About twice a year my husband has business in the New Orleans area and every now and then I tag along just for the fun of it. I love history, food, live music, fun, and travel so NOLA has always been a great place to find all of the above. I decided to go with him last month but the day prior to our trip, we heard (and plenty of friends and family made sure we had) that New Orleans now has the highest homicide rate of any major U.S. city, up 141 percent. Not what you want to hear as you’re packing your bags, but considering it was a business trip for my hubby, the trip had to be taken…at least on his part. So, we headed to the Big Easy a bit uneasy but since we know the city well, we knew where we wanted to go and where we wanted to avoid. We for sure wanted to go to Drago’s for their uh-mazing chargrilled oysters and we knew we wanted one nice dinner. We did both. We wanted to avoid being out at night so we didn’t visit our favorite Frenchmen Street for some fun and authentic live and second line street music. Bummer, but better safe than sorry.
The city’s crime was certainly the talk of the town, and that’s saying a lot in a town where you have sooooo much more to talk about. (And can we talk briefly about that accent? It’s got to be one of the hardest to imitate and is so yummy to listen to.) Apparently the home of the Saints is now home to a record number of sinners and locals are praying it all changes soon. Keep in mind this is a city that lives and breathes on tourism with nearly 20 million visiting each year. In short, the majority says the police have been defunded, are at 50-60 percent capacity, predators know they won’t be prosecuted, and we as a society are raising a generation pretty much immune to consequences or standards. We have emboldened the worst part of our society and now we are dealing with the consequences. Funny how that works, right? And as we all know; it’s not just New Orleans.
Even though NOLA’s homicide rate is now four times that of Chicago, the Windy City is known as much for its crime as it is for its hot dogs and baseball teams. We see almost daily smash and grabs on the news and social media as well as car-jackings, which are up 210 percent in New Orleans. Two-hundred-and-ten percent! Insane, right? New Orleans is just the latest city to see its crime rates skyrocket and follows the likes of Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Portland, and others. I don’t think I need to ask what all those cities have in common but I will ask when are we as voters going to say enough is enough? It’s so obvious it’s glaring and glaringly embarrassing for all of them.
But that’s not why I’m here today. I’m here to talk about the other New Orleans. The historic city synonymous with imaginative food and imaginative fun. It’s just so sad to see such a unique and historic city feel the blight of historically bad leadership but the history is still there and I got a great taste of it…both literally and figuratively. (One thing I learned that locals are adamant about is that those sweet candies made with sugar and nuts are “prah-leens,” not “pray-leens.”) Got it!
Drago’s chargrilled oysters
Food-wise, and you can’t talk New Orleans without talking food. Like it or not, I challenge you to name five cities worldwide synonymous with their local dishes and not have New Orleans on it. Not only is it famous; it’s worldly. Gumbo is the West African word for okra; French, Spanish, and African settlers begat Creole cooking; Germans introduced sausage; Italians pioneered the muffuletta; and Yugoslavs innovated the oyster industry. Today NOLA fisheries gather 20 percent of the nation’s oyster crop, which is considered the juiciest and briniest anywhere.
From the beginning, local foods have been experimental and to this day, local chefs and meals are well-tuned in the art of making do with what is at hand and nothing goes to waste. You could say “improvise” is the main ingredient.
As I’ve done on a visit a few years back, I took a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. I blogged about this back in https://carlawordsmithblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10472&action=edit and explained the difference between Cajun and Creole food, what “The Holy Trinity” of the foods is, and where to find the best of both. It’s all fascinating to me.
For something new this time, I took an architectural walking tour of the French Quarter. We’ve all heard of it, many of us have been there, but how many of us really know the history of the famous Vieux Carré? Again, fascinating.
First, a brief history of The Crescent City, called that because Mississippi river takes a crescent shape at the city. The French founded the colony they named La Nouvelle Orleans in 1718 but by the mid-18th century it was under Spanish control. It was then that Acadians (later named Cajuns, who not only brought with them unique recipes and foods, but also zydeco music) came from present day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. After the turn of the century, Spain let Louisiana slip back to France but Thomas Jefferson, bent on keeping it out of Napoleon’s hands, purchased the entire Louisiana Territory (this is where our U.S. history classes are recalled) for $15 million. By 1840, New Orleans was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Nation.
Today’s modern New Orleans still has its foot firmly planted in the past. The city has survived much and residents are tried and true survivors; hence the penchant for celebrating. It also has a penchant for nonconformity and order, which is just one of many reasons it appeals to artists and writers. All of its intermingled cultures have resulted in flavor in both food and the spirit of celebration.
Amazingly, much of today’s French Quarter has the same boundaries as when the French first laid it out in the 18th century and is a business center, tourist district, and residential area. To say New Orleans cherishes its French roots and heritage is an understatement.
Food-wise, many popular New Orleans dishes and foods incorporate or originate from French words, including remoulade, etouffee, beignets, hollandaise, and béarnaise just to name a few. Even the beloved King Cake is cousin to a French brioche.
And then there’s roux; the essential flavoring, coloring, and thickening agent made up of an equal combination of fat and flour. It is used in everything from gumbo to etouffe.
Most dishes are prepared in a single pot and slow-cooked and one of my favorites, red beans and rice, is no different. Today, most local restaurants offer it as their Monday special, a practice that hearkens back to when moms did the laundry on Monday and put red beans on to slow cook while the wash was done. New Orleans loves its rice, and only China eats more per capita than the Big Easy.
But enough about that; here are just a few fun facts I learned as I walked the Quarter in the trusty hands of Guy with New Orleans Architecture Tours:
New Orleans was the first American city in which opera was performed and the first opera house in the U.S. was in New Orleans, which was home to three opera houses before New York City had its first. The original opera house is today the above Sheraton Hotel on Bourbon and looks much the same.
Although called the French Quarter, the French Quarter and New Orleans itself have a lot of Spanish in them as well.. Bourbon Street was originally called “Borbon Street.” The Bourbon Dynasty has reigned on and off in Spain since 1700 and most of those lacework balconies we all photograph and marvel at? They are of Spanish design and hometown favorite Jambalaya is distant cousin to Spanish paella.
And about those balconies. They, like all the iron fences seen around the Quarter are the stuff of legends but the stuff they’re made of varies. The fences are generally made from wrought iron while balconies are made out of cast iron, which bends easier. Ironically, cast iron is the pot of choice for all those Cajun and Creole cooks. Many are actually included in family wills!
Now for those colorful and classic shutters. Today they are mostly decorative but many are still used like their original purpose. They were originally functional board and batten style and were used to close off the fully open and unpaned windows. They were also louvered, which allowed individual slats to rotate open and closed to control privacy, light, and weather.
You see those shutters on balconies throughout the French Quarter but are they really balconies? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. As Guy the tour guide explained, a balcony is a narrow platform projecting outwards from a wall. They are not supported by posts or columns and can be “Romeo and Juliet” small or stretch the length of a building. (yellow pic above). A gallery is normally wider than a balcony and often hangs over the width of a sidewalk below. They are supported by posts or columns. (pink with green shutters pic)
One place that’s not the case is with beignets and chicory café au lait coffee at Café du Monde. Both , have been enjoyed locally since the 1800s and the Café itself is the oldest tenant of the French Market, a fun place to spend some time perusing and relaxing.
Since 1791 there has been a marketplace in the French Quarter. Today’s version has a fun tented café that hosts live music and some really cool dance competitions if you’re lucky. We weren’t lucky enough to see one this go ‘round but we did enjoy the music and the people watching.
Somewhere else you can do some people watching is at Pat O’Brien’s. Known for its raucous party atmosphere thanks in part to its signature cocktail, Pat O’Brien’s has quite a history of its own.
Built in 1791 as a private residence, it later became the first Spanish theatre in the U.S. Spanish turned to Irish when it was purchased by Pat O’Brien who ran a speakeasy in it. In the early 1940s, Mr. O’Brien introduced the famed Hurricane drink. Today the drink’s hour-glass shaped glass is recognizable the world over and is a popular NOLA souvenir.
On that note, did you know the term “cocktail” was coined in New Orleans? Antoine Peychaud came to NOLA from the island of Santo Domingo in the late 1700s and proceeded to make a brandy-based cure-all in his Royal Street apothecary and served it in the big side of a double-ended egg coup or “coquetier” in French. Voila! The rest is cocktail history!
Situated in the heart of the French Quarter on St. Peter Street, Preservation Hall presents New Orleans Jazz concerts over 350 nights a year and really has done so since 1961 in what is truly “Hall that Jazz.”
The story of Preservation Hall dates back to the 1950s at Associated Artists, a small art gallery at 726 St. Peter Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Upon opening the gallery the proprietor Larry Borenstein found that it curtailed his ability to attend the few remaining local jazz concerts so he began inviting musicians to perform “rehearsal sessions” in the gallery itself. The jam sessions became more frequent and popular so much Borenstein moved his gallery to the building next door. One day while honeymooning in the French Quarter, Allan and Sandra Jaffe followed some musician friends to “Mr. Larry’s Gallery” at 726 St. Peter Street and fell in love all over again. This time with the music and the place. Borenstein eventually passed the nightly operations of the hall to Allan Jaffe and Preservation Hall as we know it today was born. The small, intimate venue made up of one single room with worn floorboards, supported the unique culture of traditional jazz in New Orleans, which developed in the local melting pot of African, Caribbean, and European musical traditions at the turn of the 20th Century. Preservation Hall was a rare space in the South where racially-integrated bands and audiences shared music together during the Jim Crow era. Since its opening day, more than two million people have walked through its door including presidents, prime ministers, movie stars, and rock idols…and yes, the occasional jazz great.
Former Creole Cottages can be found throughout the French Quarter. They were popular from 1790-1850 and were the most common house type found in New Orleans during the early 1800s. Built very low to the ground, each had four rooms, two fireplaces, two small rooms in the rear, and two front doors that could be switched depending on weather and guests. Famous NOLA restaurant Arnaud’s has a private dining room called The Creole Cottage.
If you’ve walked the streets of the French Quarter you’ve probably noticed an array of lanterns. I certainly have as I am a lantern fanatic. I love lantern-style lighting and take note of them anywhere I go. In New Orleans they are everywhere and in my mind, act as adornments to the city’s timeless architecture. In fact, NOLA is probably the American city most associated with lanterns. Sorry Charleston.
It all started in 1792 with Governor Carondelet organized a group of night watchmen to ensure safety in the very dark night streets. Oil lamps were hung by iron at intersections but were a bit dim. In 1824 James Caldwell introduced the gaslight and soon after created the New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company. By 1900 electric arc street lights covered the city and around 1920 replicas of the charming cast-iron gas lamps were installed and are still in on city streets today.
The first pharmacy in the U.S. was in New Orleans and today the site is a sweet little pharmacy museum.
Authors William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote all lived at one time in New Orleans and wrote some of their famous tales while there. Faulkner’s former home is today a charming small book store and is always one of my favorite stops when I’m in town.
Storyville was the original “red light” district and when it was shut down it moved to Bourbon Street, which is where Jazz started.
Much of the city lies five feet below sea level! This is why cemeteries are above ground. Tours of them are very popular but I for one will never go on one. I hear they’re popular and fun though.
Not everyone likes New Orleans and I can’t blame you right now for avoiding a visit. I do hope you learned some interesting things here though, and will perhaps give the city a chance in the future. Here’s also hoping the city and voters figure things out and restructures the place back into somewhere we will all want to “geaux.”