Royal Street on a beautiful spring day, the resurgence of New Orleans was abundantly on display. Choosing from the delectable fare at the New Orleans Roadfood Festival was nigh impossible: roasted oysters, crawfish enchiladas, roast beef Po Boys, Texas barbecue, dark chocolate turtles, pecan pie, and more.
If you needed a break from eating, you could settle on a curbside and listen to live music: Doreen, the Queen of the Clarinet, and many others, all top-notch, a different group on almost every block.
I’ve been to New Orleans only once, more than thirty years ago, and I remember little: the Mississippi River, so vast down here, so different from the Mississippi of the Upper Midwest where I grew up; the long, gaily painted shutters on the windows; and a colleague taking us miles out of the city to eat catfish (to this day I don’t know why we had to leave New Orleans to eat). I’m a died-in-the-wool northerner, so I hadn’t a great hankering to head back south, but we have friends in New Orleans who’ve been there some years now, through Katrina and all the rest, and it was overdue to come together on their home ground.
Brigtsen’s, "Rebuilding New Orleans - One Plate at a Time," and, oh, did they make good on that. After a round of knock-your-socks-off appetizers, our main courses were broiled drum fish with crabmeat parmesan crust, mushrooms, and lemon mousselline sauce and Brigtsen's seafood platter, a/k/a the "Shell Beach Diet” (they are big on tongue in cheek when they use the term diet, I assure you).
The restaurant is set in a Victorian house with elegantly decorated rooms. The wait staff served us with efficiency and panache. (We thought our waitress must be from New York, as she moved so fast and never missed a quip; our provincialism was exposed when we asked “where from?” and her answer was south Louisiana.) To my chagrin, I couldn’t find room for even one spoonful of dessert. Our ever-on-target waitress admonished, “Next time, for you ladies, it’s four apps and two desserts.” She had our number, all right—and we’ll definitely take her up on that.
That was only the beginning. Our stay was short, but our hosts were determined that we make the most of our time in their home town. The weather was perfect. None of that summer steam bath: sunny, temperate days, cool nights, no sitting trapped in an air-conditioned box. Evenings, we sat outside with cocktails while our friends’ dog Reggie explored his yard. (Reggie is new to the household, and one of probably thousands, both human and animal, to be named after Reggie Bush of the Saints.)
Saints winning the Super Bowl Invictus-style, neighborhood after neighborhood restored and gleaming in the flush of spring, and the French Quarter teeming with tourists. Our friends, though, presented us with a tempering fact: “When people ask me, how are folks doing, I say, it depends on how much money you have.”
The day after we arrived, our friends announced a change in plans: There was to be a parade in Central City. The Mardi Gras Indians come out only twice a year, we learned, once for Mardi Gras itself, the other time on “Super Sunday.” This year, because of rain, the “Super Sunday” parade had been put off a week, so we were “in luck.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that my general attitude about parades (think St. Patrick’s Day in New York City) is to stay away from them. So it was with some trepidation that I stepped out of the car in Central City to sit on a dusty curb. Still, it seemed we had a perfect vantage point—it was close to the start time, the crowd wasn’t too dense, and we seemed to be assured “front row seats.”
For the last day of our visit, our friends proposed that we go to a museum called the House of Dance and Feathers and to see the Lower Ninth Ward. I wasn’t sure about going there—after the devastation caused by Katrina, it seemed like gawking at someone else’s troubles—but I knew our friends had good reason to suggest it, and the museum was there, on Tupelo Street. “It’s at Ronald Lewis’s house,” our friends explained. “The museum is in his back yard.”
“Brad Pitt” houses, and it was a dim one: they were no substitute for the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. “It’s like putting a face on it, but there’s nothing behind the face.” There wasn’t a trace of rancor in his voice. He was just stating the facts as he saw them. We thanked Mr. Lewis and bid him a good day. He resumed his seat outside and waved good-bye.
As we drove through the neighborhood, one of the bridges over the Industrial Canal loomed ahead of us, beyond the levee wall. “That’s where it broke.” Nearest the levee wall, aside from a few “Brad Pitt” houses, almost all that remained where houses once stood were concrete steps and foundation stones hidden in weed-choked lots. A group of kids hawked iced tea on a corner: a lot of tourists must drive through here. Further back, more houses stood, some vacant and still broken-down, others trim and tidy, tumbled together amongst more weed-strewn lots.
Emily Dickinson wasn’t thinking of Mardi Gras Indians or the Lower Ninth Ward post-Katrina when she wrote her poem, of course, but she could have been:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -Nine Lives, and Mr. Lewis’s own wonderful book, The House of Dance and Feathers. For other great books about New Orleans and more, visit the terrific Maple Street Book Shop.
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
The quotations are from memory, so they are not exact, but my intention is to be as faithful as my memory allows to what Mr. Lewis and our friends so generously shared with us.
This is the first of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana. To read the second post, about the Atchafalaya Basin, click here. To read the third post, about Louisiana rookeries in spring, click here. To read the last post, about (more) good eats and good music, click here.