Travel News

Rhythm & booze

New Orleans, with its street music, cocktails and Creole cuisine, is a spicy, sweaty, bouncing metropolis unlike any other in the USA. Shane Mitchell heads south to the Big Easy.

It was close to midnight on Frenchmen. That's when the music really starts to get loud. Up and down on either side of this dimly lit street, revellers holding go-cups or Abita longnecks spilled out of nightclubs as bands went on break. Cars honked sociably as they cruised along. Someone was smoking ribs in a battered old grill next to Snug Harbor jazz club. A pair of poets tapped away on manual typewriters, charging 10 bucks a rhyme, as other poseurs and panhandlers hovered on the fringes. Little Freddie King was about to start his set in the Apple Barrel, but I halted on the threshold, eyes wide. Slumped on a bench in front of this cramped bar was a genuine Faubourg Marigny legend.
"Hey there," I shouted, "Aren't you Coco Robicheaux?"
The lanky old man shifted his guitar case, presenting a hand loaded with chunky rings for a fist bump. For those unfamiliar with Spiritland and Revelator, his two hit blues albums, Robicheaux is perhaps most widely known for a memorable scene in which he sacrificed a chicken to local voodoo queen Marie Laveau at radio station WWOZ in the television series Treme.
"Yeah, no chicken was harmed during the filming, baby," he laughed.
I offered to buy him a drink.
"Just tell the bartender to send out Coco's regular."
New Orleans is a city of Saints and sinners. Honestly, what sort of place names its football team after a bunch of Christian martyrs and then erects voodoo altars to the quarterback so he'll throw straight passes on game day? It possesses too old a soul for any single culture to claim credit for all the subtle rituals that define daily life in this metropolis by the Mississippi, but the tangled social identity created by centuries of incomers - especially those of Spanish, French, and African heritage - has been the inspiration for more music, more cocktails, and more excuses to throw a party than any other capital in the New World. The meanest alleys and the widest avenues are equally adorned with Mardi Gras beads, fleurs-de-lis, Buddhist prayer flags, and "Who Dat" banners.
In spite of its geography, the Big Easy does not strictly fall within the stuffy existential boundaries of the American South; the accent is too odd and there is too much spice in the gumbo. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, once said, "In New Orleans I felt a freedom. I could catch my breath here."
It may not be my home town, but I'm just Southern enough to know what Williams meant. Despite my late-night lurking in raunchy jazz joints on Thursday night, come the next morning, I crawled out of bed early to dress in sufficiently proper attire - heels, yes; pearls, hell no - so manager Melvin Rodrigue would save me a corner table at Galatoire's.
Below the Mason-Dixon Line, people take your measure by your football allegiance, your church, your grandmother's maiden name. In New Orleans, they also want to know who your waiter is for Friday lunch. (That would be Peter Chauvanne.) It always starts promptly at 11.30am when the inner foyer doors swing open and the regulars - Milk Punches in hand - flood the downstairs dining room of this century-old French Creole restaurant on Bourbon Street. Someone is always celebrating a birthday, a baby shower, an anniversary. Confetti is tossed, café brûlot is torched. One time, a three-piece brass band barged in to circle the room while playing "When the Saints Go Marching In". Table-hopping usually results in invitations to join a hen party in the French Quarter or an arts benefit in the Garden District.
Without needing to ask, Chauvanne arrived bearing twice-fried soufflé potatoes to dab in a bowl of béarnaise. Because they jumped in the boat that morning, out came a whole grilled red snapper and pompano en papillote. Using two serving spoons, he peeled back the parchment and fragrant steam escaped, revealing boned fillets swimming in creamy béchamel and dotted with dainty Gulf shrimp.
Of course, Galatoire's is not the only keeper of the flambé. Louisiana chefs such as Donald Link of Cochon and John Besh of August belong to the latest generation that plays with the étouffée they grew up eating.
I confess to daydreaming about a plate of Link's boudin sausage and crunchy pickles with a chaser of barely legal moonshine (and on one occasion slugged back far too much bourbon in Besh's company as we chomped on frog-leg fricassée), but the festive din of this particular dining room embodies the local custom of lagniappe, that little extra treat added for good measure.
Let me count the ways that New Orleanians are food-obsessed. The first cooking school dates back to 1722, only four years after the original colonial settlement was named in honour of Philippe II, Duc d'Orléans. The first restaurant opened in 1840. The right pinch of filé powder, the last day of shrimp season and the first for oysters, where to find the best fried chicken, catfish court-bouillon, king cake, pralines, even the proper way to prepare a humble pot of red beans has been exhaustively codified. Songs praise crawfish pie and jambalaya. A major festival honours the po'boy sandwich. After Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune newspaper launched Cooking up a Storm, a community outreach recipe swap for residents who lost their own cookbooks in the disaster. Chef John Folse devoted four years to compiling his 852-page encyclopedia of rustic Cajun and refined Creole cuisines. The key difference: one was inspired by French-Canadian refugees, the other by African-American cooks employed by plantation owners. Both start with darkening a roux and end with yelling about whose mama makes it best.
By the time lunch ended, happy hour had begun, so I wobbled around the corner to Arnaud's French 75, and pushed open the outer door to the delightful sound of ice being slurried in a silver cocktail shaker. Head bartender Chris Hannah crafts a sexy Brandy Crusta, a Sidecar precursor. His version is poured into a low-ball rimmed with Louisiana cane sugar and garnished with the peel of a whole lemon. Behind a mahogany bar under the fuzzy glow of fan chandeliers, he produced a steady stream of orders - Ramos Gin Fizz, Grasshopper, Vieux Carré, La Louisiane - every one invented within a 10-block radius. Hannah is a stickler for tradition and pulled out antique glassware to pour me a Sazerac, arguably America's oldest cocktail. The original recipe called for absinthe, banned in the US in 1912; now it contains anise-flavoured Herbsaint liquor, developed by a New Orleans distiller as a legal, wormwood-free substitute during the 1930s. It's like sipping history without the green fairy casting her wicked spell.
Early Saturday morning, I sobered up with a greasy paper sack of hot beignets as psychics and ghost-tour guides put together their stands in Jackson Square. Someone was watering potted ferns on a wrought-iron balcony and the overflow pattered onto the sidewalk.
Streets in the French Quarter are laid out in a grid pattern, so while it's possible to march straight towards the river, I peeked in bookshop windows and read graffiti tags on garbage cans (Red Beans Rule! Geaux Saints!) and "sissy-bounce" rap-party flyers taped to lamp poles. A ramp on the other side of Decatur Street leads between open levee gates to the Old Man. With a toot of its horn, the Canal Street Ferry backed out of its slip and drifted in front of the Crescent City Connection, twin cantilever bridges that span the muddy Mississippi as it flows past Woldenberg Park's riverwalk on the last few bends of its 4070km journey to the Gulf of Mexico. This is where I come to breathe. My private ritual involves watching tugs tenderly manoeuvre barges around the hairpin formed by Algiers Point while licking confectioner's sugar from fried dough. The sun popped above a cloudbank and a flock of starlings roosting on power lines started to chatter.
Lolis Eric Elie offered me a corner of his ooey gooey bar from the Crescent City Farmers Market. (Sugar addicts call them crack brownies.) We sat on the rim of a splashing fountain behind his father's two-storey cottage in the neighbourhood of Tremé. "One of the great features of Creole architecture is the hidden courtyard," he explained. "You walk in these old neighbourhoods and you have no idea what lurks behind the shutter door. Often it's a beautifully landscaped, or elegantly decrepit, courtyard." He ticked off other aspects of his faubourg that made it important ground. "So much of what is emblematically New Orleans is right here. If jazz was born in one place, it was around the corner in Congo Square, where slaves were once permitted to play music and dance on their day off. Second lines regularly pass in front of my door. Mr Okra will drive by with his street vendor call."
A documentary about the renovation of Elie's house provided source material for Treme; Elie now works as the show's story editor and I was not above giving my friend grief for taking liberties with favourite actors.
"Damn it, Lolis. Ya'll killed off Steve Earle. Steve Earle!"
He smiled mildly. "Who would you like us to kill off?"
I weighed my options among guest stars. "Eric Ripert. I've never liked his cooking anyway."
My favourite inner-city community lies across the train tracks. This remove from other neighbourhoods is not simply physical. If the Garden District, with its antebellum mansions and grassy neutral grounds, is a coiffed debutante in a poufy white ball gown, then the Ninth Ward's Bywater is a tattooed hipster chick with a boyfriend in the band. Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play at Vaughan's Lounge. The bus (formerly streetcar) route named Desire passes next to Piety Street Recording studio. Sculptures formed from debris left by Katrina grace empty lots.
The Bywater is also home to New Orleans's reigning voodoo priestess. This syncretic religion was introduced by Haitians in the 18th century; since then, it's been absorbed as just another eccentricity by tolerant New Orleanians. Those who seek out Sallie Ann Glassman range from uptown matrons wanting a lucky St Joseph statue to BP oil roughnecks in need of spiritual cleansing.
Before she moved her Island of Salvation Botanica to a new healing centre on St Claude Avenue, I also stopped in Glassman's crowded Bywater shop to buy the occasional gris gris charm. On most Saturday nights, she still conducts rousing ceremonies in a side alley splashed with images of Loa spirits. It's like performance art, but not all participants are visible to the naked eye. Sadly, her temple was temporarily shuttered so I had to settle for a preview of Dithyrambalina instead.
Brooklyn-based street artist Swoon recently collaborated with local artists to build a temporary interactive musical village using materials scavenged from tumbledown shotgun cottages. Each shack was really a kinetic instrument - water organ, subwoofer, vibraphone, echo chamber - played by anyone who wandered through the scrappy heap. (The permanent Dithyrambalina structure, once complete, will function as both house and musical sculpture on the Piety Street site.) Despite the groovy vibe, however, I didn't feel it captured the real syncopation of the city.
On Sunday afternoon I missed the start of the second line. "Excuse me, ma'am," I asked. "Do you know which way the parade went?"
The middle-aged woman in tight jeans rushing along Gravier Street peered at me suspiciously as I braked and rolled down my car window. Then she pointed across the Broad Street Bridge. She was late as well.
"Get in and I'll drive you there too."
"As long as you don't kidnap me," she cracked, introducing herself as Miss Ruth.
Second lines are like rolling block parties. Along with Mardi Gras Indians and float krewes, this is New Orleans street culture at its finest. The Men of Class Social Aid & Pleasure Club was strutting its stuff somewhere beyond St Charles Avenue. Benevolent societies have a time-honoured role fostering community relations and raising funds for those who can't afford insurance or funeral expenses, but they also spend months creating snappy costumes - feathers, sashes, parasols, bonnets - for fast-moving dance processions.
"We get to pop!" explained Miss Ruth, who turned out to be a member of the Sportsman's Ladies. When we hit a traffic jam, she jumped out and, waving goodbye, said, "Keeping living the dream, honey."
I turned back to catch the colourful crowd as they circled the block again. The Queen Divas strolled past in baby-blue satin gowns and sunshine-yellow high heels. The Classy Men wore matching blue fedoras. Everyone was damp with sweat in the rising humidity but still grinning and bouncing along. The best parades, it seemed, are the ones held for the hell of it.
I meant to make it back to Frenchmen Street but another joyful noise lured me elsewhere. Some time ago musicians discovered that the corner where Bourbon intersects Canal was one of those rare acoustic sweet spots that trouble the dreams of concert-hall architects. On my last night it was occupied by a brass band.
A player's baby slept in the back seat of an illegally parked car. The meter maid who should have been issuing a traffic ticket busily chatted with his mother. Onlookers danced as the concrete canyon echoed with clanging cow bells and shiny horns. The gutsy beat was distinct, not bubbly Dixieland or mellow jazz, but more suited to spontaneous celebration. These ensembles typically perform at jazz funerals. In New Orleans, a "home going" is far from solemn. Once the dearly departed is securely at rest, the band brightens the tempo considerably and the bon temps roll again.
A month after I left town, Coco Robicheaux keeled over in the Apple Barrel. According to barflies sitting on nearby stools, his last words were: "The next round is on me." Friends and fans honoured the hoodoo bluesman with a second-line tribute that passed in front of his favourite haunt. Votive candles flickered next to the bench outside. I only met him once and never got to hear him play live, but it sounded to me like a good way to go.