New Orleans // Part 2: History & Culture

The Quick & Dirty:

There is life beyond Bourbon Street. Check out:


The Long & Slow:

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum:

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Voodoo is not what I thought, and as I see it, the practice provided an opportunity for a woman of color to rise to power in New Orleans. Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau was a natural healer and astute business woman, gaining the respect of high society as a trusted nurse, tapping into and manipulating an extensive network of gossip to portray an all-knowing aura. She married a white man around 1826, 40 years before the end of slavery, and 100 years before the end of miscegenation laws. So bold!

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St. Roch’s Cemetery:

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I’m fascinated by how landscape influences culture. New Orleans is swampy and flood prone, so Orleanians are laid to rest six feet over, not six feet under. Tombs and vaults, including wall vaults that define the borders of the cemeteries, are the final resting place of the dead, and family members join them when the end is nigh.

Above ground tombs are typical in Latin countries, but in quintessential Orleanian fashion, the Germans, Polish, free people of color, Protestants, Arabs and Jews adopted the burial style, and uncharacteristically share a cemetery.

The most mysterious, and so the most fascinating, aspect of St. Roch’s cemetery is the Ex-Voto room. I’ve only ever seen something like this in Mexican Catholic churches. The Patron Saint of Good Health, people honor St. Roch by leaving plaster and brass feet, ceramic hearts, dentures, leg braces and crutches in the chapel, thanking him for healing them.

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St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

I took a tour with Save Our Cemeteries, and while it was interesting, it didn’t light a spark in me the way other parts of New Orleans had. Maybe you’re different–my mom would find it fascinating. Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy are laid to rest here, and Nicolas Cage has a triangular tomb waiting for him.

 

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Backstreet Cultural Museum:

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I happened upon the Backstreet Cultural Museum as I was walking from my place in the 7th Ward, through Treme, on the way to the Quarter. Stepping inside was like entering a gem mine in Fraggle Rock, bursts of colors and feathers everywhere.

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The beadwork is awe-inspiring. It takes three men a whole year to make a costume, sewing bead by bead by bead. Much respect. The weight of the costume, between 100-150 pounds?! Impressive. It is a masculinity I can rock with.

The history of the Mardi Gras Indians is serious business. The tradition emanates out of reverence for the Native Americans who helped Black people escape slavery. Emboldened by donning his exquisite creation, the men, nearly unrecognizable, enter the streets to confront other tribes on the third Sunday of March.

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A hierarchy of participants, from Spy Boy, to Flag Boy, to Wild Man (wearing real bull horns), on up to Big Chief, demonstrates the confrontational origins of the Mardi Gras Indians when they encounter another tribe. The communication network between these three ranks is vital to “surviving,” today represented through ceremonial dances, competitive boasting, and general peacocking.

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As for the women, the baby doll tradition is also laden with meaning. Started by Black sex workers, “proud defiant women in a male dominated world,” they dressed in short silky outfits and paraded in public…in 1912, before women could vote and during the Jim Crow era! Thwarting gender roles, modesty, taboos, segregation, and redirecting that energy toward celebration as a form of resistance–revolutionaries!

I thought Mardi Gras was all flashing, boozing, and plastic beads on Bourbon Street. I’m thrilled that it runs deeper, and emerged from defiant and dauntless roots.


Second Lines

It’s like a block party had a baby with a dandy, and this is its baby shower.

Second-lining is an opportunity to participate in a parade to honor yourself, your life, and your community. Rather than just watch the parade go by, as you stand behind barricades, second-liners trot out in color coordinated finery, poking parasols toward the sky, and dancing in the August heat to notes from a brass band. Every Sunday from August until June, the wards are lit up with celebration, for no specific reason at all, or maybe for all the reasons.

Organized by Social And Pleasure Clubs, the routes are mapped out, and information is disseminated in a semi-secretive fashion. As an outsider, I only received an “invite” because I visited the Backstreet Cultural Museum the day before the next Second Line.

The afternoon of, I heard the Second Line before I saw it. When I eventually caught up, the crowd was moving through the 7th Ward like molecules of water, binding together, swiftly flooding the block. As the second-liners turned the corner, they left in their wake a ringing silence, the distant pulse of a tuba, the heartbeat of New Orleans, the only evidence of their jubilance.

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Member of the Treme Sidewalk Steppers

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New Orleans // Part 1: Food & Music

There aren’t many–any really-American cities that intrigue me the way New Orleans does. I bought a porcelain Mardi Gras mask at a dollar store when I was 11. Its expression, like New Orleans, was mysterious, prideful, melancholy, and jubilant–all very contradictory and confusing, but the juxtaposition was why I was drawn to it. Most of all, the mask portrayed freedom, a steady easiness with contradiction, and jubilance at the freedom to express, rather than suppress, pain. Being there, New Orleans baffled me, made me consider race and gender roles in less binary measures, and gave me hope that we really can get free.

So, get to New Orleans, and get free! When you’re there, remember: you cannot, CANNOT, appreciate New Orleans without experiencing the food, music, history and a second line parade.


The Quick and Dirty of Food & Music:

Mastication is a dirty word, but in New Orleans, it’s oh so rewarding. Here’s breakfast, lunch, dessert, and dinner:

And two others whose memory I salivate over- to die for donuts on Magazine Street, near the Garden District, and vegetarian dinner and dessert in the Quarter at the Green Goddess.

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Frenchmen Street in the Quarter is lit with blues, jazz, rock and funk every night, so get ova there! Also musts:

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The Long and Slow (ummm, of Food & Music):

Breakfast at Pagoda Café:

I was excited to go to sleep each night, just to get a few hours closer to sipping their astounding flat white latte for breakfast, biting into their egg cup, a baked egg protectively surrounded by a flaky pastry and insulated by an artichoke and cheese. Or the toast–a toast to life, I say! Three wide slices of crusty multigrain bread covered in thick goat cheese, sprinkled with pistachios and red chili, and drizzled honey.

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Fig, walnut, ricotta toast & an egg cup.

The ambivalence I feel over this place though! Pagoda Cafe is a product of, and produces, gentrification, its ills (rising rent and inequality!) and benefits (soy milk and yoga!). It sits on an open tri-corner of North Dorgenois, Bayou and Kerlerec in the 7th Ward, a few blocks from the Esplanade, a wide avenue of splendid Creole mansions lit by gas lanterns and shaded by weeping willow trees. To the east of the Esplanade, crumbling, dilapidated, abandoned homes linger beside quaint Creole cottages where aunties and uncles sit on stoops in the cool morning sun, chatting, sweeping, staring quizzically as I pass. White people typically pass the neighborhood in their car, on the highway, whereas I’m staying in a house here (albeit it AirBnB, laden with gentrifying powers as well), and walking. After a few seconds of mutual staring, we eventually greet each other with a cheery “Good morning!” and a smirk.

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The side-by-side contrast of the homes is jarring. The Lower 9th Ward is well known due to media attention following Hurricane Katrina, and the sort of disaster porn that describes it as a “third world country.” Such descriptions encourage donations and rebuilding efforts. In contrast, the 7th Ward is out of sight, out of mind. The combined forces of poverty, Hurricane Katrina and our government’s neglect have conspired against the residents, so travel reviews of the neighborhood warn tourists away, writing it off as dangerous and vacant of worthwhile sites. There are other reasons we avoid such places: because we’re on an escapist vacation, we don’t want to confront our apathy, or our discomfort with the boarded up windows, yards of brambles and weeds, while Ms. Linda greets us from the adjacent stoop, as we go to buy our egg cup and flat white latte with almond milk.

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The Pagoda Café is full of hipsters. This is simultaneously off-putting and fascinating. I eavesdrop on the three young women beside me talking about their horoscopes and most recent lovers, and feel relief that none of them has her phone in sight.117

Because I’m stuck on the race and culture divide the café presents in the neighborhood, I ask the woman beside me if most of the people here are originally from New Orleans. She responds no, they tend to come from Southern backwoods where they’re considered freaks because of their artsy nature or sexuality, and are drawn to the freedom that New Orleans offers.

New Orleans has been about inclusivity and exclusivity since inception, and I’ve wandered into a messy, remarkable jambalaya of we/them/us.


Lunch at Central Grocery:

Mufuletta. A curse word originating in ancient Rome? No. A garbled interpretation of “She’s A Bad Mama Jama?” No sir, no ma’am. “Sandwich” gives you an idea of a mufuletta’s architecture, but don’t allow this bland descriptor diminish it’s rightly earned fame. Invented in New Orleans by Italian immigrants, layers of salami, soppressata, mozzarella and provolone are ensconced between slices of sesame seed loaf that’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside (just like your grandma in Florida). I broke my 10-year strong no-pork fast* for this ish, and it was worth it. The kicker is the kalamata and green olive relish; it gets ya right there at the back corners of your mouth.

Get your mufuletta at the Central Grocery on Decatur in the French Quarter. A half is plenty for 1-2 people and will set you back $10.

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*Ok, fine, Catholic Confessional: I ate candied bacon that one time too.


Afternoon coffee and dessert at Café du Monde:

After you’ve devoured that muff, cross the street to the famous Café Du Monde for dessert: beignets (Ben-YAYS!) and chicory café au lait. So many cultures have their own versions of fried dough: the Afrikaans, the Trinis, the Amish, the Mexicans; and yet, NOLA does it best, dresses up a fried flavorless ball of dough with powdered sugar. Café Du Monde is popular among tourists, which puts off some of the too-cool-for-school types, but I thoroughly enjoyed the messy visual of the pervasive powdered sugar as it dusted patrons’ seats, shoes, and fingertips. It reminded me of J’ouvert in Brooklyn. I tried to look dignified while I tore through all three, despite the fact that the powder dusting my nose with every bite evoked a 1980’s Hollywood starlet.

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Beignets for days!

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Dinner at Coop’s Place:

912 (2)Coops was recommended to me by a friend (thanks Chrystian!), and I’m forever grateful. I came for the fried chicken-it was both crunchy and succulent–and left with a belly full of the best jambalaya I’ve ever had (maybe because it’s made with cute lil rabbits), coleslaw and an Abita Jockamo IPA. If you’ve ever been to Amish country, you know the Amish make the best coleslaw. Coop’s must have an Amish granny shredding cabbage in the kitchen.

566.JPGThe bartenders bark at their customers with a native New Yorker no BS spirit; amusing, until it’s directed at me. Coincidentally, the 70-something year old man next to me is a former New Yorker who’s lived in the Garden District for the past 20 years, a neighborhood  of mansions behind wrought iron fences, manicured lawns and stylized trees–quite the change from the concrete jungle.

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He still has the heart of a New Yorker, complaining of a bygone era when Coop’s was frequented only by locals, before it was covered by the Food Network, or the Travel Channel, he can’t remember. Either way, he is well known at Coop’s, and his familiarity allows him to waltz right passed the long line of tourists waiting for a table, to saddle up to the bar in his seersucker suit and straw fedora, as the bartender greets him with a “Where y’at Pops?”

As I finish my savory meal, Pops orders me to go to Frenchmen Street for the music, and when I attempt to keep my walls up, complain that I’m too tired, I’ve been out all day, I just want to go rest, he reminds me: if I’m not tired as hell after a trip to NOLA, I’m not doing it right. I go.

Before I even get as far as Frenchmen, I’m pulled into the Balcony Music Club by Ed Wills playing the blues. I’m enthralled and I stay for a couple hours.

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Cool cat Charlie Baker on bass at the Balcony Music Club.

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Chrystian also recommended Dooky Chase’s restaurant in Treme, a New Orleans institution, but it’s closed three days a week and I missed it. I’m still in mourning to this day.

To soothe my soul, I head back to Coop’s. I order the Same.Exact.Thing.Because,Duh. I laugh like a lunatic as Impractical Jokers plays on both TVs while I wait for my meal. I didn’t think it possible, but everything is fresher and tastier. A middle-aged blonde woman sits beside me as I finish my second beer and joins me in my laughter; I instantly and subconsciously trust her judgment. We chat and I ask her if she’s been to Dooky Chase’s, tell her that I’m mourning for not having tasted the best fried chicken in allllllll of Nawlins. Alas, she is a traitor! Her response: “No, no, this place is better. Those aren’t our people.”

I am stunned into silence, filled with disgust. Not OUR people. She assumes I agree with her agenda because of how I look, and wants me to collude with her racist delusions. I’m angry at myself for not retorting with a wise and pithy statement that opens her mind and makes her see the light. It takes me a bit to shake the sliminess of that interaction off because it was so blatant, not like the subtle racism of white Northerners I’m used to.

I seethe as I walk to Frenchmen for the second night in a row. I park my angry ass in the front row at Maison, and the anger melts away as the musicians play and the crowd joins them in singing “This one’s for them hood girls, them good girls, straight masterpieces…”

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Next up: History and Second Lines…