Thursday, February 17, 2011

Souvenirs And Last Minute Music

Ten years ago, when our granddaughter was born, I promised to build her a doll collection from our travels so each trip we take, if possible, we bring her back a doll. Sometimes, as in Australia, it had to be a statue because Aboriginal children have no time for dolls. Even now, their lives are filled with much more important things like survival and learning the oral traditions of their ancestors. Other trips, dolls were not available in the area so we’ll look in different places the next time we visit that area like the Pacific Northwest. Today, we only had to look in three stores before I found just what I was looking for.

During our visit, I had a few New Orleans delicacies I wanted to try. I had several mufalata sandwiches which is a variety of cold meat and an olive salad served on a crusty loaf of bread but I had one last Louisiana delicacy to sample; beignets. And it seemed there was only one place to try this deep fried pillows of heaven and that was the CafĂ© du Monde in the French Market. One of our tour guides had warned when eating beignets, there were two things not to do; Don’t inhale as you’re taking a bite because these beauties are covered with about ½ inch of powdered sugar and never breathe out because for the rest of the day everyone you see will know you’ve had beignets. Okay, so the hype about Beignets is just that, a hype. Fried dough at the fair or funnel cake is even better. Still, how can you go wrong with fried balls of dough covered in confection sugar?

Then. The last thing on my New Orleans checklist, a trolley ride. We hopped on the Canal Street trolley at Magazine Street and rode it to the end of the line at City Park. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, taking pictures and listening to the giggle of children as they threw bread to the ducks and seagulls.

That evening, we were off to the French Market one last time. We headed to Frenchman Street, the home of the best blues clubs in town.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Down On The Bayou

Every time we travel, I have one off day where we waste precious time in a new place. Yesterday was it.

Today was for nature and photography. Bear in mind, to this point, I’ve probably taken 500 photographs of architecture, wrought iron railings, flowers, street performers and more so when I say this day was for pictures you might get the wrong idea. This was the day we took a flat bottom boat into Bayou Barataria to see alligators and herons and turtles and anything else we mind find. Of course with a bunch of very hyper children on board, well, anything we might have seen was long gone. People were telling us about these animals called nutria, a kind of cross between a beaver and a guinea pig, more like a capybara from South America. I’d describe them more like Big Foot. We didn’t see any sign of the creatures.

Our tour guide told us how he used to own a shrimp boat but because the price of shrimp began to drop at the same time fuel prices began to rise, he gave it up. The recent BP spill, in the gulf, was a natural disaster but contrary to what we’ve been told on the nightly news, many of the commercial boats made way more money helping to clean up the spill than they would have if they had been able to fish. And, the shellfish industry everyone is so worried about has had more quality testing since the spill than ever before so as a result, it’s a much safer product now. What the eventual effects on the ecology of the region will be no one can say. We can only look to other areas like Alaska and Monterey Bay to see how they have recovered. Nature, if left alone will recover, will cleanse itself. Sometimes, it just isn’t fast enough for humans or the way they’d like it to be.

Every time we go to an eco system like the Bayou or the Everglades, I always hope to have an airboat ride, not one of those party affairs with 20 or 30 people in them, but a private ride where I can tug on the operator’s pant leg to get him to slow up and allow me to take a photo. And, then, I’m reminded of just how noisy these airboats are. You can never sneak up on anything in one of them.

The evening was reserved for our river boat Dinner Cruise complete with Dixieland Jazz for entertainment. The food aboard the Natchez was mediocre, as most buffets are, and the view of the river was non existent because the sun had gone down before we left the dock but the Jazz was great and we had a first rate ride on an authentic steam driven paddle wheel river boat. It wasn’t a total loss in the photographic category either. I used the evening to practice on my manual shutter speed and aperture settings. Let’s just say I need a lot more practice.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Storm Was Only The Beginning

Each time we go on vacation, there’s usually a bus tour involved and since we didn’t rent a car, it seemed even more appropriate this time. It’s a great way to find or hear about the highlights of a strange city. New Orleans has almost no on street parking so when you rent a car, it costs an additional $24-$28 per day for parking. The bus tour took us to parts of the city we couldn’t walk to like the lower Ninth Ward, ravaged by flood waters when the levies broke after Katrina clobbered the city. Five years later, there is still so much devastation. For ever house we saw people living in, we saw 15 that were uninhabitable. For every house we saw, there were 10 empty lots. And while the neighborhoods are slowly coming back, they will never be the same. Whole neighborhoods, extended families of life long friends, have been bulldozed.

It took two years to get the electricity back on. Families lived in cramped FEMA trailers until they couldn’t stand it any longer, sometimes being made ill by the very “roof over their head“ that was supposed to help. Chain reactions became commonplace. The storm took their homes so thousands of families moved away and some will never return. Because the families moved, the schools and hospitals were never rebuilt. Businesses closed because either they had no employees or no customers. Areas unaffected by the flooding are still empty, boarded up and neglected because there just aren’t enough people now. We were told of 1300 acre City Park, larger than Central Park in NY, where there were once more than 300 people to care for the grounds. After the storm, there were only a handful to removed debris and layers of mud and silt. A high school student started an e-mail campaign and found a small army of volunteers who restored the park back to it’s original beauty. This is just one example of how the people of New Orleans worked together.

Brad Pitt, Christian Slater and many other celebrities are helping to put the city back together, to “Make It Right”. I’m not going to use this blog as a forum to address political issues. Let’s just leave it that help didn’t come in a timely manner, maintenance was lacking, government red tape took too long to get through and contractual agreements are still not being met. Eventually, the entire region will recover but there will be a cost. Will it be too high a price? I wonder.

The beauty and unique charm that is New Orleans still exists. There was a bar near Bourbon Street that stayed open during “the storm“, words that have come to mean Hurricane Katrina. Fact of the matter is, most of New Orleans escaped much of the devastation and is wide open for business, tourist business that is. That was the single message we were asked to take home with us. Without much needed tourist dollars, many more businesses will close.
Hollywood has found a willing partner in New Orleans. We saw countless movie trucks setting up numerous filming locations. Numerous films have been made here and countless others have used homes, streets or some part of a business in at least one scene. Just outside of our condo, Bruce Willis was filming “Looper”. although I didn’t get a chance to see him and we came upon a commercial being filmed in City Park.

And when the bus tour was over, Carl and I walked to Muriel’s on Jackson Square to have our 40th Anniversary dinner and then we walked back to our condo, holding each other’s hand.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Art Is For Artists And Parties Are Forever

Over the previous two days, we put on many miles. We walked by the Mississippi and watched the ships come and go. Lunch was sometimes missed because we ate a late breakfast. Dinner was always at a different place. Art and culture were everywhere. Painters, sculptors, jewelers and textile artists sell their wares on the sidewalks near St Louis Cathedral every day. Horse drawn carriages pulled by mules wait for lovers and sightseers along Decatur. Mules are used because of the heat and humidity, an apparently all to common occurrence during the late spring, summer and even early autumn.

During the mule drawn carriage ride we took ( doesn’t have the same ring, does it? ) we were told of the history of the city, why street signs are in three languages, French, Spanish and English. We rode by such things as the self proclaimed “oldest bar” in the United States and a wrought iron fence fashioned as corn stalks. We found out Rue Royale is closed to vehicles during the day so the street performers can draw crowds in safety while Rue Bourbon is closed in the evening because of the party goes who throng there. Most never leave the quarter sober and it appears to be some kind of badge of honor to get completely inebriated and not remember a thing about your visit. What I saw was a Bourbon Street with countless massage parlors, adult shops and tiny little hole in the wall bars.

Yes, New Orleans is a city of excesses. People eat, drink and enjoy music to excess. They live, love and laugh to excess and when the time comes, they throw a party like no one else in the states. Carnival season starts on January 6th, the official end of the Christmas holiday. It runs through Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the Christian beginning of Lent. Most years, this time frame covers roughly 56 days. The carriage driver suggested that after 56 days of parades and parties with the grand daddy of them all on Mardi Gras, most people of New Orleans have a reason to take Lent seriously.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What’s In A Roux?

Since so much of New Orleans is about food, we started there, with eating. Across the street from our condo was a little place called The Ruby Slipper. Carl dove right in and ordered the Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo and here’s where it gets a bit weird. I don’t even remember what I had. I just know I didn’t eat a single thing during the entire week that was bad.

We took a culinary tour escorted by a chef of some renown, stopping at 5 of the more established and expensive restaurants, in the city, to sample the one thing they were best known for. We had Gumbo at one place and Shrimp Remoulade at another. Turtle Stew was the third offering while Slow Braised Brisket waited for us at the fourth. Somewhere in there was a designer gelato shop. We were told how these recipes had been developed, handed down and nurtured by generations of restaurateurs who had been in operation for hundreds of years. The sample menu was varied but the single common theme to the entire tour was traditionally laid down layers of flavor.

Chef George told us the history of how these recipes were built, not how to make them, mind you, but how to bring them to life. He talked of the holy trinity, celery, peppers and onions enhanced by the “pope” otherwise known as garlic. The majority of all their recipes started with these flavors. And no tour would have been complete without an offering of Red Beans and Rice from a non-descript little shop within site of Jackson Square. It was here we experienced how to build a roux, the flavor base for just about everything in Creole cooking from Ettoufee to Jambalaya. It’s the darkness of the roux that matters. And contrary to popular belief, including mine, New Orleans is not about the heat index of food. Imagine spending all this time carefully building these layers of flavor only to burn the diner’s palette with incredibly spicy seasoning. No, it’s quite the opposite. The spiciest thing we ate was the Shrimp Remoulade which screamed “horse radish” when, in fact, it was a Creole mustard giving us the heat.

And everywhere we went, signs proclaimed the “best” or “original” pralines pronounced “praw lines”, a sugary confection with many variations but all containing some kind of chopped nut. Soft, hard or chocolaty didn’t matter, pralines are to die for. Oh, and Carl just had to have some of that mustard to bring home. ( A roux is equal parts oil and flour, heated constantly until it reaches the desired color for the dish you're making )

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Flavor Of A City

At first glance, New Orleans is a modern city with people heading to work, shopping for groceries and carrying out their lives like people in most other cities. It has buildings, traffic jams and political issues. New Orleans has sports teams, crime, affluence and it even has it’s share of poverty. But look deeper. There, beneath all the mundane, is a quality about New Orleans and it’s people that‘s not easy to explain. New Orleans is a feeling, a spice, a mixture of rich historical culture all created by layers of emotion deeply embedded within the people whose love for their city goes beyond anything else I’ve experienced.

We discovered this early in our visit even before we’d gotten to the actual history or tasted any of the cuisine. We’ve met dozens of front desk clerks and activities staff members during our years of travel. The folks we met on this day were different and even a couple of weeks later I can’t put my finger on any one thing they did. Let’s just say there was “something in the air”. Perhaps, it was the lilt to the voices who welcomed us with a sort of soft southern sophistication or maybe it was the way they effortlessly seemed to want to help. It might have been the unspoken implication they really wanted me enjoy their city. Or, it could have been the genuine smiles we received from people in the elevator.

I can’t tell you what it was that made me fall in love with New Orleans after just a few hours. What I can tell you is that I was put under some kind of spell. No, not the voodoo kind but another kind, for sure. Whatever it was, it made me want to ditch my travel clothes and get out into the city, to go experience the French quarter, to walk along the banks of the muddy river, to hold hands with my husband as we strolled through streets I had only heard about, to listen to music coming from every open doorway. And we did. All of it. We immersed ourselves into the culture, felt the heartbeat of the city, passing one door to hear strains of the blues accentuated by long soulful moans of a saxophone or lingering at another for trumpet laden jazz. And then there were the smells, the aroma of freshly baked breads, of chocolate and confections and fragrant blooms.

Our senses were assaulted at every turn and we hadn’t even had lunch …. Yet!