One of our bucket list places to visit was New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Paul and I stayed near the French Quarter but had the pleasure of being close enough to walk to all the festivities but able to escape if we wanted. We arrived on a pleasant 70 degree day after a red eye. We knew immediately we were no longer in the Pacific Northwest. There were no mountains, little green, and everything was flat. But one thing that did strike us was that as we exited the plane, smells of fried shrimp and pastries wafted across the airport terminal enticing us to come and taste. Other than coffee, maybe, that wouldn’t have happened back home. It smelled delicious and I couldn’t wait to try it all! Like eye candy, I noticed the green, gold and purple colors of Mardi Gras festooned on wreaths and trees. Bright glassy beads and bulbs were strung across doorways and on walls there hung banners with masquerade masks and fleur de lys. It reminded me of Christmas, the way everything was decorated for the big celebration and we were about to be swept away into it.
Paul and I decided to explore the French quarter, before his brother, sisters and niece arrived. We had planned to take this trip together as a family bonding time, and I’m happy to say it worked! But now we had a few hours to ourselves and the city beckoned. Huge concrete abd glass buildings crowded city blocks that were designed in a time before there was a need for them. Like colossal giants they lumbered over their miniature square enclosures. The tiny streets could barely contain them as they blocked out most of the view and light. We peered down the streets as if they were narrow hallways like glimpsing down channels of what might open after. Th city aromas and cacophony of noises did manage to burst through and it was an interesting mix of fried foods c0- mingling from restaurants, sweat of travellers and beer that spilled onto the sidewalks.
We found the Ruby Slipper, a recommendation from the hotel concierge, that was a hailed local favorite breakfast café on Canal Street. Paul and I slipped in to taste our first encounter of New Orleans cooking as we watched platters of biscuit and eggs covered in brown gravy and lemony yellow sauces, big shrimp floating on top of white grits balance on the waitresses arm then slide onto tables where eager customers waited. There were the occasional bananas fosters covered in a dark buttery glazy syrup with chocolate and whipped cream. We settled on an eggs benedict hybrid named Eggs Blackstone and slid into a reverent mumbled interchange of comparing how good
our breakfast was. I marveled at how tender and moist the biscuit was on the inside yet cooked to a crisp golden perfection on the outside. The coffee was delicious and being from Seattle that is a compliment! We brought Paul’s family back for our final breakfast-it was that good!
We decided to visit Bourbon Street and found like a gateway between two 5 story buildings that after a block spat us out into the time warped historical area, we remembered from the movies. People yelled from second and third story balconies waving their bead necklaces as others answered back from below. I was enthralled at the scene and waved back. It was quiet a scene, a mixture of all types and I reveled at all that awaited. I collected several necklaces, all for the price of a smile and a wave. I was warned that wasn’t always the case and we saw some who didn’t mind showing theirs. I was happy with the morning collection and the later parade floats were more tame. We decided we would enjoy some time that evening on the parade route by our hotel
After walking up and down Bourbon Street and seeing the buildings covered in flags and gold, green, purple and silver toule and balloons and our share of royalty and costumed folks we stepped inside a nice Southern bar for an afternoon beverage and watched the sights from inside.
Back at the hotel a nice local couple treated us to a drink as the welcomed us to New Orleans and told us about the parades and balls that are part of the Mardi Gras tradition. We learned there are the Endymion parade representing the God of fertility, Bachas the God of Wine and Morpheus The God of Music plus there is the Zulu parade where folks are dressed in traditional African costume and throw coconuts and toy spears, just to name a few things. She told me that to catch a Zulu coconut is quite special. And three days later on an unseasonably 36 degree rainy and cold Mardi Gras day I looked down and there was a Zulu coconut that had landed in my upturned umbrella! I was thrilled!! I also caught a few beads right in the face, some people snatched beads right out of my line of vision but as the parades and floats went on I did get better! We learned that each parade has a ball and people also can sponsor one of the floats in the parade these people are part of a group called Krewes. We’d never seen so many beautiful gowns and men in tuxes promenade past us as everyone prepared for the Endymian ball at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that evening. It was like watching a fairytale, a scene from Cinderella’s Ball.
On Monday we decided to go explore the French Quarter again and I was determined to visit Café du Monde and try a world famous beignet. After 20 minutes of waiting in a long line, everyone decided to head across the street for breakfast where there was no line. I tried a local dish the muffaletta which sounded like a calzone but ended up being a glorified bologna sandwich with cheese and chopped olives, and the bread was stale. It was one of the few dishes that I didn’t enjoy. But not to be deterred we went next door and tried The World Famous Beignets and found nirvana in their light, flaky, greasy, tender pastry goodness.
It was a cross between the best old fashioned donut you’ve ever had, the crispiest elephant ear and a flaky French croissant. We took our greasy paper bags of beignets up to the banks of the Mississippi River and made a powdered sugar shadow around ourselves as we munched down our beignets and watched the cargo ships sail up the steel gray stormy waters of the Mississippi River. It was much colder and windier there than in town and I was amazed that the city was built several feet below sea level. We continued our adventure by shopping in the French Quarter and visiting some of the quaint shops and reveling in the art that surrounded Jackson Square and the historic landmarks. We did return to the Café du Monde a few days later. I have to say I liked the first beignet better, but their hot chocolate was one of the best I’ve ever tasted, and I have heard their coffee is out of this world! Did I tell you we walked everywhere?, miles and miles each day- good thing too- we needed to burn off all the meals and pastries we had been eating!!
One of the interesting things we saw among many was a car being signed by lots of tourists, it was one of the silly carefree activities going on.
Later that night we ate at Dickie Brennans and enjoyed an amazing steak dinner. I also tried my first taste of turtle soup. I didn’t know what to expect but it was a thick beef broth based soup that was absolutely delicious. The bread was baked in a bag. We also tried fried crawfish and shrimp and I had my first taste of New Orleans pralines on my dessert. Pralines are a brown sugar, butter concoction with pecans that just crumble and melt in your mouth. We had to stop by the Magnolia Praline Company to bring some home to share.
The following day we took a bus tour of the city, to make sure we enjoyed some history and education along with our indulgences. We visited the French Quarter, again, but by bus this time and learned that the majority of the music is contained on Frenchman Street. The funky brightly colored shops with their eclectic signs and artwork housed some of the up and coming jazz and local musicians of the area. We also enjoyed touring parts of the Garden district and enjoyed seeing some antebellum homes and huge estates with their Victorian architecture and gorgeous gardens, mature trees and intricate iron fences.
This was punctuated by a tour of District 9 and some of the damage sustained by Katrina. We learned that many of the homes had been abandoned and some were still left even after all these years. The heat and water cause the wood in the house to rot and the roof begins to cave in on itself. Once this happens this house has to be demolished and the property is then reclaimed. On a more positive note, we saw some Habitat for Humanity Homes that had been built and projects developed to help people rebuild their lives and community. One interesting stop was the cemetery tour. We visited the tombs and were told that because of the sea level, people can’t be buried their bodies will float away. Each family owns a tomb and after a person dies the casket is inserted into a shelf in the tomb and closed for a year.
The heat and humidity of New Orleans decompose the body and after one year and a day, out of respect, the remains are dropped to the bottom of the tomb to join the other family members. Tombs of various sizes, ages and materials were lined up in rows throughout the cemetery many adorned with statues of saints, angels or crosses.
After our tour we visited the World War II Museum in the Warehouse District and enjoyed a 4-D movie produced by Tom Hanks. It told of the sacrifices and a brief history of our nations military. I was impressed by the detail of the movie and learned that the Higgins boat that was built in New Orleans was a land and aquatic boat that was built to drive up onto the banks of the Mississippi River. It was these same boats that stormed the beaches of Normandy and were credited with winning the war for the Americans according to President Dwight Eisenhower. That was why the Museum was built in New Orleans.
Our group of 10 had dinner reservations that night at an Italian creole restaurant back in the Warehouse District. It was going to be a cold, dark rainy walk but upon hearing it had only a 3 star rating on Yelp our bar waitress at the hotel offered to get us into the 5 star restaurant Commander’s Palace that her cousin worked at in the Garden District. I exclaimed, “there’s no way you can get us all in there in 2 hours notice! you can’t get reservation there for weeks at a time,” She shook her head and said, “Didn’t I tell you my cousin works there, now let me make a call, don’t you worry!,” I love this city, we had a reservation in 20 minutes for 2 hours later at one of the best restaurants in town!
The meal was fabulous, everyone tried something new. The appetizers were fried oysters, I had grits with my shrimp creole and of course the burnt crème had a fleur de lys.
I couldn’t get over the textured wall paper and blue carpeting. Everything was retro yet formal. We never had to ask for water, our glasses mysteriously kept themselves full and at the end of the night our coffee was as thick as tar, Louisiana chicory that no amount of cream or sugar could cut the taste. It definitely was an acquired taste.
The next day was Mardi Gras and every parade we had seen before all came together on Mardi Gras. The city exploded in celebration and parade after parade. You could hear music and drumbeats for miles. The floats lumbered down the streets to the cheers and screams of people as the music pumped and pulsated from the speakers. Masked men and women threw beads, stuffed animals, balls and Frisbees from the tops and sides of the parade floats some at random others with aim. It was intoxicating trying to catch the prizes or gain the attention of the people on top of these trucks, some pulled by tractors others an eighteen wheeler driven on its own. They were decorated by theme, some with a devil’s head with the sides reflecting the fire and color of the demon other’s a garish woman with purple, reds and yellows screaming from truck and banners and flags flowing in the wind and rain. There were the Zulu parades with their colors of black and gold, the masked men in grass skirts and dark masks, their faces painted and the Zulu coconuts being tossed from the float, they had toy spears and beads with the Zulu logo. Each float had their theme gift and some had a cause; one was for Nelson Mandela and apartheid one was for Children’s Literacy and some were just for fun.
At the days end the beads and trash piled almost 6 inches deep in the streets while necklaces were draped like garland from tree branches, signs and power lines throughout town. I’d never witnessed anything quite like this, yet by morning all of it would be swept away in barrels and bags ready for the next night of reckless abandon. Sidewalks and storefronts would be hosed down with water and cleaning solutions and the evidence of over indulgence would be washed away like yesterday’s laundry. It seemed almost convenient and too familiar to the people who worked and lived there.
And soon it came to an end. I’m glad I went to experience a colorful slice of life that I’d never seen but I was glad to return to my green, quieter Pacific Northwest.