Monday, January 07, 2008

It was still dark when I finally opened my eyes the next morning. Or at least I thought it was. Then I saw a beam of light shooting in through a chink in the curtains. I stumbled drowsily over to the drapes and pulled them aside to be greeted by bright sunshine and, even more worrying, the sight of Chris McMillan pulling up to the kerb outside the hotel in a large Lincoln Town car.

In a panic, I phoned reception and asked them to have him wait for five minutes, threw myself under the shower and was downstairs quicker than you could say “Bourbon St”

Chris had promised me a tour of “his” New Orleans today. What could be better than being shown around one of your favourite places on the planet by someone who was born there, raised there and will push up the daisies there?

I need not have worried about Chris becoming impatient, as I ran out of the hotel, he was happily sitting in his car listening to jazz filtering through the speakers of his car, courtesy of WWOZ.

“There was no need to rush” he said giving me a laconic wave. “I’m happy here with my jazz” which, all in all, just about sums up New Orleans attitude to life in general.

I was in a rush, however, and, despite the huge meal of the night before, I was damn hungry.

First thing on the agenda was further proof, if it were needed, of America’s pre-eminence when it comes to stuffing things between bits of bread. We were off to eat a Po-boy.

I had been told by a friend, that his favourite Po-Boy in the city was at The Parkway Bakery which sits overlooking Bayou St John. I mentioned this to Chris and he replied “well now, that boy’s got good taste. That’s where we’re heading” and with that, he nudged the car in to gear and we began a sedate drive away from The Quarter in search of the real New Orleans.

On the way, Chris gave me a bit of a potted history lesson. I didn’t take much of it in, I was too excited about the thought of the sandwich, but, I suspect it was about the Spanish and The French and how they did not like each other very much and about how they all hated The British more. Plus, as they say, ca change.

By the time we arrived at The Parkway Bakery, it was already full but we squeezed ourselves into a space at a small table and Chris went to order. As with all American sandwiches, you have to be very specific and Chris, of course, was a master. For him, one laden down with fried oysters and, for me, being of the “oysters make me throw up blood” persuasion, one with white fish and shrimp. All dressed to the nines as they should be.

It is hard to describe how good these tasted. I am certain that the context of eating a food in the place of its creation adds to the taste, but these were the best I have ever tried. The shrimp were crunchy on the outside and, when I broke through the coating, the flesh was sweet and firm. The dressing was sharp and cut through the richness of the seafood and the bread gave the appropriate stodge. It is as close to perfect as a sarnie can get.

The same can’t be said for the root beer. The bottle of Bargs Chris brought back with him carried the order “drink it, it’s good” which should have the owners dragged up before The Advertising Standards Council. It is not good. It is vile. It tastes like Germolene mixed with Deep Heat. Why in fuck’s name would anyone want to drink it? Not me, I pushed my bottle away from me after the first sip in disgust. Chris was obviously made of sterner stuff and downed his bottle in one gulp.

It didn’t take us long to polish off our sandwiches, crinkle up the wrapping and throw them in the recycling receptacle at the end of the counter, with a rather splendid hook shot, I might be so bold as to add.

We waddled back out to the car and Chris turned to me and said “now I am going to show you what really happened”

With that, we strapped ourselves in and Chris pointed the car in the direction of Lake Pontchartrain. For the next hour or so, we said very little to each other. There is little that can be said when faced with the remaining effects of such devastation. As we drove through what had once been a prosperous predominantly white neighbourhood, Chris pointed out that Katrina had been an equal opportunity destroyer. While the 9th Ward was in his words “ the poster boy” for the storm and undeniably took the brunt of the storm, it still did untold damage to other neighbourhoods which received far less coverage and were never mentioned by Spike Lee in his moving but flawed documentary “ When The Levee Breaks”

Chris was bitter. He was bitter about the way the local government handled the evacuation, he was bitter about the way the federal government handled the aftermath and he was furious about the way that they had both mismanaged the rebuilding of the city. Huge tracts lay empty, entire neighbourhoods are gone for good as people left and never came back. The city, he though, had the chance to do something really special. To rebuild a true 21st Century City. Instead, he thinks, they have looked to do the bare minimum to cover their backs. Once again, New Orleans has been left to fend for itself.

But, if anything, New Orleans and its people are resilient and have the capacity to find something to be happy about in any situation. As we drove, the Jazz stylings on WWOZ proved to be a perfect soundtrack and Chris gave me a perfect example of how the city is evolving to meet its new circumstances. A lot of the young people who prove to be the driving force of NOLA’s extra-ordinary music scene, left the city and many have not returned. It had a big effect on the club scene there until the vacuum began to be filled with new bands playing a fusion of jazz merged with Hispanic music, the music of the workers who had headed to the city to help with reconstruction.

As if to prove the point a local band were in the studio playing a session. They were made up of two white guys, two black and two Hispanic. The sounds they produced were defiant and joyous another perfect way to describe New Orleans, which displays these qualities in abundance, whatever nature and the negligence of its government try to do to it.

Enough of this though. My trip was about NOLA here and now and about food. Chris wanted to take me for another sandwich. A Muffuletta.

If the Po’ Boy was derived from the African American legacy of the city, The Muffuletta is Italian through and through. A challenging mix of Italian bread stuffed with two types of meat, two types of cheese and a dressing made of olives and pickles. It is huge and a “half” would be enough for two people easily. So, we ordered a whole one.

Although other places do them, The Central Grocery is the only place to get the real deal. This is, after all where they originated, in the back of this cramped treasure trove of oils, vinegars and all things Italian.

It is, as all good sandwiches should be, incredibly messy to eat. The dressing falls out and the oil ,which has not seeped into the bread begins to drip from your chin until it forms a pleasing puddle on the table. Despite the undignified manner of its eating, it is, as you would imagine from the description not bad at all. The ham and cheese are not the sort of things you would write home about on their own and the olives are not top notch, but they combine to a welcome amalgam that makes you eat far more than you planned or indeed thought you could.

After our second sarnie, Chris took me on a stroll around The Quarter. First to a gallery owner by a friend of his where I was allowed to see the original prints from Bellocq, the biographer of Storyville and then to another stalwart of The Quarter, Tujaques where we chugged down a last beer before Chris had to head off to man the bar.

It had been a day I wont forget in a hurry. The food, of course, was tremendous, but it was Chris’s take on the history of the city, both past and modern, and that trip around the lake, that really stuck with me. It made me certain that, of all the places I visited in the US, this would be the one that would be marked down for another visit a soon as I possibly could.

Chris headed off to work and I headed off to do some writing and to figure out my supper.

When I was in Austin, my new chums, the King’s insisted that I try a small place in The Garden District which had provided a great meal on one of their previous visits. They were people of impeccable tastes so, who was I to argue? That is how I spent my last night in New Orleans sitting next to the owner of Upperline.

First though, I felt the need for another Sazerac. Chris had suggested that I try The Column Hotel. He warned me that the drinks were only “OK” but that it was worth visiting as the hotel, the home of a former tobacco magnate, was an incredible building that had been used as the set for the controversial film, Pretty Baby.

Well, he was right on one count, the hotel was worth a visit for the building. He was wrong on the other count, the drinks were not “OK” they were bad. Easily the worst I had in the city. I left most of my Sazerac and headed out for supper at Upperline.

For the previous twenty-five years, Joanne Clevenger has been running this small neighbourhood joint and, the moment you arrive you feel like you are about to have supper in the drawing room of an old friend. I sat alone at a small table and, as I looked at the menu, she came and sat with me and talked about all her favourite restaurants in the world including my own, London’s own, St John.

The room was quite empty so, until more people began to arrive, she was happy to sit with me as I ate the hearty food, which reminded me of how good old school dishes can be when they are done well and with no scrimping on ingredients. Fried green tomatoes with remoulade, roasted duck with port sauce all followed by profiteroles. It was hardly cutting edge, but the better for that. I could not have been happier.

After supper, they called a cab for me. On my last night, I decided I had to brave Bourbon St. I had them drop me off and began to walk its length.

It was as vile as I recalled if less populated because of the season and Katrina. Men stared into the windows of titty bars, bands played for pennies and the stench of vomit filled the air even at a relatively early hour. I had more than my fill after about ten minutes and ducked out onto one of the side streets.

That was better. An impromptu parade was taking place. Music played and people danced as the crowd grew. I asked a young woman in a flowing Summer dress why they were marching

“because, we are still here darlin’ and because we can”

Who was I to argue?

I never dance. There have been to many people who have requested that I don’t. But, here, at this moment in this time and with this music and this energy, I could not help myself.

So, I danced, and I danced, not caring how ridiculous my flailing was, until way into the early hours. I didn’t give a flying damn how stupid I looked. Which, of course, I did.

That is New Orleans for you.

One Hell of a city.

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