Non-Fiction

Jazz ► Frenchmen Street

A crowd has already developed on two corners of the intersection to watch the band play their brass instruments and drums under the terrace of what looks like an abandoned building. We try not to block the street and press ourselves to a parked car as close as we can get to the band. An older black woman trots in her heals back and forth in the middle of the road. Her movement is simple. Her hips and her legs rotate forward, subtly to the beat. She blows kisses at the honking vehicles struggling to get by. She picks up a large umbrella with $1 and $5 painted on the black and white vinyl patches and spins it like a parasol over her head. A driver creeps closer and closer to her, at which point she holds the umbrella out in front of her, teasing him like a lion tamer teases his beast with a chair and a whip, all the while maintaining her sultry trot. A white girl begins to dance with her in the road, jauntily moving her body and swinging her fragile frame in front of cars. The trumpets and tubas and French horns call the people into the street, and we move in closer to join the thickening audience. An afroed woman holding a tambourine, who seems to appear from no direction at all, walks up to the band and drops her bag to devote her rattling hand to the music, joining in perfectly with the boisterous tune the players have struck. A police car arrives flashing its lights and for a moment the music stops. The officer gets out of the car and approaches the band to a chorus of BOOOs, and a local yells arrogantly from the edge of the crowd, “On the sidewalk! Get on the sidewalk people!” She rants at anyone close enough to listen. “Stupid tourists, they get in the street and the police get called because they’re blocking traffic. They don’t shut down Frenchmen like they do Bourbon. Get on the sidewalks!” “People complainin’?” someone says, taking a drag from her cigarette. “This is fucking New Orleans and people complainin’. Jeez.” The umbrella lady slides her hand under the officer’s arm and escorts him back to his car, rubbing on his chest and shoulder affectionately, cooing at him to let the party continue. And as the coaxed man gets back into his vehicle, she touches his cheek and blows kisses at him until he’s driven away. People cheer and the band starts back up, this time to even more enthusiasm and a now fearless crowd, conquering the street with their smiles and bodies and drinks. Local kids, sixteen tops, stand against a wall behind the band, drinking their beers. Black kids, white kids, locals, and tourists press in toward the brass players, agents of sound. Sound. Women balancing on their heels adopt the beat and let their asses roll as they strut their stuff in the crowd, for no man, but for themselves and for the music. And older man in business attire, still wearing his nametag from some conference or another, pulls a woman to the front and center and begins to spin her around before pulling her close. A smacked out hipster tosses his shirt aside and with an enlightened smile, big enough to swallow you whole, sweats until his skin is golden and, like a snake, writhes and dances continually upward for the enchanters and their hypnotized crowd. It’s daylight here. People a street over have no idea that smiles are radiating sunshine and warmth here on Frenchmen. The band and these people have come together to perform and to dance and to pound out, with their feet and the deep breaths exhaled into the brass, a street corner’s worth of heaven.

 

Standard
Food, Non-Fiction, Travel

Ignatius Eatery & Grocery ► Magazine Street

Ignatius is the perfect stop after wandering forty-five minutes from our hotel. There are rows of wooden tables and chairs on each side of the room with one row of tables in between. The walls and shelves are also made of wood and they stock various items: boxes of rice and spices, tubs of Creole mustard, glass bottled Coca-Cola and Sprite, chips, etc.

Our waitress brings us four little glasses, a pitcher of water, and slices of French bread in a paper bag. I order a Coke, which will be served in a glass bottle with a straw. I think of old school soda fountains and Where the Red Fern Grows as I sip at the sweet bubbly drink with a tourist’s romanticism that can make even Coke feel new. I look at the chalkboards, which have the daily specials and B.Y.O.B. written on them. We order.

Joy and I, who will later be dubbed Meal Buddies for consistently ordering the same entrees, get seafood stuffed peppers. I also ask for an alligator sausage appetizer, and Michael and Whitney order red beans and rice. The alligator sausage comes first, and I am particularly excited. I have wanted to try alligator meat since I saw it advertized at our local Catfish Cabin on North Highland, but now I am happy that I waited (in part because no one wanted to risk trying the Catfish Cabin’s seafood with me) to try this dish in New Orleans.

The ‘gater is served with slaw and a side of Creole mustard, which is sharp and spicy and makes my mouth water. The sausage is textured, colored, and almost tastes like pork. I take an oval piece, diagonally sliced, with my fork and dip it into the mustard—sweet, salty, and richly, yet perfectly, spiced. My fellow diners are backlit by the large front windows that extend slightly onto the corner of a sidewall, and I watch people bicycle, walk, and stand outside. Across the street there is a Vietnamese restaurant with patrons overflowing onto the patio, but the warm breeze comes in through Ignatius’ open door, and we are satisfied, as our entrees arrive, with our choice. Seafood stuffed in a green pepper, breaded and covered in a shredded cheese, with potatoes and corn on the sides. My first bite into the seafood stuffing reminds me of a crab cakes, but the round bites of crawfish juicily correct this mistake. The potatoes are perfectly textured and flaky, and when mixed with the stuffing creates the perfect juxtaposition of textures and flavors. Juices spill out from the pepper as my knife splits the green flesh.

“Do you think you can get to know any city by way of its food?” I ponder this as I scoop up and balance the pepper, seafood, and corn with my knife and fork. “I think that depends on how diverse a city is.” “Mmhmm.” “When I stayed in LA, I didn’t come across any one food that seemed to define the city for me. There was great Mexican food because of the proximity to the boarder, but there was also incredible Korean food in Koreatown, and Thai and Eastern European.” “Yeah, I think it depends on how much of a city’s identity is tied up into a mono-culture, or plural-culture, I guess.”

“What does that taste like?” “Go ahead, try it.” We share stories about our other travel experiences, past and future. Whitney tells us about the trip she’ll be taking to Italy for her research on Flannery O’Connor. She plans to visit the places O’Connor did, as well as the Keats-Shelley house, where Keats’ life and death masks are on display, and which looks out over the Spanish Steps in Rome. I eat my food slowly and let the flavors fuse in my mouth. I think of how much I am enjoying this slower, more intentional eating and wonder if it’ll be possible to continue this new practice at home. I sip at my Coca-Cola. I eat the corn, the pepper and seafood, and the sausage dipped in Creole mustard. The flavors coalesce on my tongue, smoldering like a light sunburn, not to the point of fever or pain, but like a lazy, lingering sweat.

 

Standard
Food, Non-Fiction, Travel

Mother’s ► Poydras Street

We are excited for our first taste of New Orleans, although there is some reservation about what Whitney, the vegetarian present, will eat. Ultimately it is decided that she will eat around any meat or seafood in her dish. We seat ourselves in the back, where we get a small glimpse of the kitchen. Pictures of Woodrow Wilson hang above a metal table covered in dishes, pots, etc., and a block of butter. We look at the menu and decide on our food, which we order and pay for at the front. Two bowls of crawfish étouffée, a roast beef Po Boy, and bowl of Gumbo.

I take a bite of my étouffée and pull out my notebook to jot down what I can about this meal. “Taking notes there?” Joy asks. I tell her that I am, and that I want to try writing about food while I’m here. She tells me, “If you can’t figure out what the taste is, when you have a hard time naming it, think of associations, what it reminds you of, experiences. It frees you up.”

In that case, étouffée, served with four thickly sliced pieces of airy white bread, is like my grandparents’ house, where I would fill up on bread and gravy at Thanksgiving. Dipping a torn piece of bread into the mixture of crawfish, rice, and a thick sauce filled with spices reminds me of this. It feels wholesome, home-like. The grandfather clock chimes in the dining room and echoes against the wood-paneled walls. A painting of a rose next to a glass of water hangs above a record player that isn’t played anymore. I can smell the house. I can smell my grandparents.

In French, “étouffée” means “smothered.” My lips retain the food as I pull the spoon from my mouth, and the pieces of crawfish, smothered in the onion, pepper, and celery gravy, melt when I bite into them. It’s spice and it’s home and it’s not enough. I’ve finished my bowl, clean.

“I’m surprised the spice isn’t more difficult to bear.” “Me too.” “Maybe there’s a local pot and a tourist pot and they can just tell we’re out-of-towners.” And they probably could when we tried to come in the wrong door; stood in the middle of the restaurant, waiting to be seated; and, with our big, eager eyes, looked at the brick walls, nodding with approval as we examined and accepted this place as a genuine local find.

Michael eats all of his Po Boy, surprising, considering the size and the amount of roast beef that falls from the bread of both sandwiches. Joy, too, finishes her bowl of étouffée. And Whitney eats clean around the meat, which she deems a mystery, and which I, picking it up with my fork, deem oyster.

 

Standard