A Final Day in New Orleans
We had one more day after Jazz Fest to enjoy the pleasures of New Orleans. Of course we began it with beignets and chicory coffee at Café du Monde. Even after twelve straight mornings of the hot, pillow-shaped, powdered-sugar doughnuts we sighed with delight when the waitress delivered them to our table. The beignets are as messy as they are delicious — they leave a trail of powdered sugar all over your clothes — and William and I like to joke that it would be much easier for someone to hide an affair than it would to hide that you’d gone to Café du Monde without your spouse. (Some might take the latter offense more seriously —Man looking guilty as he wipes powdered sugar from his shoes: “Nah, baby, I would never eat beignets at Café du Monde without you; I was just out making love to another woman…”) Café du Monde is located in the French Market and has been serving beignets and chicory coffee from there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the past 150 years — yes, you read that right — since 18friggin’62! I can imagine the Union and Confederate soldiers fought some hellacious battles over THAT territory… Nowadays, of course, there aren’t any more Civil War soldiers hanging out at Café du Monde, but one morning I did notice some Vietnamese Buddhist monks who looked like they had found bliss in their beignets and coffee.
We finished breakfast at Café du Monde just in time to walk to lunch at Li’l Dizzy’s. (In New Orleans, that’s what you do — spend your time eating or listening to music or doing both at one time.) Li’l Dizzy’s is a soul food joint in the Treme neighborhood, the ‘hood that has nurtured many of the city’s best musicians and the namesake of the HBO show about post-Katrina New Orleans. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but the waitresses call everybody “Honey” or “Baby” and true to its reputation, Li’l Dizzy’s comes correct with some of the best fried chicken, grits and hashed browns we have ever had.
After Li’l Dizzy’s it was time to make the pilgrimage to Hansen’s Snow-Bliz. A local we had been talking to in a food line the first weekend of Jazz Fest told us such a romantic and compelling story about the history of this snow-ball emporium (the man who founded it over 70 years ago had created an ice shaving machine to make snow-balls for his kids so that they wouldn’t have to buy them from the vendors on the street because he considered their methods unhygienic) that we knew we had to go there even though neither William nor I ever eat snow-cones unless we’re in Hawaii. Our first attempt at visiting Hansen’s a few days earlier had gone awry — there was no easy way to get there, or so we were told — and we had ended up at Hansen’s arch-competitor, William’s Plum Street Snow-Balls because some locals assured us it was just as good. (Others vociferously disagreed.) Plum Street Snow-Balls was charming — operating out of a corner house in a quiet residential neighborhood with no other commercial activity around for blocks — and both the staff and the customers lined up outside (black, white, old, young, affluent, working-class) were welcoming and offered suggestions about what to order but William and I were less than impressed with the icy treats served in Chinese food take-out containers. The flavors we chose (me: nectar cream, wild cherry; William: yeech, cookie dough, pecan pralines) weren’t that intense and the ice wasn’t soft and smooth like Hawaiian shaved ice.
But since snowballs seem to be a really big thing in New Orleans, we decided we couldn’t return to LA without trying Hansen’s. We love to engage in some sort of off-beat quest on our travels so that we’ll get out of the tourist zones and into the “real” neighborhoods of a city. Besides, William had consulted his map and discovered that Hansen’s was only seven or eight blocks from a trolley stop uptown. (We had walked about 12 blocks after getting off the trolley on our foray to Plum Street….Turns out New Orleans folks aren’t big on walking so they tend to over-exaggerate the distances…) So off we went this final day of our stay in New Orleans, ambling down the tree-lined residential streets of Uptown, admiring both the elegant mansions and the disheveled but colorfully painted bungalows alike as thunder boomed above our heads. As we neared Tchoupitoulas, the street where Hansen’s was located, we passed a Mardi Gras float warehouse. I popped my head through a partially open door and a man inside said it was okay to look around. William and I gazed in wonderment at the colorful creations and watched while the man continued his work painting one of them. Preparing for Mardi Gras is a year-round endeavor even though the Carnival season only lasts a couple of weeks.
Alas, when we finally reached the Mecca of Snow-Balls we found it was closed on Mondays so we will have to wait until next year to find out if Hansen’s is as good as advertised. To assuage our disappointment and to avoid the rain that was beginning to fall, we ducked into a store/house with an intriguing sign: McKeown’s Used Books & Difficult Music. We browsed the book collection for awhile and when I asked the owner, Maggie McKeown, about the “difficult music” part of her sign, she pointed to a shelf that had about 20 cds with obscure titles resting on it. How could I not be enchanted with someone so whimsical? We ended up chatting for a half hour with this wonderful woman and Maggie told us stories and pulled out photos of the damage done to the roof by Katrina. When the rain let up and it was time to go, I purchased a book of Zen koans and asked her to sign it. And what did she write above her signature and the date? “The books are real.” LOVE IT!
We still had a couple of hours to spare before our dinner reservations at HerbSaint, a trendy restaurant opened by celebrity chef Susan Spicer and presided over by celebrity chef Donald Link. We used the time to walk a couple mile stretch of Magazine Street, which boasts funky shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. We bopped into one of the galleries and I fell in love with the work of J. Renee, who does “reverse glass” paintings. Her series on Katrina were colorful collages filled with historical, political and spiritual symbolism. I would have loved to bring one home with me but they were all in the thousands of dollars. Fortunately, it was free to talk with the delightful young New Orleans native, Ashley, who was staffing the gallery and we spent close to an hour discussing African American art, her upcoming trip to Australia and writing down all the restaurant suggestions she gave us for next year.
Believe it or not, we were hungry by the time we arrived at HerbSaint. We enjoyed our meal, but to be honest, it wasn’t anything you couldn’t find on the menu of a fine restaurant in New York or Los Angeles. Yes, my free-range chicken was topped by a crayfish Americain sauce, but at the end of the day it wasn’t that different from free-range chicken I have had elsewhere. Cosmopolitan cuisine is cosmopolitan cuisine. I can completely understand how locals find this place appealing when they tire of shrimp creole, fried oysters, etoufee or gumbo — the food is high quality, the ingredients combined in innovative ways, the staff consummate professionals, the ambiance pleasing — but even after twelve days we hadn’t quite slaked our appetite for good old classic New Orleans cooking or for the easy banter and quick comraderie that we enjoyed with the wait-staff everywhere else but that was absent here. We love New Orleans precisely because it is so proudly idiosyncratic and wonderfully distinctive from any place else — we prefer to frequent the restaurants that reflect those qualities. In the end, isn’t travel really about ferreting out and savoring the differences?
Travel With Balls, Y’all!
Peace & Blessings,