Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 6, 2008

Finding the Celebration

I arrived in New Orleans late in the afternoon on Tuesday. I was the last person to step out the train car, hesitating somewhat over leaving the safe, comfortable confines of my tiny (but movable) world. The city hummed in a monotone as drab sunlight glanced off the corners of buildings.

My friend Nova arrived to pick me up very soon afterward however, and saved me from these morose impressions! We sped off into the dusk, getting lost and finding our way again numerous times on our way to her apartment. She is a recent arrival to the city as well, although a more permanent one.

After getting cleaned up, we went to find dinner and tried the Camellia Grill – a quintessential 50’s type diner, complete with serpentine counter and waiters in white coats. My New Orleans eating adventure began with a cheeseburger “dressed” (the local term for lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo) and an orange freeze (a “freeze” being ice cream, juice, and ice, blended). It was quite a delicious meal.

We then went to the nearest Community Coffee to plot our next few days. Having just arrived and being still free from the constraints of work, Nova was eager to explore the city with me. We made an extensive list, and then decided to spend as much of the following day as we chose relaxing/recovering from travel.

GlimpsEleven o’clock the next morning found us finally awake and ready for fun, which would materialize preferably as food. We walked around Nova’s neighborhood, which being right off St. Charles Ave. is a pretty one full of interesting homes and gardens. We discovered quickly one of New Orleans fascinating details – little stores and corner restaurants nestled amongst houses on quiet streets.

We stumbled across the El Posto Cafe, a cute little place full of Italian flavor and New Orleans sun – and there is, interestingly enough, a strong vein of Italian cookery in the city. We split a marvelous panini full of meats and cheeses we couldn’t spell laid tenderly between slices of springy toasted bread.

Fed and happy we began an epic wander down St. Charles Ave. to the Garden District – the historic American part of the city. At a nearby visitor’s center we picked up a walking tour, and then started down First Ave., pausing to read about the elegant mansions and pick out the fascinating architectural details. We reveled in the fact that most of the houses in the District were built in the 1800’s and have been preserved by descendants of the original families who still live in them, or by historical societies and the city itself.

Big Ol' HouseEven exquisite ironwork – “frozen lace” – gets tiring after several hours, so we took a break at the Garden District Bookstore, and then settled with coffee at Still Perkin’ to plan our next move. We had walked several miles already, but after getting some dining recommendations from the friendly guy behind the counter, we opted to walk back along Magazine St., a long exciting row of restaurants and shops that parallels St. Charles Ave. closer to the river.

We had dinner at Rocky’s Pizzaria, which was decorated with fabulous old cornices hanging from the rafters. We ate the Magazine St. pie, which was mostly a meat pizza, but had a lot of flavor and a delicious thin crust.

We stopped at the Whole Foods before heading home, and while perusing the beer selection a woman approached us and asked if we had ever tried any of Abita Brewing Company’s beers. I knew it was a local brewery coming out of Abita Springs, but had already passed it up for being too far outside New Orleans. This woman proceeded to rave about the IPA, the Restoration Ale, and Amber, and Christmas, the Turbodog – in fact all of their beers were supposedly fabulous.

Even Nova was intrigued, so we thanked the woman and agreed to make a trip out to the brewery. We had already made plans to head to the Rural Life Museum – a preserved plantation outside Baton Rouge – so we figured we could squeeze another stop in.

Back at the apartment we discovered something else. The woman had mentioned how easy it was to get to Abita Springs – you just drove across the “causeway” and there you were. Something made me investigate what the causeway was, and I found out that it is a bridge – the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge, and at 24 miles, it is the longest bridge in the world.

My bridge geek flag unfurled in a hurry. Going to Abita Springs was no longer an option – it was a necessity, and Nova was more than willing to indulge me. The date of the out-of-city venture was set for Friday.

Meanwhile, we planned a day spent in the French Quarter. Yesterday we rose early (ish) and rode the St. Charles Streetcar – the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world – down to Canal St. From there we made our way to the headquarters of the French Quarter section of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Mississippi RiverThere we met a ranger who took us on a free tour of the riverfront. It was a questionable day, and the sky spat on us now and then while a chilly wind whirled about. It never got much warmer than 50 degrees. Standing around with a couple from England and a fellow from Sacramento, CA, we listened as the ranger related the history of New Orleans and a bit about the port – the second largest in the world, by tonnage – and the devastation caused, not by Katrina, but by the failure of the levy system. He also spoke about the frighteningly fast disappearance of Louisiana’s coastline – which shrinks at the astonishing rate of a football field per 45 minutes.

This is not an easy area of the country to live in, and never has been. However it is a city that has been nearly destroyed numerous times by fire and weather, and always rebuilt. Because of it’s importance as a port, being at the mouth of the Mississippi, it probably will continue to find a way to survive come what may.

After the tour we headed to the Cafe du Monde, which has been serving beignets and cafe au lait since 1862. We devoured several pieces of fried dough smothered in powdered sugar and washed it down with coffee mixed with hot milk, and then took off to wander the French Quarter.

Colored TilesWe spent several hours shopping and checking out the architecture. The buildings there are some of the best preserved examples left from the 17th and 18th century – hence the “national historical park” significance. The interesting thing is that they are still lived in and they’re full of shops and restaurants. They are under very tight restrictions as to what can be done to the buildings, of course.

I was, however, slightly disappointed by what I saw there. Although I am fascinated by the history and legends and some of the culture of New Orleans, there are other aspects that I dislike. For example, I found the rowdy, indulgent, glitter of Bourbon St. unsettling. And the tacky T-shirt and mardi gras shops with their crass sayings clashed with the graceful curves of the wrought iron balconies and skillfully carved cornices.

Being from a tourist town I understand the need to feed off what will sell, and for many people the party that is New Orleans, the ability to go to a drive-thru Daiquiri stand and drink a Hurricane on the street is what they’ve come for. I get it. But I am among those who came for the ironwork and the cemeteries and the gumbo.

Which is why I so appreciated that wonderful man in the coffee shop who directed us to Coop’s Place, a small, dark, almost dive-like bar that we probably would have passed by without a thought otherwise. There we found a whole slew of regional dishes served up without much ado, but chock full of flavor. I knocked quite a few things off my list in one sitting, as I continued to eat my way through the city.

Nova and I split the Coop’s Taste Plate, and stuffed ourselves with Seafood Gumbo (complete with Okra and oysters,) Shrimp Creole, Cajun Fried Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, and extremely yummy Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya. Mmm – I would go back for more of that jambalaya!

We spent a couple more hours exploring, pulling out a walking tour pamphlet for awhile, but then cheerfully giving that up and heading to the Cresent City Brewhouse for a pint and bread pudding. Thoroughly full by then, we got back on the streetcar and rode it home, where we watched French Kiss and the took ourselves to bed.

This morning we rose early again and drove an hour and a half outside the city to find the Rural Life Museum. Arriving there, we soon found ourselves leaving – won over by the description of “Christmas at the Rural Life Museum” which is taking place there Sunday. There will be all kinds of demonstrations and people in period costume and live music, and the upshot of it all is that we will be going back there Sunday to really have some fun!

Because we were actually starving, the next logical move was to find breakfast, so we went to a La Madeline French Bakery and Restaurant and split crepes two ways. Then, following the recommendation of Nova’s aunt who lives in the area, we went and found the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.

TwinsIt was essentially right on the edge of a suburb of Baton Rouge, and was 101 acres of land, 65 of which is cypress-tupelo swamp and a magnolia-beech upland hardwood forest. A 1.3 mile trail ventures into this via boardwalks. Another mile long trail was totally destroyed during Hurricane Gustov and remains closed for awhile longer.

Accompanying the swamp was a fun visitor center full of all kinds of snakes and other reptiles including baby alligators. We had what we considered impeccable timing, for we were there on feeding day, and got to watch the naturalists give mice and rats and guinea pigs to the snakes – depending on their size! Horribly fascinating. 🙂

We made a tour of the swamp, and aside from the interesting plants and trees that were different from other places I’ve been, we didn’t see much. We went around the loop a second time, determined to walk slower and really examine, because from all reports the swamp was full to bursting with insects and snakes and birds.

Pileated WoodpeckerThis time we were more successful. We saw a butterfly (don’t ask what variety!) and some kind of salamander, and bunches of little tiny flitty birds, and several types of flowers, and to top it off we got a GREAT view of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. They were building a nest, pecking away and flying from tree to tree, quite spectacularly. It was very cool.

Also, coming out of the swamp back to the car we passed a pool of water and counted off seven or eight turtles of varying sizes.

We then rushed back into town to meet Nova’s aunt and uncle at a Lebanese restaurant where we feasted on hummes, and chicken, and squash, and a very tasty twist on ice tea.

It was already 3 by the time we left, but we were optimistic about reaching Abita Springs in time to try some beers and then cross the bridge with light still hanging about. Traffic posed a problem for awhile, but eventually we got through it and the drive to Abita Springs was still only about an hour.

It was getting dusky, but we were determined, so we popped into the brew pub and ordered a sampler of 6 beers, and a plate of crawfish cakes and fried tomatoes. None of the beers were fantastic, except – surprisingly – the raspberry wheat, which normally I would steer quite clear of. The crawfish wasn’t too bad, but in cake-form it was just a lot like crab. I still need to experience the full crawfish eating venture.

Pelican CloudWe climbed back into the car and admitted that it was legitimately getting dark, but the longest bridge in the world was still the fastest way back home, so we went for it. I’m so glad we did, for of course the sun setting across the lake was awesome, complete with pelicans ponderously making their way back to roost, and then the lights of the city guiding us home combined to make the ride far more enjoyable than it would have been during daylight.

We again got lost and then found our way and got lost and found our way coming back through the city until we finally arrived safe and sound on Nova’s street. We admitted tiredness to the extent that we passed up a live music opportunity for the evening, but we have big plans for tomorrow. A cooking class, a cemetery tour, and the exploration of Frenchman’s St. which will hopefully give us our fill of jazz and blues and reggae and send us home again dancing and snapping our fingers, relishing what it means to be alive and able to eat delicious food and see beautiful things and hear joyous music.

That is, perhaps, in the end what the celebration that is New Orleans is all about. We’re alive, and we’re glad to be.

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