“It’s gone. It’s all over.”
By this I knew he meant that every feeling, taste, and vista that was our idea of our New Orleans would never be the same. But I could not really grasp then that even if it, the city, was not literally wiped off the map, the fine network of individual lives that have to get all bound up together to create a culture, a history – a soul...all those layers were maybe all gone. I couldn't bear to watch the news.
Growing up in West Texas I felt like I had a secret double life. Ok, if not exactly a double life at least an alternate reality. That alternate reality was New Orleans. We lived our daily lives in a small town of about 70,000 in the dry heat of West Texas. With no good coffee. Lots of Tex-Mex restaurants. But no other type of real restaurant to speak of. We did not have gorgeous mossy towering oak trees or jazz in sultry courtyards or freakishly large crepe myrtles bowing down under the weight of a ton of bright hot pink blossoms. In short, we had no sultry. We had mesquite trees.
But several times a year, and mostly the summer, we would be with the New Orleans people. When we did this pilgrimage by car, as we were crossing the Sabine River I would lift my feet off the floor of the car and not put them down until they landed, figuratively, on Louisiana soil, which crossing the Sabine River means you have done. We would cross the Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway. That 18.2 mile stretch of I-10 built over and in a swamp. And if you have to take an engineering marvel of a freeway, built in a swamp, to get somewhere, you get the feeling that you're headed into some serious foreign territory.
After we would exit I-10 East onto Carrollton Avenue, there was the obligatory stop at Ye Olde College Inn for the iconic roast beef po-boy (fully “dressed” of course, with mayonnaise). No way to describe just how good mayonnaise tastes mixed in with au jus and the feeling of it all running down your forearms as you lift the sandwich up to take that first bite, when the outside of the French bread is still flaky crusty and the inside is hot, savory roast beef in a hot mess of mayonnaise and gravy juice stuff. It's pretty good. Or it was. This po-boy does not exist there, that way, anymore.
With that fix, we could continue on down Carrollton Avenue, down to the end to make that left turn onto St. Charles Avenue and into Uptown and around Audubon Park, into Uptown's towering oak trees, sidewalks and front porches, crawfish boils, Sunday walks to mass at a grand cathedral at Loyola University, and Mardi Gras beads from the last parade hanging from the trees still. No tumbleweeds. No dust.
Here, being Catholic (as we were, are) meant you were not a curious minority as can be the case out in West Texas. Here in New Orleans we were part of the vast majority where memories and rituals of rosaries, candles, adorations of Mary, altars, and feasts for St. Joseph were merged into a collective communal memory of a very rich food life.
This life also had relatives who did not timidly hug upon greeting you upon your arrival but kissed you on the cheek (!)...a life full of tales of crewes and their exotic, regal names - Rex, Babylon, Hermes - Mardi Gras queens and kings, bacon grease, alligator hunting, duck hunting, tracts and horses and boudin and cattle drives.
All this is bound up in the memory of thick New Orleans accents around command central that was my grandmother’s large oval Scandinavian design table. Here it became very obvious that the far cooler cousins of my vintage (there are 32 (first) cousins) – the ones who lived in Lafayette - had a firm command over their food personas at a very early age.
At no more than 11 or 12 (in the 1970s) they were drinking something they called "café au lait" with breakfast and had strong opinions about how much filé to add to their gumbo. They might as well have been smoking Marlboros at the table as shocked as I was by this libertine activity.
To make up for the deprivation in West Texas these trips to New Orleans were Dionysian food fests. We cannot eat this way now. But eat this way we did then.
There was this extraordinary ice cream place: "Haagen-Dazs." Exotic for us in the 1970s. There was a French pastry shop, on Carrollton close to where the original Camellia Grill is now. There were meals at all the old standards, by today's standards: The Gumbo Shop on rue St. Peter in the Quarter and that praline sundae (a caramel sauce with pecans floating in it poured over a single scoop of vanilla ice cream in an icy cold metal dish), beignets out at Morning Call in Metairie, brunch at Brennans and Commander’s Palace – where Ella Brennan back then would be holding court - and The Bon Ton, Christian's, Casamento's, Stephen & Martin. And a long ago lost tradition and lost art: nectar sodas at the K&B.
I just went back to New Orleans for only the third or fourth time since Katrina. This visit, I note the city is looking pretty darn perky: Starbucks is packed on Maple Street, Carrollton Avenue has been repaved - no more bone-crushing potholes - and there is a construction boom for high-end real estate around the Metairie Country Club.
I find I am more accepting of New Orleans with her frailties still laid bare - the canopy of lush foliage over St. Charles Avenue is still not quite as lush, the "neutral ground" - that patch of green that divides St. Charles Avenue and hosts the trolley car tracks - is still sad and unkempt to my eye, for example. But there is so much renovation and reinvention too: The Roosevelt Hotel is all spiffy and chic now, for example. We were told they will soon have live jazz in the evenings in the ornate yet hip grand lobby. The Sazerac Bar, which looked pretty dang comfy and mod enough already, will be getting a makeover soon to match the rest of the way more mod furnishings elsewhere in the public spaces of the hotel. (I'm not entirely sold on this idea in terms of historic preservation, but it's a good educational reason to visit again.)
And so I am way ready to get way more acquainted with the new New Orleans - its urban renewal to be sure but especially the restaurant scene.
This all started with one lunch. At Cochon. And one really spectacular cocktail.
To be continued ... with Part II, or "Mom, did you really have to ask the waiter if he liked the gumbo??"