Saturday, November 26, 2011

New Orleans vacation days 7: Old times

Our last two days in New Orleans were all about the Tulane University ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) 20 year class reunion.

To get to the University, we traveled by street car.  NOLA has a pretty nice street car (not "trolley" I was told) system that was cheap and easy to use.  Clang, clang, clang ...



Ding, ding, ding...

There was a short alumni association meeting and then social hour, where I got to meet all of Drew's buddies and most of their spouses.  I won't name any names here, for privacy sake, but suffice it to say each one of the classmates was a quality individual plus lot of fun to hang around.




This was Tulane Homecoming, so we went over to the Quad to hear some music and watch the pep rally.

Then, of course, we had to eat.
 I'm not sure how we picked O'Henry's, but the food wasn't spectacular and we had to sit outside, which was chilly.  Still, it was nice to get to know everybody more and Kevin treated us all, so yippee for O'Henry's and yay for Kevin!

To relive old times, the gang headed to Cooter Brown's again to close out the evening.

Cooter Brown's seemed like typical college bar except on two accounts. 1) they had a Huge selection of beer, including Drew's all time favorite Rouge Brewery Chocolate Stout, which we have never found in a pub (or very seldom a liquor store for that matter) outside of Oregon, and 2) these cool carved wooden celebrity caricatures around the room.


We had to retire relatively early, because, let's face it, we're not in college anymore. Plus we needed to save some steam for the next day's tailgate party.

New Orleans vacation day 6: Day 5 repeat

Day 6: Digger meets Doughnuts, again!

Day 6 of our New Orleans vacation started out slow because we were still toxic from the previous night's binge on high octane wine and higher octane Cajun food. 

We decided to walk to Lafayette Cemetery #1, the real cemetery #1 this time.  This one is located in a much nicer area of the Garden District, among beautiful old mansions. 


Lafayette Cemetery #1 is Much more well cared for than #2 & #3 that we visited on day 5.  This cemetery comes complete with trees and tourists roaming about. 

The graves were pretty much all intact, and we saw no headless pigeons.  The graveyard was established in 1833, but the oldest grave we saw was laid in 1849. 
 Many of the graves had interesting iron work.  I think it was wrought iron, as opposed to the later invention of cast iron.

After our relatively boring cemetery wander, we continued to stretch our legs on the way back to the hotel.  Drew was hungry, so he ate at Subway. Of all places to eat in our country's good food capital!

We had a leisurely and relaxing day until it was time to meet up with John and Marie again for dinner at the Crescent City Brew Pub. We were joined by Kevin, Drew's ROTC instructor from Tulane.  Continuing the adventures in eating, I had my first oysters on the half shell.


Because of our family tradition of oyster stew on Christmas Eve, I was expecting a smelly ordeal.  What I got instead were slimy, nearly tasteless and odorless, soft bits loaded with horseradish cocktail sauce.  Not bad at all, really, once you know what to expect.  

And since we were already in the French Quarter, what would it hurt to visit Cafe du Monde again?  An excellent idea.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New Orleans vacation day 5: Digger meets Doughnuts

Day 5 of our New Orleans vacation started with a beautiful sunrise

before we headed down to the Lucky Ladle on Magazine Street for a great breakfast.  The joint also had some modern art that I really liked on display.

Lafayette Cemetery #2 & #3, or "Creepytown"

Maybe we shouldn't have had full tummies for our next stop: the graveyard!  It was creepy.  I navigated us to what I thought was Lafayette Cemetery #1, but when we got there, the sign said Lafayette Cemetery #2 & #3.  Oh well, a cemetery is a cemetery, right? Wrong.

The cemetery was in a bad part of town and it didn't look like anyone took care of the place.  Many of the monuments were broken, like this one.

One of many broken grave markers. It is fitting that in the background of this picture is an abandoned apartment building with the windows broken out. 

One of the interesting things about these cemeteries is that one grave site has multiple people, usually family members, buried in one vault.  That seems strange to me, being from the West, where each person gets his or her own plot of earth.  Is it because we have more space here?  The other thing, of course, is that the bodies are above ground.  It is just too wet to dig a 6 foot grave.  Personally, I would rather be cremated than rot above ground, but perhaps that is my ethnocentric Midwestern upbringing talking.

Some of the monuments looked to have one day belonged to a wealthy family, but no one is looking after their dead relatives now.  This pitched roof tomb was grand,
but the sandstone plaque containing all the writings of who was inside was now worn through. And a mini dune of sand and broken statuettes was all that was left of the words.


These "society tombs" were interesting.

 A society tomb.

According to NOLAcemeteries.com, society tombs are pretty much like mausoleums but all the people buried there belong to a society or organization.  We saw society tombs for firefighters, policemen, and orphanages.  Again, each vault has multiple names on it because after a respectable time, the remains of a burial were pushed to the back where construction of the vault allowed the bones to fall to a receptacle below; the space was then ready for another recipient! Trees and vines were taking over many of the graves, and trash was littered about.
Drew was getting a little creeped out by this time.  I don't know if it was because the place was creepy, or because I was so fascinated by all the graves. He called me "Digger" for the rest of the trip.  The creepy level went way up when we saw this.


A coping grave with bonus pigeons.

Two fresh, decapitated pigeons on top of a "coping grave".  Probably voodoo.  Time to go!  BTW, a coping grave is an above ground burial. Uncovered empty chambers are framed by stone, brick and plaster. They are filled with earth and are built up to 3 feet from the ground, which allows for burial in the soil. Bodies are entombed repeatedly in one coping. 

We made our escape through the bad neighborhood again, passing this abandoned house that I couldn't drive by without taking a picture.


Check out how the vines are taking over the chimneys.




French Quarter and the best doughnut on the planet

We returned out rental car and set out on foot for the French Quarter to see the sights in daylight this time.

We listened to these street musicians for a while.  Our first and really only jazz.  (Listening to live jazz was the one thing I wanted to do but we never got to.)



Next stop, Cafe du Monde, or more correctly named Doughnut Heaven by me.  Cafe du Monde is a New Orleans icon established in 1862. The Cafe is open 24-7 so tourists and locals can get their chicory coffee (served black or au lait) and beignets. Beignets are now on my top ten food list. They are these little fantastic fry bread/doughnut type of pastries served covered with a mound of powdered sugar.  I describe them a like a rectangular doughnut but the texture is slightly denser and chewier than a doughnut, but not as tough as a fry bread.  Something about the taste is really nice - not oily and fried. 



Anyway, I was in heaven.  Three beignets are served on a plate.  We ordered two plates. Drew only got to eat two.

Got beignets?

It was a chilly, windy day, but we walked around anyway.  Here we are on the levee parallel to Decatur Street with Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral in the background. A statue of general Andrew Jackson on a horse is at the center of the square.


We strolled through the French Market and bought ourselves, what else, a pig figurine.

And then we just walked up and down a few of the streets, looking in shops and taking pictures of all the buildings.  Contrary to what one would think, most of the buildings reflect Spanish architecture, not French as the name implies. The reason is that most of the buildings were built after two big fires in the late 1700s destroyed most of the existing structures.  The area was under Spanish rule at that time, and so the ornate ironwork, bright pastel colors, and galleries (like balconies but supported from the ground) are from Spanish architects.
 







One of my favorite photos from the trip is this bike loaded down with beads.

It was a fun stroll.

The best food in North America

Later that night we met up with Drew's two college roommates for drinks and dinner.  Todd now lives in Salt Lake City (but we hardly ever see him) and John and his wife Marie live in New Orleans.
 At Oak Wine Bar. Very swanky. (I only had my cell phone with me for pictures and accidentally turned on some weird solarize effect.)

Drew, John and Todd got along like old times and got caught up on each others' lives.  

But time for eatin'!  On John's recommendation, we went to Jacques Imo's for Cajun food.
At Jacques Imo's Restaurant.
On our first day in NOLA, a local had also told us it was very good.  "Very good" does not even come close to the absolute food extravaganza we enjoyed.  On a normal night, I would have to say this place would be really excellent, but on the night we were there, we were treated to the best meal I've ever eaten, with the possible exception of the 7-course wedding meal we enjoyed in Italy last year after our friends' wedding.

I believe the treat we had that night was mostly because by total chance, we ran into Dave, a former classmate of Drew, John, and Todd's.  Dave was only in the ROTC program at Tulane for a year or two with them and then moved on to other things, eventually landing as a waiter at Jacques Imo's.  As we were standing at the bar waiting for our table, Dave recognized the guys, whom he had not seen for 22 years, and came over to say hi.  He then took it upon himself to bring out only the restaurant's most fabulous dishes, not letting us order anything off the menu ourselves.  He served it family style, so we all got to try each of the approximately 15 dishes he laid out in front of us.


There was not one of them that was anything less than great, but the alligator cheesecake, beet and Brussels sprouts sauce, garlic butter cornbread muffins, and beef with blue cheese were absolutely out of this world.  How do they make cornbread muffins taste like a bite of joyful love?  The only thing I didn't try was the big prawns with their heads and tails still on (never been a fan of shrimp), and the only dish that wasn't everything Drew cracked it up to be, was the crawfish etouffee (shrimpy - that explains everything).


It was such a fabulous meal, made fun by the new/old friends.  I still have longings for that food, and I expect that I will use my Southwest benefits to fly to New Orleans just to eat there sometime in the next couple of years.  It was that good!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

New Orleans vacation day 4: destruction tour

Mid October can still be pretty hot and muggy in New Orleans, we found out on Day 4.  After three days of gorging, we needed some exercise, so we walked around Audobon Park in the morning before we checked in at the Navy ROTC building on the Tulane University campus.  This whole vacation was planned around Drew's 20-year college reunion, and he had some logistics to discuss with the officers who would be helping put on the tailgate party.  Drew had a bit of nostalgia in his voice when he told me about how the young cadets would do PT in the field house, etc. etc.  I had to hand it to him, he kept the stories interesting and limited the "that wasn't there when I went to school here" bits.

We drove around in his old neighborhood and he pointed out one of the houses he had lived in.  It looked a lot nicer than a place that was robbed 5 times in 1991.
 

We had lunch at One Restaurant because a local had told us it was his favorite place for fine dining in all of NOLA.  We had a gnocchi appetizer and a BLT and smothered chicken with gravy for our entrees.  The food was very good and the service was top notch, but the atmosphere was a bit stuffy for us.

The restaurant was near the Mississippi River, so we walked atop the levee a short distance to give me a feel for the mightiness.



From this elevation, I could really see how breaks in the levees or even just a lot of rain could cause massive flooding.  We would get a closer look at flood destruction that afternoon as we drove through areas that had been severely damaged by the flooding as a result of levee failure after Hurricane Katrina.


Our Katrina tour started by driving the neighborhoods of West End and Lakeview, trying not to gawk rudely in disbelief.  There were so many homes that were either boarded up, abandoned, or just plain missing, it was shocking.  The Storm was six years ago, yet many homes were only now being gutted, raised onto pilings, or in some other state of repair.  Still others had been started, but the repairs had obviously stopped.

There were nice homes mixed in with what looked like bombed out shells of someone's former life. This one brings back the creepy because there is a silhouette of a man in the left hand window.  

To match our sober tour, the hot sunny weather had abruptly turned very windy, cool, and generally poor for a lakeside stroll, so we stopped only briefly on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to experience one 1000th of what this town might have felt with Katrina bearing down on it.  I've never been in the path of a hurricane, but the wind was blowing that day like it wanted to send lake water right up to the top of the levee again.



We continued our tour of flooded areas through Milneburg and finally to the Lower Ninth Ward. Depending on the area, entire blocks of these neighborhoods were now just empty lots with sad concrete steps that used to lead to the front door but now lead to nowhere.

This 1 minute 20 second video gives you a better sense of the destruction and the number of ruined homes.

video
I think if I'd seen these areas a year after the Storm, I would likely have been moved to tears by the enormity of the destruction and how the flooding (and the reasons behind it) had wrecked those neighborhoods.  But now, there are signs of progress. The houses that have been redone look to be generally well cared for.  We talked with a young medical resident at a coffee shop in Lakeview and he told us how young professional couples are moving back to the area.  In fact, we later found out Drew's old roommate just bought a lot a few hundred feet from where the London Canal breached and is going to build a new house there, so surely this must be a good thing for New Orleans.  All the same, the neighborhoods are still fractured, and it seems to be taking a long time to rebuild.


After all that bad scene, we needed a strong drink.  Down to Bourbon Street


for New Orleans' famous drink, the Hand Grenade.


It was a sickly sweet version of a fruity daiquiri served with a plastic hand grenade floating in a plastic cup that of course I wanted to take home.  Drew said it took him 10 years to get rid of all the plastic cups he had accumulated from his time in NOLA. I bet I can hoard these for 15.
We hadn't researched a dinner spot and ended up going into Cafe Maspero, which was only so-so for food and atmosphere.  I  read in my guidebook that this building used to be a slave trading post, so how's that for some atmosphere?  I had my first authentic red beans and rice here.

We retired to our cozy hotel on this blustery night, only to be zapped back into the party scene by a text message from Drew's old roommate, John, and his wife Marie at 10:30 PM.  They were down at Cooter Browns and wanted us to come out and have a drink.  Out came that party animal college boy (actually, since Drew was 36 and well out of college when I met him, I don't really know what party-animal Drew was like, but I have heard stories) and down we went to a college bar to close out Day 4 of our NOLA vacation.