Yo Bro, where y’at?
If Texas is your large, brash uncle with loud opinions who gets away with smoking a cigar in the living room on family visits; Louisiana is your older cousin who loves to dance, and who tells your mother she’s taking you to a movie but instead lends you a pair of heels and takes you to party with her hip friends.
Oh, they love to dance in Louisiana – and eat – and drink; so we joined them. In Lafayette, Cajun country, we ate catfish with shrimp etoufee at The Blue Dog Café while listening to live jazz. Driving past businesses named Le Blanc Insurance and Thibodeau Automotive, we visited the Acadian Centre, where descendants of those expelled from Nova Scotia played do-ci-do and zydeco while we explored the exhibits. So interesting to see how the Acadians adapted to their new environment and blended their culture with that of their fellow settlers in this swampy, humid and buggy place.
Between Lafayette and New Orleans, the landscape was familiar and unknown. After thousands of miles of dry, yellowish soil, the fields were green and the land rich and dark, like Nova Scotia. The difference was seeing the little blobs of white cotton on the plants – ready for harvest, and huge oil refineries on the way.
Gorgeous New Orleans is best described through the senses, I think. So here goes:
- The music – live jazz and blues trickling like molasses out of the bars on Bourbon Street, one musical conversation muddling with the next – the moaning, chattering, singing and hiccupping saxophones, trumpets and tubas
- The energetic beat of young black brothers tap dancing on the street, busking. Just as Louis Armstrong sang for his supper in this city 100 years ago
- Rainwater rushing below us through the underground canals
- Comforting, stomach-full fried chicken – we arrived in the middle of a Fried Chicken Festival!
- Newly fried, doughy beignets, sweet and oily
- In the Vieux Quartier the fecund, swampish smell of old wood which never really dries out
- Peppery, pungent gumbo stew
- Crawfish tasting of the sea with a kick at the end
- Grilled shrimp with pepper jelly sauce and fried feta croutons at Superior Grill on St Charles. Can’t be described, you will have to go there…..
- Soft feathers on the Mardi gras and All Souls’ Night masks hung for sale
- The gritty metal stops on the old saxophone hanging on the wall of our Airbnb
- The tickle of confectioner’s sugar on the beignets
- A grand Greek-revival style house in Lakeview, peeking anxiously at the churning waters from behind the levee
- The white, above-ground tombs of the cemeteries, with their neat, named roads (a favoured place to learn to drive)
- A container ship swinging her stern abruptly to starboard to make a tricky turn on the murky and looping Mississippi River
- A little black school girl mounting the stairs of the red streetcar, her hair in braids and ribbons, her white uniform shirt as bright as her smile
A good walking tour of the city revealed the recipe which makes New Orleans such an atypical American city. Like a gumbo stew, the mixture of ingredients produces not a melting-pot, but a delicious brew all the better for its diverse and surprising flavours. Take French ex-convicts sent to secure the mosquito-ridden Mississippi with little enthusiasm. Take European leaders who used Louisiana as a bargaining tool, passing it from the French to the Spanish, back to the French and then selling it to the Americans, often without the inhabitants knowing of the change. Add freed slaves arriving from Haiti, the ability for a slave to buy his/her own freedom, and free people of colour entitled to inherit from their white fathers and being educated in Europe, and you get:
Beignets at the Café du Monde: voodoo: a Mardi gras which goes on for six weeks: 40% of the population black or of colour: a street in the totally flat city called ‘Huff and Puff Road’: grand houses in the Garden District: water marks from Hurricane Katrina flooding still showing on the houses in the poorer districts: the most delicious food.
It was hard to leave New Orleans, but we were not leaving the Mississippi River. We set off North to follow the trail of the music born in the Mississippi Delta.