Spicing it up in New Orleans

Rick Barnes
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Katrina may have pummelled this feisty city, but it still has character, culture and culinary delights to spare

"Sodom and Gomorrah," "Great Southern Babylon," and "Wet Grave" are just some of the nicknames New Orleans has carried over the years.

One of its tamer monikers is "Crescent City" - a name it earned because it developed in a semi-circular shape along a bend in the Mississippi River.

A welcome sign.  Submitted Photos

"Sodom and Gomorrah," "Great Southern Babylon," and "Wet Grave" are just some of the nicknames New Orleans has carried over the years.

One of its tamer monikers is "Crescent City" - a name it earned because it developed in a semi-circular shape along a bend in the Mississippi River.

But as I discovered during Christmas in Crescent City, there is nothing tame about this city, its history, geography, population, architecture or music.

The very soil under New Orleans is young and unsettled. It's part of the deltaic plain of the Mississippi River, only 7,000 years old, built up from sediment carried from as far away as the Montana Rockies and deposited at the river mouth where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. It was on the flat, low-lying marshy plain that is the east bank of the mighty Mississippi that the site for New Orleans was chosen.

It was a French Canadian, Jean Baptiste de Moyne Bienville, who, after several years of exploration in the area, founded the city in 1718. If you don't remember Bienville, you certainly know of the family. Bienville's older brother, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville - who also lent a hand exploring Louisiana - had a few years earlier made Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, his home base while he torched and murdered his way around the island of Newfoundland taking control for the king of France.

The bellicose le Moyne family of Montreal is, of course, not the only Canadian connection to New Orleans. During the 30-year period starting in 1755, the English began driving the Acadians out of present-day Nova Scotia and the uprooted French settlers made their way to an area east of New Orleans.

The locals corrupted the French pronunciation of Acadian to "Cajun." The Cajuns built a supportive rural community there and heavily influenced the diverse ethnic mix of New Orleans, which during its evolution toward a modern city would include French, Spanish, Native Americans, Creole, Africans, Haitians, Sicilians, Irish and Germans.

At the heart of the French Quarter, the oldest part of town, is Jackson Square, dominated by a statue of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson astride his rearing horse. Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812, (Remember the Johnny Horton hit?) routing the British at the Battle of New Orleans. It was a challenge Jackson probably enjoyed, having been badly treated as a teenage prisoner of war of the British during the American Revolution.

Later, Andrew Jackson became president of the United States and now stares back at you from the front of the American $20 bill.

On Christmas Day, as Wife and I prowl historic Jackson Square in the sunshine, a group of guys appear. There are two drummers - one with bass and cymbals, the other, playing a snare, is in a wheelchair, his twisted feet sticking out from under his drum.

Dull, battered sousaphones encircle two more players, one quite young, the other wearing a Santa hat. Led by a trumpet player, they play for a small gathering. A nod, or a scattered word seems to be the only communication between the musicians, as they effortlessly move through a medley of Christmas songs that brings lazy applause and a few dollars into a cardboard box that the trumpeter edges forward with his feet.

The streets of New Orleans are relatively quiet on Christmas Day, and the unseasonably warm weather (even for Louisiana) makes the Christmas decorations seem out of place. By nightfall, the narrow streets will be choked with crowds of tourists taking in buskers, who appear on every corner. Puppeteers, mimes, magicians, fortunetellers and musicians make the rounds of the busiest streets, entertaining whoever will stop and listen and hopefully will appreciate the show enough to throw a few dollars into the hat.

You'll find everyone from old favourites like Grandpa Elliot (you can see him on YouTube) to newbies, like a duet of young girls with a lot of piercings - one plays a handsaw with a bow while the other accompanies her on banjo.

Police presence

Interspersed among the crowds and almost as numerous as street musicians are the New Orleans Police.

Even though the officer might be casually sitting on the nose of his/her Crown Vic having a cigarette, if you are from St. John's, the first time you walk past the police on Bourbon Street with a drink in your hand, you might flinch from the feeling you are doing something wrong. Most bars have drinks to go, and several specialize in take-out cocktails in neon green flasks called hurricanes and hand grenades, so nearly everyone on the street is drink-in-hand.

But NOPD has no interest in harassing tipsy tourists; in fact, the very reason the police are so visible is to ensure visitors are unmolested and feel safe, even though tourists are not likely targets for violence.

On New Year's Day 2009, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans published the names of the past year's murder victims - 179 of them, placing New Orleans "among the country's most murderous cities per capita."

The rate of violent crime is down, however, and while police are not celebrating, they feel progress is being made. During the week Wife and I spent in the New Orleans area, we saw no sign of violence or crime of any kind. In fact, we never heard an unkind word.

"The Birthplace of Jazz" is another New Orleans slogan, and there are a number of venues where you can catch live acts by members of the Marsalis clan, Dr. John, and a host of up-and-comers on the jazz and blues scene. The historic House of Blues rocks Decatur Street every night, and just a short walk away on Frenchman Street, there are a number of cozy bars featuring live music.

The confluence of cultures that shaped New Orleans helped produce much of the musical talent and innovation that has blossomed there, and it's likely the same forces that produced its extraordinary culinary scene.

The beignet - a kind of touton with a French influence, dusted liberally with icing sugar, is a favourite breakfast treat. And, being a river town and so near to the Gulf of Mexico, it's a super seafood city. Catfish, mahi-mahi (dolphin fish - these are cold blooded creatures, not at all related to dolphin), trout, shrimp, crabs and oysters prepared in a host of delicious recipes involving rich cream sauces and Cajun spice make every meal a joy.

A few days stuffing yourself with New Orleans' famous gumbo and jambalaya will spoil you forever.

River town

The river is New Orleans' raison d'etre, and founders Bienville and Iberville chose a strategic location near the mouth of the Mississippi that could easily be defended.

Today's complex system of levees, canals and giant pumping stations that keeps New Orleans dry is a modern engineering marvel. To begin to understand the problems and failures that led to the post-Katrina flooding, you must take the "Katrina Tour." Still visible on abandoned houses are roof level watermarks, coded messages written by rescue crews, and holes chopped through roofs by survivors trapped in their attics by rising water. The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers is responsible for making changes to prevent future flooding, but a growing environmental movement, whose members fear disruption of the delicate ecological balance of the interconnected waterways, opposes some of the engineers' solutions and the debate on how to save New Orleans rages on.

Just an hour outside town are the old plantations, where fortunes were made on the backs of kidnapped Africans who planted and harvested hectares of the fertile land with crops like sugar cane, indigo or cotton.

We drove to a former sugar cane plantation called Oak Alley, so named because its entrance is framed by rows of 300-year-old oak trees. In the shade of the oaks is a plaque transcribed from plantation records with the names of African men, women and children who were slaves of the plantation, their ages, and the value of each in dollars like farm implements.

There are a number of plantation tours available, as well as swamp tours, voodoo tours and haunted graveyard tours. You can travel the Mississippi in a real paddle steamer, the Natchez, or tour the city from a streetcar, horse and buggy or, on Canal Street, rent a Harley-Davidson and make all the noise you want - it's America!

If you want a more cultural experience, there are plenty of art galleries: the Louisiana State Museum is in Jackson Square next to St. Louis Cathedral, a Civil War Museum, and there's a Second World War II museum that tells in great detail the story of D-Day and the American campaign in the Pacific. It turns out that the watercraft expert who designed the troop and Jeep transports that hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, landing troops on the islands of the Pacific ,was Andrew Jackson Higgins. Higgins modelled the famous troop carriers after a boat he designed for logging in the shallow waterways around New Orleans.

City Park is popular with the youngsters for its Storyland (some attractions are still under repair after Katrina damage) and a miniature railway.

And, of course, there's shopping - everything from Saks Fifth Avenue to Voodoo specialty shops that will sell you a "gris-gris" guaranteed to make you sexier or more successful. Even the police department sells T-shirts and caps right from the police station.

For other kinds of diversion, there's Poydras Street - at one end sits the Louisiana Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints, and at the other end is Harrah's Casino.

Finding your way

Getting there is easy. Continental Airlines operates daily flights from St. John's to Newark, N.J., which take about three and a half hours.

Another three-hour flight from Newark and you are at Louis Armstrong International Airport. A few minutes' drive east on Interstate 10 and you will cross the streetcar tracks of Canal Street.

Downtown New Orleans boasts plenty of excellent accommodation. The 2010 Mardi Gras is Feb. 16, so there is still time to book your travel to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras - the best known party on the planet.

Back in Jackson Square, the bandleader drops his trumpet by his side and in a sweet, rich voice, launches into "A Closer Walk With Thee." After the first verse, he calls out, "Come on, sing along" then he points to us, standing stiffly like a couple of Protestants in church.

"That means white folks, too!"

We start to clap along and discover that we actually know the words. Soon the whole square is singing the old Christian standard together.

It's a wonderful Crescent City moment.

Organizations: Montana Rockies, French Quarter, Battle of New Orleans Times-Picayune House of Blues Post-Katrina U.S. Corps Harley-Davidson Louisiana State Museum St. Louis Cathedral Civil War Museum Louisiana Superdome New Orleans Saints Harrah's Continental Airlines Louis Armstrong International Airport

Geographic location: New Orleans, Crescent City, Mississippi Mississippi River Jackson Square Gulf of Mexico Louisiana United States Trinity Bay Island of Newfoundland France Montreal Nova Scotia St. John's Bourbon Street Canal Street Pacific Decatur Street Frenchman Street Oak Alley Normandy City Park Saks Fifth Avenue Poydras Street Newark, N.J. Newark

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  • Robert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    You forgot to mention the most recent moniker, Chocolate City , as given to it by soon to be former New Orleans Mayor Ray School Bus Nagin.

  • Robert
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    You forgot to mention the most recent moniker, Chocolate City , as given to it by soon to be former New Orleans Mayor Ray School Bus Nagin.