I recently returned from a sparklingly glorious trip to New Orleans, marking my first appearance in Louisiana. My tripmate and I began in Baton Rouge, couch surfing with friends and discovering that a city named after a red stick that may or may not have been used by early settlers to beat the natives is a great place to begin a trip, because it can only go up from there. While he was unimpressed, I was a complete and willing victim of Old Worldization. Outside of Williamsburg, VA, and a small archeological preserve in St. Mary’s City, MD, it is incredibly difficult to feel “old world” anywhere in my area of the USA, and certainly not “old world urban”.
The New Orleans French Quarter is extremely well preserved, and I tip my hat to the local historical society–although I do understand the locals’ frustration when required to complete n different inspections and forms before being “allowed” to change a leaky pipe. Perhaps I simply romanticized the architecture and atmospheric appeal from too many southern epics like Gone with the Wind and Interview with the Vampire, but I immediately fell for the mysticism (albeit capitalized mysticism) and southern homes. ….Homes half outdoors and open to the wind, intertwined with nature as flowers cascade down every wall and out the windows! I’m sure I was allowed to adore it only due to the small window of the year where it’s not 90 degrees F with 100% humidity. I’ll ignore that fact and continue fantasizing about New Orleans the way I experienced it (i.e., not sticky).
I got the impression that only well-to-dos who love the atmosphere afford the beautiful antique homes and live on the upscale streets (which seemed to be most streets) in the coveted French Quarter. Even the modest single floor homes were alluring while simultaneously being rustic and dirty. Comfortable residents peered out from their porches with drinks in their hands soaking up the cool, breezy 7 o’clock air. Bourbon Street, even on weekdays as early as 4pm (and weeks past the celebration-that-shall-not-be-named), was bustling with raucous crowds. Those crowds tended to be non-French Quarter residents who drive or trolley into the city, according to locals. The only explanation I can derive for this is when one is wealthy enough to live on a second story French Quarter flat, one can buy top shelf whiskey and drink from the comfort of the porch with no need to sally on down to Bourbon for $4 plastic cup cocktails. I don’t blame them. I’m a more relaxed drinker, myself, and Bourbon Street held little appeal to me beyond the people watching.
The Cajun and Creole cuisines were prime directives for my trip. My goal during my 5 days was to have a local dish for every meal. This wasn’t always possible with my company for multiple reasons, namely budget and dietary restrictions, but by the end I was very pleased with what I was able to achieve. As luck would have it, my very first Cajun foray remains my favorite: The Jumbalaya Shoppe. There I was bewildered with a hodge podge of brown jumbalaya, crawfish pies, the greatest potato salad on the planet, greasy grilled boudin, and gumbo. A franchise needs to open in Maryland, because my fits of withdrawal are fierce. Next on my Cajun & Creole adventure was a giant beignet covered in powdered sugar. I was impressed that the art of funnel cake made its way into a more enjoyable shape than the East Coast string-like “funnel” that looks less like pastry and more like it was cranked out of a sausage maker. Or perhaps beignets are the original source of funnel cake. I could Wikipedia the relationship and tell you who came first, but honestly I think I prefer the mystery. Along the way I had the pleasure of consuming crawfish ettouffeè, crawfish gumbo, crawfish cakes (are you picking up a trend?), grilled crocodile, and traditional red beans and rice. I didn’t have a single dish without thorough enjoyment, and I recommend everything there is to taste of both cuisines.
Personally, I find it a testament to how incredible both cajun and creole food are that even the cuisine at the airport was mouth-watering. Really, airport meals. You heard correctly.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cry myself to sleep because Mapquest tells me the closest Jumbalaya Shoppe is 17 hrs 43 mins and 6 states away.