To miss New Orleans, that is. If at no other time of the year, then as Mardi Gras nears the Big Easy, the Crescent City, The City that Time Forgot forces itself back into one’s consciousness.
I haven’t been to New Orleans since Katrina, I think because I’m afraid to see how much it’s changed. Before that there was a brief period when I was lucky enough to visit every couple of years.
I’ve never experience the actual Mardi Gras weekend madness, which a lot of locals bemoan as having been too infested by the tourist onslaught to retain its authenticity. But the several weeks prior to the finale, with their many parades and celebrations of by and for the people of New Orleans, are fabulous fun, like witnessing the rites of a tribe you wish you could join, Proud bands strut their stuff and proud Krewes pitch their beads and doubloons to
folks lining the streets.
On one memorable occasion my wife pitched in herself, waving her arm so vigorously to attract a throw that she lofted her own bracelet off her arm and into the crowd, never to be seen again. A classic New Orleans moment redolent of the raffish, rotting, corrupt, beautiful, impossible, improvised place. Southern, but too much of a cultural gumbo to be merely Dixie – French and Creole and Cajun and Caribbean and God-knows-what all infuse the place with an ambiance like no other.
I miss barge traffic on the river, above ground cemeteries, Spanish moss hanging over retro streetcars creaking through the Garden District, the odor of tropical blooms competing with the aromas wafting out of restaurant doors. Oh my, the food. I can taste it now – some from restaurants still thriving and some from others sadly long gone.
I miss Bayona and Brigsten’s, Commander’s Palace, NOLA and Galatoire’s where no reservations were ever accepted. Even Huey Long had to stand in line for the duck and andouille gumbo. The only exception, allegedly, a pope. I miss the tiled interior and fried oysters at Casamentos, the fried chicken and soulful sides at Dooky Chase where Duke Ellington dined.
I miss red beans and rice and blackened redfish, the etouffee, the shrimp remoulade and, maybe most of all, the turtle soup. New Orleans cooking is to food what jazz is to music. And the two are connected, a mash up of influences from hither and yon to create something unique. The liner notes for a Dr. John album include a heartfelt thank you to The Upperline for the food. Where else would that happen?
Do I know what it means to miss New Orleans? Yes, and “I know I’m not wrong, this feeling’s getting stronger the longer I stay away.”