New Orleans Matters
I just had to ask. The genesis of the question had been gnawing at me since the mass media's post-Katrina “Rebuild New Orleans” mantra was repeated ad nauseum. The right moment came – as so many have before – a few drinks deep into the spring LES night in a dimly lit bar, designed more for hiding than drinking, and in the appropriate company of my bonafide New Orleans born-and-raised friend.
We had traded various bold assertions, liquor loud and full of cocktail conviction about the respective contributions of various cities' contributions towards the US cultural panorama. New York vs Los Angeles. San Francisco, Chicago. The types of topics that educated, well-traveled kind discuss to massage their egos a bit. The time was right.
“So,” I coyly explored, “with all due respect to the present company, and in complete, um, acknowledgment that the world would be a sadly lesser place without jazz, and I do love me some jambalaya, BUT, you knew there was gonna be a capitalized “but” before I got to my point, BUT, what, I must ask, has the lovely city of New Orleans done for us lately?”
Now before the vitriols burst forth and cranial veins burst, know that the question was sincere, intellectually well intentioned and cognizant of the Crescent City's many and significant contributions.
Yes, New Orleans is a unique melting pot of cultures and traditions found only in the city and its surrounding areas. The birthplace of jazz, one of the major art forms to have emerged in the 20th century, and in essence almost more American than anything else, forget baseball and apple pie. And yes, Mardi Gras ranks as one of Earth's best parties – drunken fratboyish behavior aside. As well, Creole cuisine is surely one of the United States' most distinctive and influential culinary traditions. Drinking, eating and dancing. That's New Orleans.
A recent article in The Nation concludes, “And yet what is important about this city, and about such 'only in New Orleans' traditions as the Mardi Gras Indians, is not merely what they recall from the past…but what makes them quintessentially American: as living stories about how people from those cultures and their descendants have reconciled themselves to this place, and to one another, to make something new.”
None of this is in doubt. But, to returning to the original question, I keep hanging on the last word of that excerpt. New. What has New Orleans done lately? Jazz, Creole cuisine, Mardi Gras, all developed into cultural significance in the 19th century and have roots that date back even further. New Orleans, at one point in the 19th century the third largest city in the US, has since been surpassed in size by so many others. The city today pales in comparison to such regional rivals as Houston and Atlanta in industry and economy.
In some ways, it seems that New Orleans is in danger of becoming a museum piece, a place that preserves the traditions of the past, rather than embraces the thrill of the future. In an age of mp3 and molecular gastronomy where do “When the Saints Go Marching In” and red beans and rice fit in?
Even the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a champion of Creole and Cajun cooking, once said of the city, “You know, for 300 years it's been kind of the same. There are restaurants in New Orleans that the menu hasn't changed in 125 years, so how is one going to change or evolve the food?”
Similar observations have been made of jazz in general. A developmental stagnancy has set in that has been debated now for decades. Some believe jazz was smothered by the advent of rock and other musical forms during the radical 1960s, which viewed the once revolutionary musical form as too conservative. In some cases, jazz stopped developing and simply stayed the same. In other cases in order to survive the genre transformed itself into a myriad of hyphenated hybrids. Jazz-Funk. Jazz-Rock. Latin-Jazz. And others. In New Orleans, the same is true.
Little was I to know that a few months later I would wander the Crescent City in search of the answer to my own question. A last minute change in holiday plans had me skipping along the city's famed streets, accompanied by some proud local friends determined to show us an unforgettable time, bouncing like an upright bass from neighborhood to neighborhood, bar to bar, band to band, to-go cup in hand, seeking out all that the city is famous for.
My companion and I felt like two libertines traipsing in a hedonisitic garden. Naturally, there is a more thoughtful side to New Orleans, one more complex than the sinful reputation normally attributed to it. But three nights is not nearly enough time to profoundly explore the soul of the city, nor spelunk for the spirit of Kate Chopin or Tennessee Williams, but three nights is enough time to eat, drink and dance. And so we did.
Sleep we didn't, much. Our spontaneous decision to fly South for the New Year left us picking the hotel scraps. Fine places all of them, but none could offer us more than one night. Our late-night ramblings quickly made the phrase “11:00 AM checkout time” the worst part of the entire trip.
Our constant movement began in the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre for the Francophiles among us, at the historic Olivier House Hotel. The Creole Greek Revival building, built in 1839, served us fine with a lovely balcony with views of the streets below. The family owned and operated – and perhaps haunted — establishment keeps a homely air about itself due to the warm, easygoing of the staff and the informal come and go as you please surroundings.
Soon after we checked in long enough to clean up and change clothes, the drinking began. Proper, cultured and thoughtful imbibing, respectful of the city steeped in American cocktail history. Original home of such cocktails as the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz, as well as Southern Comfort of Janis Joplin fame and the sought after Peychaud Bitters, New Orleans' drinking culture's only real US rivals are arguably New York City and San Francisco. And as a testament to the city taking its drinking seriously, New Orleans is also home to the unofficially only museum dedicated to US cocktail history and culture, the aptly and simply named Museum of the American Cocktail.
One night rolled into another. In what now feels like one long breath absinthe at the Old Absinthe House turned into Sazeracs at the Royal Orleans that became pre-dawn beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde between stops at various jazz, funk and rock joints in the Fauberg Marigny highlighted by some good ole get down and Miller High Life, Japanese ales and sake at Yuki's Izakaya, alligator, Louisiana oysters and etouffé for lunch and flash-fried frog legs and good luck black-eyed peas for New Years dinner. Three nights became one and the momentum didn't stop until after some final Thursday night Kermit Ruffins red beans and rice at Vaughan's until we reached for the pillows for some badly needed slumber at the Look Out Inn in the Bywater just a few hours before the start of our return haul.
The question remains, for me, inadequately unanswered. Delicate conversations with locals provided well-meaning, myopic municipal boosterism than anything else. Our three-day New Orleans indulgence offered us sensational experiences, unforgettable memories and a deep longing to return, but nothing resembling clarity. The best I can muster, for now, is to depend on the intellectual crutch of history to support my argument.
The same diverse influences and events that made New Orleans unique and important are what have made the United States unique and important. The identity of the two are intrinsically linked. In essence, to question the decline of one is to question the decline of the other.
Regardless, the contributions of both remain, as important today as the day they first they appeared. The roots of jazz, found sprawling through the earth of Congo Square amongst the drum circles and singing of African slaves, resonates with the same intensity as everything that has come after it, because of it. The good times culture of eating, drinking and dancing and its legacy can never be irrelevant, and least of all in a place that has in many ways elevated it into an art form recognized throughout the nation, and the world.
If every country sings a song, then the swing you hear coming from the US starts in the Mississippi River Delta and sways across the nation from there, and rolling along in strong endless tides. – Alvaro Eduardo Rojas
Images courtesy of Alvaro Eduardo Rojas, iStockphoto, and