Friday, February 25, 2011

New Orleans, Soul Food.

It seems so distant now, but it wasn’t too long ago I found myself on a plane, surrounded by a large group of very chatty high school cheerleaders, because like them, my girlfriend still feels the allure of the back of the bus. We were on our way to New Orleans, my hometown, to visit family and friends and to enjoy life…

For many reasons though, the constant girlish chatter being one, I was uneasy about heading to the Big Easy. Mostly because earlier that week, I had quit my job for the first time as an adult and wasn’t sure what was next for me, and second mostly because it was going to be my girlfriend’s first time there, her first time seeing my past. She’s known me out west, which is to say, she knows me now as opposed to then, I was a different person back then. I left New Orleans five years ago, the storm having put some things in perspective, to pursue a new chapter in my life. I was jobless, young and full of newly formed ideals about life, love and beer. Still young and again jobless, and heading back for the first proper visit since, I felt like I had weathered a different type of storm, I felt like I was going home a man, a nervous one, but one none the less.

We arrived, and as we drove from the airport into the city, I felt waves of memories wash over all my senses, permeating them, like the humidity that surrounds you there, it was refreshing and I instantly felt better. I missed the humidity, I missed that town.

My old high school chum and best friend put us up for the week. He lives a block from Magazine St., a mile and a half from Audubon Park, half a mile from the cheese shop he manages and right across the street from Les Bon Temp Roule, an old building filled with loud music, smoke and debauchery, like most bars in New Orleans.

Once settled we walked up Magazine, beers from Bayou Teche (a new brewery out in Cajun Country) in hand, catching up on our way to Mahoney’s for po boys, the stresses of life already starting to dissipate, the weather beautiful. Once there, I ordered the fried chicken liver with Cajun slaw, my girlfriend and friend both ordered the root beer-glazed ham and cheese.  We sat outside, enjoying the unseasonably nice weather and the traditionally sloppy sandwiches and watched the people of Uptown. Uptown has an old money, new fashion collegiate slow pace to it, very different than the vibe Downtown or any other neighborhood in New Orleans, but like all of them, saturated with funk, poverty and pride.

We dined in the first night at my friend’s request. He happens to be one of the best home cooks I know, one that has taken that next step if you will, like a home brewer who’s left the comfort of extract behind to tackle the more engaging and flavorful all-grain process, its always been a pleasure to eat what he cooks. We feasted on eggplant salad, roasted veggies, pasta carbonara and plump grilled shrimp, prefaced by good cheese, good bread, jam and chocolate. Old and new friends came over to join us and we all drank and ate into the night. It was good introduction to the trip, easy and carefree.

The next day we had breakfast at St. James Cheese Shop on Prytania St., as we would for the duration of the trip, where my friend works. It is one of the best cheese shops I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a few. They sell one of the world’s best cheese selections, serve up the best cheese plates and make some of the most eclectic sandwiches in town. Each morning we were served on wooden blocks a world wind of artisan foods…cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, mustards, jams, anchovies, house-smoked duck, pates and meat pie, always accompanied by plenty of good strong coffee and good crusty bread. A perfect way to start a day I think.

That afternoon, we biked down St. Charles past the mansions and colleges of New Orleans, to meet my mom, the birthday of whom I had accidently and luckily timed the trip around. I’m awful with birthdays, but surprisingly good with timing, a skill learned on the drumline of my high school marching band I think. We met for coffee at Rue de La Course, a local chain located throughout town, this one in an old bank. It was good to hear about my mother’s post empty nest adventures (a long time coming, there are six of us), it made her seem more like a person to me, less an authority figure, and good to see her as well, I had forgotten how pretty she is. We biked back lazily as the sun began to set and saw the ornateness of St. Charles in a different light, and listened to the nostalgic clanging of the trolley cars as they passed.

That night we dined at Le Petite Grocery on Magazine. My friend told us it’s one of the best places in town, a bold statement to say in that town, but he knew the chef and knew him to be a truly good one. The place was warm and cozy, golden and white, as picturesque as a French restaurant in New Orleans can be. We sat at the bar and drank stiff cocktails while blue crab beignets, veal sweetbreads, beet salad with crawfish, shrimp and grits and hand-made saffron fettuccini (the standout dish in my opinion) were served forth and thoroughly enjoyed by all. Once we were all thoroughly stuffed and night capped, everyone but me agreed it was time to retire. I on the other hand, a full stomach of good food and good drink stubbornly felt Le Bon Temp across the street from where we were staying was the place to be, so I went there by myself, and danced to the live music until I don’t know when and felt a little like my old self…except that I behaved myself.

The next morning, after a quick jog through Audubon Park, it was time to shop Magazine Street, apparently a famous place to do so. The old me would have never spent an entire day wandering aimlessly from one boutique to the next ooing and awing at this or that, but the new me is in love and enjoys watching her have fun, beer in hand of course. I left her however at the halfway point to meet my boy for a beer at the Bulldog. We bought a pitcher of locally brewed NOLA Blonde Ale, kicked back on the patio and as the sun set, talked about why I quit what I was doing and why he was doing what he was doing, and about beer and food and as always, about women. My lady arrived and we set off to enjoy the evening.

We began at Bouligny Tavern for cocktails and a quick snack of fried truffle gnocchi. The gnocchi were delicious, the cocktails, some of the best I’ve had, the atmosphere, hip. After a few, we walked down the street to Baru, a fairly new Caribbean tapas place that’s getting rave reviews of late. We were promptly seated and promptly ordered cerviche with roasted corn, fried oysters and arepas which were quickly and expertly brought to us by a wonderful waitress, the name of whom I wish I could remember, the service was as great as the food. And as we dined, my little brother showed up to join us. He had driven, in his pick up truck down from Baton Rouge to hang out for the night. I hadn’t seen him in almost two years, which I now know is far too long, he is my one brother and first friend ever. After dinner, we made our way to Le Bon to meet friends for drinks. My brother and I talked basketball, my girlfriend got to know him and live music played in the background, through clouds of smoke and echoes of laughter. It was a night I hope to always remember.

The next day we left Uptown and headed Downtown, or more specifically the French Quarter, where my parents have lived the past two years in a one-bedroom apartment. I was very much puzzled when I heard they moved there after the last of their children left, my parents being as conservative as they are. I was curious to see their place though, to see them living as a couple downtown, like older versions of us. And so, that afternoon, three of my four sisters, and one of their boyfriends, my brother, my girlfriend and I were all to meet at my parents place, to celebrate my mother’s birthday. But first, we all needed a drink. So the seven of us met up at Bar Tonique, a cocktail and wine bar on Rampart Street that my sister swore made the best handcrafted cocktails in town. And after the first sip of one ordered for me by her, I was inclined to agree. We were the only patrons in the dimly lit bar that afternoon, which seemed right at the time. We enjoyed the strong drinks and each other’s company, some of us for the first time, others for the first time in a long time. Our glasses empty, we let out a collective sigh and started to walk up the street to my parents’ apartment, a parade of kin marching to pay homage to Queen and King.

My parents’ apartment is on the third floor of a very old building on Ursaline, between Royal and Bourbon, a block away from an even older catholic church. My dad greeted us with a grin, looking younger than I remembered, and led the way up the long flight of stairs to their pad, which was everything a couple in love could want living in the French Quarter. It had beautiful hardwood floors, a quaint perfect little kitchen and windows everywhere looking out onto to the rooftops of the Quarter, all accentuated at this point by the purple and gold light of the setting sun. We listened to my mom play the violin (she had gotten much better since the last I heard) and to family stories, and we sifted through the hundreds of family pictures my mom keeps haphazardly in a big plastic tub in the closet. It was a great time, and it meant a lot to me that my girlfriend fit in so well with such a large and somewhat strange group. Later, my siblings having left to drive back to Baton Rouge, we walked out into the rain with my parents to the church up the street to see a violinist my mom had heard was in town. The old church was packed and the violinist played Russian classical music accompanied by a piano. The music was as beautiful and powerful as the old world setting, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the beer in my hand…

We left my parents in a daze to go to a dinner party in Midtown at a friend of my friend’s house. Our hostess happened to be a local chef who had cut her chops in notable restaurants like Stella’s, Gautreau’s and Patois and we were honored by her invitation. When we arrived, she was a mirror image of our first meeting her, which is to say in the kitchen, hurried and stressed. As she dashed around the well-equipped, purposefully cluttered space, covered in flour and sweat, she divvied out duties to the guests. Mine, unfortunately was to set the table, I wanted to help in the kitchen, as I always do, but I know very well not to argue with the chef. She shared the place with the son of an artist who was apparently an avid collector. There were pieces large and small hanging, leaning and lying everywhere and while the chaos in the kitchen ensued we discreetly poked around the miniature museum. It wasn’t long before dinner was ready and we all sat down to a wonderful beet salad followed by an even more wonderful plate of pork schnitzel, pickled cabbage and spatzel. The wine flowed readily, the food was hearty and good and both helped nourish our somewhat spent souls. The rain in the background helped as well. Southern rain has a certain sound I think, large drops of soft water gently drumming against dense foliage, it’s a very soothing noise.

After dinner, we were invited to a wedding reception for a friend of our hostess’ at some bar I can’t recall in the French Quarter. Despite fatigue, we immediately accepted. The newly weds must have rented the place because it seemed everyone in the small dingy bar was part of the celebration and we were quick to follow suit. We danced and drank and by the end of the night, the groom and I were embracing and wishing each other well in life, despite the fact that neither of us knew the other’s name. The rain had stopped by then and we walked back to the car through the thick heavy mist from the Mississippi River, creeping its way through the Quarter.

The next day was our last and it was gorgeous. We went back to the Quarter one last time to grab some gifts for all of our friends who took care of us and to grab a muffaletta from Frank’s, an old school Italian place specializing in hot versions of the old school sandwich, across the street from Café du Monde. Our errands complete and hunger quenched, we walked around the French Quarter soaking in the sun and the scene. Its hard to describe the Quarter, you have to see it to know it, a must see in fact. It’s dirty and smelly, beautiful and old, ripe with both native pride and tourism, all accentuated by booze, music and debauchery. I don’t think there’s any other place like it in the country and probably the world.

We headed back Uptown to St. James, to say farewell to my best friend. He was busy working, so our goodbye was short and as always between us, very sad. Our cab to the airport arrived and we left in what seemed like too much of a rush.

Sitting in the cab, watching the scenes of New Orleans go by, thinking of my childhood there, my family and friends, I couldn’t hold back tears. While my ambitions have led me elsewhere, my heart will always be there. It took me a while to snap back into the reality of an unknown future and my newfound happy life in Denver, but once I did, I was glad to chat with our cab driver. He was, as I was, on the drumline in High School and was currently moonlighting as a drum instructor for kids in the lower Ninth Ward. I was quick to forget my own small troubles in hearing something so noble. Music is part of that city as much as anything and to teach young underprivileged children its appreciation is something that would make Louis Armstrong himself proud, he too was from a bad part of town and he too proudly marched in its parades. The driver and I talked about marching in the Mardi Gras parades and of drum battles with other schools (my favorite part) and how we both felt musical knowledge inevitably leads to carnal experience. And when we shook hands at the airport he made sure to remind me to keep practicing…

Back in the Denver, it was one degree outside and snowing, the whipping wind constantly reminding us of where we were, like a hungry crying child, as we hiked to the car, conveniently parked (my bad) in the farthest corner of the economy lot. The ice on the windshield was so thick I could barely manage to make a small window in it, which I navigated out of until the car warmed up enough to break the rest off further up the road. Its been snowing ever since. I find that snow slows life down here much like humidity does during the summer months down south, but unlike the ever-present sticky thick air, it melts quickly in the Colorado sun. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend one night on our trip. We had both moved to Boulder after the storm, but after a couple of years he went back to be near his family and to fall in love. Now having been back for 3 years, he told me that while the city is a place like no other in the world, it’s a stagnant one, much like the climate. He’s right, the good ol boys lurk in every corner of life down there, and they make damn sure things stay the same. Denver on the other hand embraces forward thinking and change I find, it’s an idealistic place that idealistic people migrate to and no matter how much snow falls here, one can be certain it will melt soon and nourish life under the close sun. Weather aside though, it’d be nice to get some good seafood out here.

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