of cleverness. Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel, and as the receiver of the challenge he was allowed to choose the duel weapon. He preserved his honor by accepting to duel, but he chose pig feces as the weapon knowing his challenger wouldn’t take it to the next step.
- The U.S. government went into debt for the first time to purchase the Louisiana Territory, and the act of the federal government borrowing money was a huge controversy at the time. The government had to borrow $5 million from the Bank of England to come up for $15 million. England was at war with France at the time so England was effectively financing the war against itself.
- Our tour visited the site of a street shoot-out between a gangster and professional boxer over the hand of Norma Wallace, the premier madam of the city from the 1920s to 1960s. Both men were legally married to Norma at the time. The gun battle went on for hours, but the police never showed up. Norma had mob-boss like powers in the city, and many prominent people across the country knew her as well. She was married twelve times in her life and is quoted as saying: “All my marriages were beautiful. . . . The trouble was, my husbands all considered themselves married, but I didn't.''
- The tour finished at the Omni Royal Hotel, where a Led Zepplin band member had a close call with a transvestite.
More Good Eats
Pan Fried Rabbit at Chef Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul Louisiana Kitchen
Beignets at Café du Monde. Their website states "Beignets were also brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. These were fried fritters, sometimes filled with fruit. Today, the beignet is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar."
Here is what their website says about the chicory in their coffee: "The taste for coffee and chicory was developed by the French during their civil war. Coffee was scarce during those times, and they found that chicory added body and flavor to the brew. The Acadians from Nova Scotia brought this taste and many other French customs (heritage) to Louisiana. Chicory is the root of the endive plant. Endive is a type of lettuce. The root of the plant is roasted and ground. It is added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee. It adds an almost chocolate flavor to the Cafe Au Lait served at Cafe Du Monde."
Alligator Sausage Sandwich at 801 Royale.
Chris did a lot of research on TripAdvisor and found Killler Po Boys, which is tucked into the back of an Erin Rose Irish Pub. They offer non-traditional but very creative po boy sandwiches.
Frenchman Street: The Real New Orleans:
The locals try to hide their best nightlife spots from tourists in many places I go to in the world. In New Orleans, the locals encourage people to break out of Bourbon Street and experience their favorite jaunts. I spent an evening listening to local jazz bands perform on Frenchman Street, and it was the best night of my trip.
A local wedding procession:
I thought the shadow effect made for a good picture: