NEW ORLEANS — My first thought as I exited the glass doors of Louis Armstrong International Airport was how good it felt to be back in the city where I had lived for 25 years. My second was that of the countless things I love about New Orleans, the climate isn't one of them.
Immediately, I was smothered in a blanket of humidity and had to remind myself that it was just the beginning of May. I knew that as the summer progressed, the blanket would get thicker, until one could only pray for October's arrival.
The wet might have dampened my clothes, but nothing could dampen my spirits at being "home." Years ago, I had followed a man to New Orleans, thinking he was my destiny. He wasn't, but the city was — until the relentless winds and rising waters of Katrina took it from me.
Like many who fled, I made a good life elsewhere — in my case, in the Bluegrass. But every time crawfish season rolls around or I see someone draped in plastic beads or a jukebox spits out Satchmo's mournful Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, I get those familiar stirrings — like someone who, although in a satisfying current relationship, can't quite banish the memory of an old love.
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That's how it is with New Orleans and me. How can you get over a lover who's part magnolia blossoms and moonlight, part mystery and mayhem? A city whose secret garden of delights grows deliciously wild where others are content to bloom within their carefully laid-out boundaries? A place where the Bible Belt unbuckles, and the lost soul is just as welcome as the lavish spender?
My official reason for being here was the Jazz Festival. It's the annual springtime bacchanal where one can wallow in the muck and mire (the outdoor festival always seems to come on the heels of a torrential rain); munch on muffaletas and po' boys; and applaud a lineup of performers including Florence and the Machine and My Morning Jacket, all while waiting for the Fest's real stars — the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Harry Connick Jr. — locals who will just as likely show up unannounced that same night at Tipitina's or Snug Harbor and jam with the house band.
My unofficial reason for coming was to spend four days seeing old friends and revisiting old haunts. I had plenty of both.
A gastronomic parade
For starters, nothing says New Orleans to me more than a corner table overlooking the lush courtyard at Brennan's on Royal Street, and nothing says Brennan's more than its bountiful breakfasts, which start with a brandy milk punch or Ramos gin fizz, and end three hours later with flambéed bananas Foster.
I didn't make it to Friday lunch at Galatoire's — a ritual in which locals arrive early to stake out their tables and are still there at dinnertime — but I did have dinner at Arnaud's. I love the plump pommes frites (the best in the city) and the fact that even on sultry summer nights, I can always get a café Brulot, a spicy concoction that most other restaurants serve only at Christmastime. I also love visiting the upstairs museum, with its display of Mardi Gras ball gowns worn by the restaurant's flamboyant former owner, Germaine Cazenave Wells, who presided over a record 22 Carnival balls.
For a city that boasts America's only indigenous cuisine, New Orleans has never rested on its culinary laurels. Sure, Antoine's has served Creole specialties since the 19th century, and you can always get a muffaletta at Central Grocery Store, red beans and rice at Dooky Chase, barbecued shrimp at Pascale Manale's and freshly shucked oysters at Acme's and Felix's Oyster Bars.
However, a cavalcade of new restaurants has cropped up post- Katrina. Those include Redemption. The name is fitting in more ways than one. Located in Mid-City, one of the hardest-hit areas after the storm, Redemption is the reincarnation of Christian's Restaurant, which itself had a previous life as a Lutheran church. That a church morphed into a restaurant makes sense in New Orleans, considering the city's worshipful attitude toward food.
It has retained the Gothic arches and stained-glass windows, but where once the sound of hymns rang through the rafters, it's now recordings of Dixieland jazz. Chef Greg Picolo, formerly of The Bistro at Maison de Ville, which didn't re-open after Katrina, makes a mean Creole crab cake with corn-fried green tomato.
Garden District and the Quarter
I did other things besides eat. I took the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue, through the Garden District, marveling, as always, at the stately antebellum mansions. And as always, I chuckled at the notion that in the city's early days, this was the undesirable part of town — inhabited by "Americans" kicked out of the Vieux Carré by the French, who thought them unsuitable neighbors.
I ambled over to Magazine Street, which follows the convoluted curve of the Mississippi River and has long been a favorite of bohemians and boulevardiers alike. One of the nation's best-known streets for high-end art and antiques, it's also a culinary hot spot — from the tried and true (Bon Ton Café and Casamento's) to newcomers (Coquette and Bouligny Tavern).
I spent a muggy morning wandering through the French Quarter, checking out the street artists in Jackson Square and popping into my favorite book store in Pirate's Alley (in the former home of William Faulkner, who wrote his first novel here in 1925).
I strolled to the French Market, covering several city blocks along Decatur Street parallel to the river, and I stopped at Café du Monde for a platter of piping hot beignets and a cup of chicory coffee.
A history of survival
Listening to the clip-clop of the carriages, the wailing sax of a street musician and the shrill notes of the calliope on the Riverboat Natchez, I was reminded again of just how special the 100 square blocks of the French Quarter are.
I thought how nearly every building has a history. Andrew Jackson might or might not have met with notorious buccaneer Jean Lafitte at the Old Absinthe House to plan the Battle of New Orleans, but it's a fact that Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop farther down Bourbon Street housed the slave-smuggling operation of Jean and his brother Pierre.
A few streets over, the Napoleon House has changed little since it was readied to welcome the exiled French emperor as part of a plot to rescue him from his island prison on St. Helena and bring him to New Orleans. Napoleon died before the scheme could be set in motion.
Today, the Absinthe House, Napoleon House and Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop are all popular watering holes.
As I strolled, the Quarter's ghosts strolled alongside me. There was Baroness Pontalba, responsible for the striking red-brick buildings named after her that line both sides of Jackson Square; voodoo queen Marie Laveau; and author Truman Capote, who liked to claim that he was born in the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel (he wasn't, although his mother did go into labor there).
There were Bourbon Street strippers Evangeline, the Oyster Girl; Lilly Christine, the Cat Girl, who brought down the house; and Blaze Starr, who brought down a Louisiana governor.
Ignatius O'Reilly, the Lucky Dog Vendor, and the vampire Lestat might have been fictional, but Fred Staten, aka the Chicken Man, and Ruthie Moulon, aka the Duck Lady, were very real.
Ruthie, followed by her menagerie of pet ducks, wandered the Quarter for years, apparently homeless but often seen in the company of famous folk including Tennessee Williams, from whom she bummed cigarettes and whiskey. It is typical of New Orleans' love of eccentrics that when she died in 2008, Ruthie was memorialized in four stories in the Times-Picayune newspaper.
Standing in front of St. Louis Cathedral, the nation's oldest, I felt pride in the knowledge that New Orleans had come back from Katrina stronger and better than before. This was a city, after all, that had survived Spanish, French and Yankee occupation; yellow fever and malaria; fires and floods; pirates and privateers; carpetbaggers and charlatans; boll weevils and Formosan termites; David Duke and Edwin Edwards.
New Orleans will always be here, and that bodes well for us all, says Romanian poet-turned-New Orleanian Andrei Codrescu, who wrote, "If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom."