New Orleans, 2013

New Orleans Knows How To Party

No other city in North America is as culturally unique as New Orleans. It was the birthplace of Jazz so it comes with its own home-made soundtrack. New Orleans also gave rise to its own distinct form of Creole cuisine that’s about as savoury as food can get. The French Quarter with its cast-iron adorned balconies and time worn stucco walls is instantly recognizable. The biggest street festival on the continent is of course Mardi Gras. Easily one of the most famous plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” was set in New Orleans. Countless songs mention its name. It is indeed a legendary town.

I visited New Orleans for a week in March of 2013. The weather was perfect during my stay. It was warm and sunny the whole time. Like Canada in July.

I took a room in a hotel in the Lower Garden District that was once an orphanage. The place was a dive but it didn’t lack in character.It grew on me. It was a few minutes walk away from St. Charles Avenue and its streetcar line.

My purpose in being there, besides vacationing, was to write the Cicerone Certification exam to be held at the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Ave. This is a challenging 4 hour test of one’s knowledge of all aspects of beer and brewing. Candidates must score at least 80% in order to pass and have the distinction of being a Certified Cicerone. I spent most of my first 2 days in New Orleans studying to give myself further preparation. It wasn’t all work. I allowed myself to do further research by sampling some of the craft beers from the Avenue Pub’s extensive selection. My hotel was close by. It pays to plan ahead.

I enjoyed taking the St. Charles streetcar into the French Quarter where I spent most of my time after writing the Cicerone exam. The French Quarter is a very boozy place. There are a multitude of bars there and some of them have take-out windows. It’s legal to drink on the street in New Orleans. Tourists walking around with plastic cups of beer in their hands are ubiquitous. New Orleans has a long established association with booze and bars. Antoine’s is one of New Orleans’ most famous bars and it’s been in business since 1840. Some of the earliest cocktails were first developed in the city back in the 19th century when druggists were the mixologists of the day.

As luck would have it, I was in New Orleans during St. Patrick’s Day. Before arriving I had no idea that they make such a big deal about that in New Orleans. St. Patrick’s “week” would be a more apt description for the length of time New Orleans celebrates the occasion. On my first excursion to the French Quarter I got to witness a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Many of the participants were drinking booze as they promenaded along. Some of them were sloshed. Everybody seemed to be having a grand time and reveled in the festivities. Impromptu dancing and booze-fueled hijinks were the order of the day. One girl who saw me taking photos hiked her skirt up to reveal a shamrock embroidered on her panties. A second girl followed her lead and flashed the dildo she was wearing under her skirt. Good wholesome fun.

After sampling several watering holes I eventually found a place on Frenchmen Street, just off the eastern border of the French Quarter, called d.b.a.. This became my favourite of all the bars I visited. I liked it because of its good selection of craft beers on tap and especially for its great, diverse choice of whiskeys. It’s a lot cheaper to drink in New Orleans than in Canada and that allowed me to sample some scotches and bourbons that are hard to find here (or out of my budget). Plus d.b.a. also features live bands. The ones I heard were very good and played American roots music like blues.

Music has long held a place of importance in the city. There’s a wealth of venues for taking in live shows. Even the street musicians in New Orleans have great chops.

I was once told that it would be hard to get a bad meal in New Orleans. That proved to be correct. Everywhere I ate served up delectable meals. Being in the USA, the portions were more than generous.

In New Orleans barbecue shrimp isn’t slathered in barbecue sauce or fried on a charcoal grill. It’s cooked in a sauce of butter, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce. I had never tried it before. It was a tasty delight. I also got to try blackened red fish for the first time and it was magnificent. Sure I had tasted gumbo before but I had to try some in New Orleans. Spotting a Creole restaurant on Frenchmen Street, I checked out the menu posted outside and saw that they sold gumbo. It was another gastronomic enchantment and it proved my suspicion that the other gumbos I had tasted were inferior imitations.

For breakfast each morning I left my hotel and walked up to St. Charles Avenue to a place called the Trolley Stop Cafe. I would be served gargantuan portions of traditional American breakfasts by waitresses that called me “Hon” or “Sugar”. I got to try real Southern grits, a sort of porridge made from corn. Grits are rather bland I discovered. It was always busy when I dropped in but I never had to wait for a table. I’d leave groaning from the amount of food I ate. I never did finish everything on my plate.

The water table is just below the surface of the ground in New Orleans. Early inhabitants had to stop burying their dead underground since they had a tendency to resurface, afloat in their caskets. It became necessary to inter corpses in above ground crypts. Cemeteries in New Orleans are tourist attractions now. I visited a couple. The first was the St. Louis No. 1 in the Treme neighbourhood. The famous Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried there. To this day practitioners of Voodoo leave offerings of liquor, candles, flowers, and plastic beads on and around her grave site. It’s believed by some that etching a cross on her tomb will bestow her blessings upon them. The actor Nicolas Cage bought a pyramid shaped tomb for himself to eventually be buried in St. Louis No. 1.

Having heard that there was going to be another, much bigger St. Patrick’s parade through the Garden District I arrived early enough next day at the corner of Magazine and Jackson Streets to stake out a good spot to view the action. The parade, when it arrived seemed to go on forever. It was a more sober affair than the event I had witnessed the day before in the French Quarter although some of the entrants were drinking. Every float and group that passed threw cheap plastic beads at the onlookers. Surprisingly, even the adults watching the parade seemed urgently eager to receive them.

I was getting serious sunburn on my face, neck, and arms after about an hour. I had to get out of the sun. As I backed away from the parade I saw that there were live bands pounding out rock and roll on the lawns of some of the homes. The houses that didn’t have live groups out front had massive sound systems set up to blast party music onto the street. The whole atmosphere felt like a huge frat party. People were thronging around on the street and yards of homes while drinking beer or liquor. Nobody was acting stupid though. They were just enjoying themselves.

I made my way to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The high water table there caused some of the tombs to sink into the ground leading to cracks in the bricks and marble. This cemetery was filled to capacity by the 1850’s so all of the plots are quite old. It’s a glum place, even in daylight.

The following day was a Sunday. I found myself sitting at the bar at d.b.a. again reading a book and sipping a single malt. A woman walked up to the bar and ordered a beer. When she received it she asked why she was now being given a plastic glass. “It’s because of the parade” the girl behind the bar replied. Sure enough, yet another St. Patrick’s day parade was about to commence along Frenchmen Street and the patrons of d.b.a. now had the option of taking their drinks outside to watch. I sat it out. I felt paraded out. I could only marvel at the people of New Orleans and their capacity for festivities.

Many visitors to New Orleans also venture out of the city on tours of the Louisiana bayous or to see some of the antebellum mansions of old Southern plantations. I didn’t do that. I preferred to just experience the food, drink, and music of New Orleans. As I mentioned previously, you can hear terrific bands playing jazz or folksier styles in the street of the French Quarter. These musicians were too good to pass up the chance to give them a tip.

I left New Orleans fully impressed with its zest for life and it’s friendly, boisterous people. It’s a one of kind city like so few others in North America.

About that Cicerone Certification exam; I got a grade of 76%. A fail in other words. Not to be deterred I rewrote it in Seattle in August of 2013 and I passed it the second time around. Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

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