A Whirlwind Tour From the Soul of the South to the Mighty Midwest (Part 2/2, Part 0/1)…

I’m further behind than I ever hoped to be, and am going to do my best, for me, to get as much in this entry as possible.  I’m in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and have just fallen in love with Route 66.  Definitely going to have to do the whole thing sometime.  I want to get back out there on the road, so this is going to be furious.  Fasten your seat belts…

I had awaken after my first night in New Orleans (you can read about the first night here), and was ready to see if the city was more charming by day than it had been at night.  Not that I didn’t find the Quarter appealing, but it was a little Jersey Shore for me. 

Hoping to see the good side of the city, but unable to hitch a ride on a river boat queen, I moseyed on down to the river with hopes of having breakfast at the legendary Cafe du Monde.  Unfortunately, the line was also legendary, so I went across the street to New Orleans’ Famous Beignets and Coffee.  Now I had grown up roughly outside Philly, and by the time I was 17, I had begun making journeys into the city with friends and family for ballgames, cheesesteaks and other assorted tomfoolery.  It has always been Pat’s vs. Geno’s.  At the intersection of 9th, Wharton and Passyunk, the two goliaths of Whiz sat across the way from one another, feeding locals and attracting tourists for years.  Pat’s is the original – it is a grimy city building plopped down on a triangular plot between the 3 roads.  Pat’s is dirty and there is hardly any signage.  Geno’s, by contrast, is brightly lit and clean.  More reminiscent of the Las Vegas strip than grimy South Philly, Geno’s was the go to for the easily impressed tourist.  I have, from the beginning, preferred Pat’s and would recommend it over Geno’s to anyone.  In New Orleans, however, I acted as a turncoat to my sensibilities, and chose convenience over authenticity; I went to Geno’s instead of Pat’s, if you will. 

The food here though was Beignets and Cafe au Lait, not cheesesteaks.  I got in line at New Orleans’ Famous, and while it wasn’t as long as across the street, it still moved slowly.  While in line, I struck up a conversation with a young woman roughly my age and her mother.  It all started when the mother was trying to give the daughter some money.  The daughter was too proud to accept it though, and was pushing her mom’s hands away from her purse as she was trying to stuff the bills in there.  Noting that I was watching, the mother said playfully to the daughter (and to me) something to the effect of “take the money, or I’ll really embarrass you.”  I chuckled, the daughter accepted the money, and the mother asked me if she was good at that or what!  She wanted to know if my mother had ever embarrassed me, and while I wanted to pull a one-upper and let her know that my mom was a hall of fame embarrasser, I simply admitted that yes, my mother, as all do, has willfully embarrassed me in the past.  We got to talking, and it turns out they are both from New Orleans, and the mother still lives there while her daughter now resides in Texas.  When they asked where I was from, they heard: buffalo, NEW YORK.  Immediately, the mother fawned, in her best New York accent, asking what a “New Yawka” was doing down in New Orleans.  I didn’t have the heart to bring up how far Buffalo is from the city.

I got my beignets and coffee, and sat down with the ladies for a quick breakfast.  Beignets, for those who are unfamiliar, are little squares of deep friend biscuit dough, topped with powered sugar.  Traditionally, these are served with Cafe au Lait, which is strong coffee mixed with hot milk.  I followed tradition and got the Cafe au Lait, which I found to be enjoyable.  I munched down the Beignets quickly, said goodbye to my new friends, and was on my way.

Now the dirty little secret about cheesesteaks in Philly, and I’m sure as well about Beignets in New Orleans.  I went to New Orleans Famous – I enjoyed my beignets.  I’m sure they are nearly indistinguishable from those across the street at Cafe du Monde, just like a Geno’s steak, in all actuality, is pretty much identical to one from Pat’s.  In truth, the great beignets, as with the great cheesesteaks, are elsewhere to be found.  That being said, going to the original place, or the secondary place, in that little corner of the city wherein the tradition began, is worth the experience.

Having only 1 day in New Orleans, and having already seen Bourbon Street, I wanted to go do something else.  However, my car was valeted somewhere, and I was limited to walking.  I pulled up the location of the Superdome, and decided that I would proceed in a direction generally towards the Dome.  I started by walking along the river for a few blocks, enjoying the jazz musician who was wooing wives away from their Midwestern husbands along the way.  Steam whistles were blowing, train crossings were ringing, and the clickety-clack of the street cars added to the ambiance of the city.

I headed north, up Canal Street, and began heading west towards the Dome from there.  Canal street was obviously a (and perhaps the) main business and commercial corridor of New Orleans, and was bustling with activity, even on a Sunday morning.

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The view North on Canal Street

Points immediately West of Canal Street were not nearly as full of activity, and by the time I got over to the Superdome, I was well outside of any traditionally touristy area.  The Dome is near the Tulane University Medical Campus, and the other nearby buildings served primarily educational and business needs.  There are rough areas of New Orleans, and while I had vacated the tourist area, I had not found a rough area either.  While I would have wanted to venture further off the beaten path, I was developing a hunger in my gut, and was nearly 2 miles from my hotel.

I began walking back to the Quarter in hopes of munching down on a Po-Boy for lunch.  With the options literally endless, I walked around the Quarter for a half an hour or so, checking out menus and reading about the restaurants.  Again, I chose something that was decidedly on the path rather than off of it, but I was happy with my choice.  I went to Original Pierre Maspero’s, at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis.  I didn’t do any independent verification, but the according to the little story on the menu, the building had been around since the late 18th century, and was the site of at least some of Andrew Jackson’s strategizing as he prepared to defend the city against the British in 1815.  Pretty neat back story, and good enough for me.

I hunkered down at the bar, and checked out the Po-Boy selections.  There were the traditional shrimp and roast beef options, but there was also something listed further down that looked quite appealing: Cochon de Lait.  Slow roasted pork dripping with garlic and jalapeno, topped with a pickle and creole mustard.  Sounded pretty good to me, but was it a Po-Boy?  I had struck up your standard traveler/bartender conversation, and felt comfortable getting an honest answer.  According to him, it was kinda a Po-Boy, but was very good, especially with gravy and pepperjack cheese on top.  My decision, obvious as it should be by now, was vindicated the next day when I was told that the roll is what makes the Po-Boy, not necessarily the innards. 

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A drool inducing Cochon de Lait sandwich, topped with gravy.  Amazing.

Full and content, I lumbered back to the hotel and took a nice nap in anticipation of again venturing out into the New Orleans night.  I was given various recommendations on where to eat dinner, and had decided on going to Voodoo BBQ.  It was, however, several miles from my hotel, and I would need to get a good nap in before beginning that trip.  In addition, I’m fat, and this was my first day of no travel or golf on the entire trip.  A nap was most definitely in order.  Napping has always felt kinda like a tremendously unproductive pastime.  You’re not sleeping because you’ve exhausted yourself from a hard day in the salt mines, you’re passing out because you have the luxury of doing so at 3 pm.  In spite of nearly always feeling guilty about them, I’ve always loved naps, and will defend the right of anyone, at any time, to take one.

After my peaceful slumber had concluded, I decided to give Bourbon Street another try en route to Voodoo BBQ.  I’m so very glad I did.  This time, it was a Sunday evening, and the “Wisconsin Frat Boys” were either on their way back home or were still asleep from the night before.  Much more enjoyably, the street was not nearly as full, and street performers were out in droves.

Complete from the jazz brass band (itself complete with some asshole standing behind them, alternating between holding his nose and a sign that read “give money so they can learn more songs — this band sucks”) to a skilled beatboxer to my favorite, this guy, who needs no further explanation:Image

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the street was abuzz with entertainers and entertainees.

Back to the beatboxer for just a second.  He had set up shop in the middle of the street, and was doing his thing.  Beat boxing has a higher learning curve for tourists, especially older and or less sophisticated ones.  I took up shop, leaning on a horse pole a few yards from the guy, watching in awe as he produced rhythm after rhythm using only his mouth.  Many passers by were not impressed.  To their untrained ears, this was just a guy making noise.  I kinda wanted to punch some of the visually displeased folks right in the skull, but decided against it.

There was a dude with two ladies who was grooving hard though, and after a minute or two, he asked me if I was the guy’s buddy.  Success!  I so thoroughly blended in that other tourists were curious as to whether I was one of the carnival barkers myself!  I responded in the only way I felt appropriate, by saying that “no, he’s not…. well, he is, in the way that we’re all human and I love what he’s doing, but no…. he’s not.”  He caught my drift.  Those three were photographers in town for a wedding, and would be heading back to LA shortly.  They had been everywhere in the last few weeks, yet were in awe of my trip, with one of the ladies remarking that she wanted my life.  I’m coming to notice that for people who have been lucky enough to get out there and do extensive traveling, the bug never goes away; it only grows stronger.  The list of cities this woman had visited in the past month was impressive, yet she, even if only conversationally, thought it was far cooler to do what I was doing. 

Travelers are unlike other people.  We have an insatiable quest for experience, no matter what it is.  And the more we do, the more we want to do.  I had no intentions of finding out what my next road trip is going to be (although I knew finding something would be inevitable) while on this trip, but already I’ve discovered that it’s going to be something Route 66 related.  I’ve been on the road (or more aptly, the bastardization of what once was — I don’t have the time or space here to explain it, but briefly 66 was decommissioned in 1985, leaving the states, counties and municipalities through which it passed to figured out what to do with it.  The levels of involvement and restoration accordingly vary widely) for just about 15 miles, and already feel ready to recommend a journey upon it to anyone who has any interest in Americana.

Anyhow, after chatting with the photographers from LA for a few minutes and making plans to maybe meet up in LA, I was off for Voodoo BBQ.  In no hurry to get there, I milled about, stopping frequently along the way to enjoy the sights.  As I meandered further down St. Charles to the restaurant, I moved again through the tourist area to more authentic New Orleans.  A young couple, who was in town to see a German Metal band, asked me what the parking situation was like, and between us, we determined that they were likely fine where they had parked.  They of course asked what I was doing, and were shocked to find out I was doing it alone.  “Aren’t you scared?  It’s dangerous!” the young lady asked.  I didn’t have the time to give the honest answer, so I just cobbled together a “no” and some other nonsense about how we’re all humans and I see altruism as our defining characteristic.  A few blocks and small talk later, they were at their venue, and I was just blocks from Voodoo BBQ!

Another mile in, and I was there!  Tragedy of tragedies, the place was closed.  It was only 9:30.  At this point, I was almost starving.  Not quite, but almost.  More than that though, I was 3 miles away from the hotel.  I could have taken the street car back, but who knows how many potential feasteries I would pass up by doing so?

I began the arduous march back to the Quarter, passing closed restaurant after fine dining establishment.  I came to the defeated opinion that the only place I’d be eating that evening would be fast food or back in the Quarter.  Back to the Quarter it was.  Much like the afternoon, once back in the FQ, I walked around and checked out menus before settling on a restaurant located at the corner of Royal and… maybe… Toulouse?  I had a traditional dish called red beans and rice.  Historically served on Mondays, the dish is properly cooked in pork fat and stews amongst the bones left over from the Sunday meal.  This particular dish was served with andouie sausage, and was delightful:

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Following this meal, I got another drink for the road, and headed out on my way.  Open carry is legal everywhere in New Orleans, provided your booze isn’t in a glass bottle, and while I’m sure this leads to it’s own problems in other parts of the city, it is liberating in the Quarter itself.  The party need not be confined to the establishments; take your drink to the streets and allow the epicurean in you to live!  The party culture of the city extends not only to this law, but lives and breathes within the residents.  I was alone at the restaurant where I had my red beans and rice (it was close to 11 on a Sunday night), and of course struck up a conversation with the barhop.  Her primary concerns were making sure that I would be well liquored up during my stay in Louisiana.  She advised me on how to successfully drink and drive in New Orleans (Get a daiquiri in a foam cup.  Leave the lid on (it’s only considered an open container if the straw is in the cup).  At stop lights, take the lid off, and quaff away, being sure to replace the lid before you pull out), and made sure to remind me several times to check with my buddy in Ruston to confirm if Ruston was a dry city.  Being a college town, I was fairly sure it was not.  That didn’t stop her from pointing out all the liquor stores in my vicinity though, and reminding me again that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a bottle or two for my time in Ruston.  New Orleans knows how to party.  Or, perhaps more accurately, New Orleans does not know how to not party.

A tremendous blend of varying cultures, distinct cuisine, fascinating and friendly people, live music and that mighty Mississippi.  Whatever your calling, you can find it in New Orleans.  I’m not going to regret anything on the trip, as the very nature of a 49 day tour de force necessarily means I’m going to miss many things I would have liked to see and do, but it would have been nice to have just one more full day in New Orleans; I wanted to see what else the city had to offer, and I wanted to see if I could find a more authentic experience somewhere else in the city.

Luckily, I did have one more morning in the city.  Even more luckily, my buddy Billy, a native Louisianan in the Big Easy on a grant to do research at Tulane, had just arrived the night before, and reached out to me once he was made aware I was in the city.  He recommended we grub early, and suggested the Camilla Grille.  The place was located a solid 6 or 7 miles from the Quarter, and was nowhere near anywhere a tourist would go.  At the end of South Carrollton down by the end of St. Charles, the Grille sits in a row of buildings, welcoming diners through it’s white columns.

As Billy explained, the Grille’s re-opening was a sign to locals that things would be okay after Katrina.  Once the place was back in business and back to serving the locals, New Orleans was on the path to recovery.  Once inside, I could understand the magic of this place.  Diners are greeted by their server/cook with a fist bump and a friendly and hearty greeting.  Coffee is served immediately and warmed up frequently.

It was suggested that I get an omelet, and after perusing the menu, I settled on the Mexican omelet.  Jalapenos, Salsa, cheese, onions, beef.  As I was about to leave the South proper and had not yet had grits, I felt now was the time, and opted for them instead of homefries as my side.  Billy had the equally tempting chili-cheese omelet, which was exactly what it sounded like.  It was phenomenal:

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This was the New Orleans cuisine I was hoping to find!  A grimy neighborhood breakfast joint that served up huge, delicious, greazy ass breakfasts for a fair price!  I struggled to clean off my plate, but with each bite found further motivation to do so.  The thing was absolutely delicious.

It was also great to sit down and have a chat with Billy for an hour or so while we ate.  He is a brilliantly smart man, and is in the final stretches of wrapping up his dissertation.  He’ll shortly have his PhD from UB, and then will begin the eternal struggle to find steady employment as a professor of History.  I was only in the grad program for the better part of a semester, but beyond all of the other factors that pushed me away from further pursuit of the field were the dismal job prospects.  For Billy, and for my friend Paul, who is also pursuing and about to shortly acquire his PhD, I have unending amounts of respect…

 

 

OKAY COMPUTER.  I GET IT.  YOU ARE RUNNING OUT OF BATTERIES.

 

I’ll catch up later, everyone.  Thanks for reading!

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