New Orleans – Jazz, Blues, Oyster Bars, Crawfish Boils and Voodoo!
New Orleans is known as the home of Jazz, Mardi Gras, and Cajun cuisine. It is also a city with many names – The Crescent City, The Big Easy, NOLA, and my favourite name of all – N’Awlins.
We stayed in New Orleans for four nights in a gorgeous hotel in Chartres Street, the oldest neighbourhood the French Quarter, and the center of all the action as far as we were concerned. We were just one street away from the infamous Bourbon Street, and as my husband is a bourbon drinker, what better reason to drop our luggage and immediately make our way to the #1 main tourist attraction… or so we thought.
It turns out that Rue Bourbon was named after the French royal family ‘The House of Bourbon’ in the 1700s rather than after my husband’s favourite tipple and nowadays is more famous for its tawdry strip clubs than for its music scene. We strolled the length of it, holding our nose most of the time against the stench of urine and vomit while averting our eyes from the scantily clad ladies. We stopped off for a couple of drinks and we did witness a passing ‘jazz funeral’ but soon decided that the action, as far as we were concerned, was elsewhere.
Luckily, we soon discovered the delightfully picturesque Jackson Square, just a block away in the opposite direction, with its street jazz bands, its ragtag collection of colourful entertainers and tarot readers. At the Square’s crown are three 18th-century architectural glories: the Cabildo, a former city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed; St. Louis Cathedral; and the Presbytère. The one-time courthouse is now the flagship of the Louisiana State Museum and it was here that I came face to face with the original portrait of Marie Laveau – the so-called Witch Queen of New Orleans – a painting by Frank Schneider that had been an important plot feature in my book ‘Voodoo Child’ – a fictional story set in New Orleans that I wrote a few years ago, sourcing information from the internet. It was a fabulous and rather surreal feeling to relive the footsteps of my fictional heroine and stand in front of the masterpiece myself!
That same evening we found Frenchman’s Street, in the Faubourg Marigny, a historic neighbourhood a short walk from our hotel in the Quarter, and to where the city’s music scene has now shifted. We had drinks in a bar listening to a traditional washboard blues band and then went on to the famous Snug Harbour jazz club and bistro, paying a small cover charge to see a fabulous and unforgettable jazz, blues, gospel, and soul band.
We had been told by friends that our New Orleans experience would not be complete without attending a ‘Crawfish Boil’ so we took a taxi downtown to The Maple Leaf Bar. We were a little nervous, wondering if we’d found the right bar, as the place looked a little run down and we couldn’t hear any music. It turned out that we were a little early, so we again paid a small cover charge and bought a drink at the bar, while suspiciously eyeing the long narrow table along the middle of the long narrow room. Soon lots of people started to arrive, buying drinks and congregating along the length of the table. Then the musicians arrived and climbed up on stage to do a tune up. In no time at all the place was packed out and there was a commotion starting at the top of the table where a huge tin bathtub full of food – the Crawfish Boil – was being thrown onto the table. Several bathtubs later, the table was filled with crawfish, potatoes, corn cobs, and sausages, and a feeding frenzy ensued. It was crazy – it was fun – and it was delicious. Especially after a kind fellow diner demonstrated to me the correct and quickest way to eat the crawfish (which resembles a very small lobster). First you pull off the head and discard it (throw it back on the table!) suck on the headless body to extract the delicious juice/stock, then quickly peel the shell and pop the crawfish meat straight into your mouth. It is a messy business!
Classic Louisiana Bayou Crawfish Boil Recipe: Once the seasoned water comes to a boil in a large tin bath, add the potatoes, corn, garlic, and sausage. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the crawfish, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Serve to the hungry masses by tipping the meal onto a scrubbed clean wooden table. No cutlery necessary!
The next morning we took another walk through the streets of the Quarter, tipping back our heads to admire amazingly authentic 19th century mansions and floral balcony apartments. We strolled along the banks of the Mississippi River, admiring the river boats before stopping off for beignets (pronounced ‘Ben Yeah’) and coffee. Beignets are a New Orleans signature sweet pastry made from deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar.
Later, we stopped off for lunch at The French Market and ate baked oysters after which we explored the famously haunted side of the city, where the notable above-the-ground graves in ancient cemeteries were decorated with flowers and candles and voodoo coins (in exchange for favours) particularly at the grave of Marie Laveau. Back on Frenchmen’s Street, feeling bewitched, we found spooky-looking voodoo shops and felt compelled to buy spells and tarot cards.
With an early morning flight to prepare for, we finished off our stay by eating out in the early evening at Irene’s Place on 539 St. Philips Street: a highly regarded Italian/French restaurant just a short walk from our hotel. On the outside, with a small swinging sign and modest canopy, Irene’s looks unpretentious – but don’t be fooled. Inside the atmosphere is of old-world decadence, the food is delicious, and the wine list fabulous. The restaurant opens at 5 p.m. but is so popular that’s almost impossible to get a table. Good luck and be prepared to drink wine while you wait because it comes highly recommended!
To Conclude: the essence of New Orleans:
It was the legendary jazz and blues music and the promise of fabulous Cajun food that first drew us to New Orleans. We chose to stay in the French Quarter because of the old-town atmosphere and the proximity to the places we planned to experience without having to hire a car. The city is diverse; a melting pot of culture and hedonism. Bourbon Street was quite a shock – but the rest of our New Orleans experience was just as I’d imagined it – if not even better. We stayed a total of four nights in The Big Easy and made the most of our time there – so this was a long enough stay for us. But you may have other reasons to visit New Orleans: The Carnival referred to as Mardi Gras, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival commonly known as ‘Jazz Fest’, the Voodoo Experience aka ‘Voodoo Fest’, The Essence Music Festival or the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. I could go on. New Orleans is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Ten years on from hurricane Katrina, it is a top tourist attraction. I would highly recommend that you experience N’Awlins for yourself at least once in your lifetime. A Bucket List Destination? Absolutely. I’d give it five buckets out of five!