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18 March 2010

When the Saints Go Marching In

What a beautiful week it has been, weatherwise and otherwise. And, we experienced the most captivating (literally) St Patrick's Day parade ever. In the Garden District of New Orleans on Saturday, it started with a Mass at St Mary's Assumption and then, Micks and Wannabes (I can say that because I'm a "Mick") in morning coats and floats as outrageous as those for Mardi Gras started from Jackson & Magazine and walked in a square down St Charles and back up Magazine to end at Jackson & Magazine, effectively boxing in any car which happened to be within those couple of square miles of blocks for hours.

Brenda had let the cat out of the bag in her e-message to our loyal followers, about our taking the City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans. I don't like to talk about where and when we plan to be away from home until after we have returned and of course, you know that he-who-shall-not-be-named just doesn't like the attention. There is a website which had been tut-tutting the constant updating of one's whereabouts. I agree with the espoused concept that the wrong people can end up knowing where you are and where you are not when you "overshare."

Tony & Beth Fiorini's visit coincided and excitedly, they got in touch. We spent most of Saturday night sending text messages to each other. Rather, Larry's phone kept beeping the "you got mail" beep and he kept handing it over to me to do something. I swear, "texting" is going to ruin language as we know it, simply because it takes too darn long to find letters (let's not talk about capital letters) and punctuation, and to write out, "Music is just so-so here and anyhow, by the time you arrive, the set will be over, so don't come here. Where are you now?" The message gets reduced to "no where r u." I figured, though, that in this case "texting" was the best means of communications, so as not to disturb the music audiences and still be "heard."
That night, Larry and I wandered a block of Frenchmen Street, from Cafe Negril to d.b.a. to Apple Barrel (after not being sold out of the 8pm at Snug Harbor and deciding against trying to see Jeremy Davenport at the Ritz Carlton in the eponymous Lounge) taking in plenty of interesting music, including Yardwork from Charlotte, North Carolina, whose "awesome" first-time visit to NOLA afforded a first-time experience of two drum sets and a trombone in a very loud rock-n-roll band; a folk singer Beth Patterson with unusual acoustic guitarwork; a group from Athens, Georgia, reminiscent of Iris Dement (with such an array of instruments -- like a saw played with a bow! -- so many choices that it seemed musicians changed instruments with every song and still sung one a capella); and a traditional New Orleans jazz group (I think) called The Hip-Swingers.

We had arranged to meet friends in NOLA, the Pierces, she being a native New Orleanian and they having met while at college -- he at Tulane and she at Loyola. They are long-time friends of Larry, neighbors in Park Forest, Illinois, fellow members of the "Film Society," borrowing 20mm films and a projector from the public library to screen and discuss in-home over (many) drinks and dinner. They now live in Austin, TX, from whence they traveled to the City by car. Her sister and family live in the area and throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, but the Pierces' own children and grandchildren are all in Austin. We toured a bit of the City affected by the backbite of the 2005 hurricane (as you might recall, the famed French Quarter and the Garden District were not really affected). Most of the signs of devastation are largely removed, like rubble and watermarks, but rebuilding has been slow. There are still many boarded up or heavily damaged buildings and vacant lots.

I was saddened to see the fearful cocoon-like response of some communities. High walls with gates to close against any future floods obstructed the views of Lake Pontchartrain in Lake Vista. The Army Corps of Engineers whose design of the levees came under investigation following Katrina continues to apply "solutions" in the form of pumps and walls and levees and ditches. I wondered if that claustrophobic feeling of security in the shadow of fortifications against a threat that appears more "when" than "if" could be akin to the daily tension of ancient residents living on the southern side of China's Great Wall or within the confines surrounding the Saludin Citadel of Cairo.

The primary impetus for visiting New Orleans for the first time since Katrina was my reading an advanced copy of a new book by Tom Fitzmorris. He is a restaurant critic whose primary medium was the radio. And, we're not talking about a weekly 15-minute review on a new restaurant. He had a daily four-hour show about food and restaurants and restaurateurs. Streetdate for this was 1 March 2010, but it is still backordered at our wholesaler. Be sure to reserve a copy if you are into learning about the history of restaurants in NOLA before (around the 1970s?) through 2008-9.

We did have brunch at Commander's Palace (not open at the time of Fitzmorris's final draft, but is going strong now), which was wonderful. We had a table at a window overlooking the courtyard, but not on the second floor of the main building. It was, rather, in another building, accessed by walking through the kitchen! Delightful! (I noticed there's also a table in the patron's kitchen.) I thought it might be an old coachhouse or slave quarters, but our friends thought it likely simply to be a neighboring house later appropriated by the expanding restaurant. When we left 2 hours later, the main dining room's jazz band was playing for the kitchen.

I had an appetizer of three fried oysters with artichokes sitting atop a lovely green sauce (have to have my veggies). Larry & I both had local fish in Commander's Palace signature styles (I had the pecan-encrusted blackjack and he had the black skillet seared speckled trout). And, I had an appetizer for dessert -- fresh strawberries, candied mangos, pineapples, etc with a dollop of Creole cream cheese, which Fitzmorris lamented as a disappearing local breakfast staple being revitalized as a high-priced delicacy.

Another great eats is Deanie's Seafood in Bucktown (in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin of Metairie, Louisiana) -- just a family restaurant specializing in fried seafood. We went there to have boiled crawfish (which our native New Orleanian was not going to leave NOLA without having some), although they were very small, now being very early in the crawfish season, as well sublime Gulf oysters on the half shell. When we sat down, the waitress came, saw that we had drinks from the bar and said, "I'll bring your potatoes." ??? We thought we had heard incorrectly, but lo and behold, she brought a bowl of small red potatoes with individual butter servings. So, we dug in and discovered the schtick. Those potatoes were hot as in spicy! They had been boiled in the liquid mixture used in boiling crawfish.

I share an article in the Chicago Tribune today with a concept which Books on First has been extolling and working to follow since Day Negative 1000: Making a Bookstore a Great Place to Visit. This had already been studied and given attention in Ray Oldenburg's classic sociological presentation, The Great Good Place (followed by Celebrating the Third Place).

I promise (or threaten) more on New Orleans another time.

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