New Orleans has always felt like home to me. Other cities have made me feel at home--no question--like my beloved Hotlanta. Just being in Atlanta gives me such a charge of positive energy (and it's not just the excess of sugar in the sweet tea!). Home of Hip-Hop, the Dirty South is probably the place where I have spent the happiest moments of my life. But Nawlins...she just keeps finding ways of bringing me back again and again and again, and, oh yes, again.
Anyone else need a cigarette???
Walking the streets of "Vieux Carre," literally, "Old Square" in French, is as familiar as the back of my hand. I really can't explain it. I just know where I am. I can walk from the lower Garden District all the way to Jackson Square in the same way a lost dog finds its way home. The French Quarter is infamous for Bourbon Street, of course, but it has amazing architecture and a truly unique history that goes well beyond Mardi Gras beads being thrown down from its balconies. My picture was taken a few days ago in Vieux Carre at the first "Reveillon" of the season. A smattering of restaurants in Nawlins still serve this traditional four-course Creole Christmas meal during the month of December. And, it is truly awesome!
The word "reveillon" means "awakening." A Reveillon was typically served after midnight-mass on Christmas Eve. I always serve one--though I'm neither French nor Creole, nor did I grow up anywhere near Nawlins. This year, my menu includes grilled pear on field greens topped with caramelized pecans and a maple-balsamic vinaigrette for the first course; second course is my home-made mac-n-cheese topped with herbed sourdough croutons; third is fresh buttermilk waffles and chicken fritters served with spicy red-jambalaya; the fourth and final course is Bouche de Noel, a chocolate cake shaped like a log from a Christmas tree decorated with marzipan mushrooms, flowers and chocolate ganache bark. I'll also have a "tree" of multi-colored Parisian-macarons--a common fixture of many a Reveillon. I'm really excited to create the feast in a few weeks. Especially after having had a traditional Reveillon in the city where it all began....
Whenever Nawlins brings me back, the first thing I do is head to my favorite spot for Zydeco. More Creole-tradition! It's a unique music-style that incorporates instruments like a fiddle, guitar, drums, accordion, even a "vest frottoir," a kind of washboard made of corrugated steel, worn over the shoulders and chest of the musician. This lovely older couple is always there, dancing a two-step and getting everyone out of their seats to join in. Every year I go, the band leader never fails to ask me the same question, "Hey 'der, you doin' good! Wha' happen t'you?"
He's referring to my leg. I can't exactly float around the dance floor but I do love to dance, especially to live Zydeco, and I usually catch the eye of the band leader and, of course, the man behind the fiddle (we've had a thing for years and years and he always smiles big when I unexpectedly show up at my usual table).
George Rodrigue's "Blue Dog" looks on approvingly as I explain why I walk with a limp:
"Why, y'all know I'm the loup garou who chewed off her own paw to be free...."
That always gets a laugh. I throw some money in the tip jar and the music starts back up. In the meantime, brioche bread pudding absolutely drowning in vanilla-maple sauce is brought to my table. I never can fit more than three bites in, but man, is it a delectable three bites.
This year was a particularly fun time because I was there along with the Carolina Panthers. The guys are all so nice, many of whom brought their families. The kids loved to "help" me with the elevator and getting to my room while at our hotel, and yes, there was even a little pre-game chat with the head coach on Sunday morning--not that it helped. Saints still took the day with their home-field advantage.
New Orleans is so much more than a city...she actually breathes. I feel her in the rows of the ancient cemeteries lined with lichen-dotted mausoleums. Hear her in the rustling of dried magnolia leaves along her brick-laden sidewalks. See her in the street art that abounds on buildings in the vibrant Garden District, where a shotgun is a house, not a weapon. Smell her as I stroll beneath thousand-year old oaks in City Park with outstretched branches hanging low with Spanish moss. Touch her in a secret courtyard hidden behind tall gates in the French Quarter, the fountain of youth tucked amidst lemon trees and flowering vines of all varieties. Christ's shadow rises up on St. Louis Basilica at night amidst the revelry of Bourbon Street, as jazz from Fritzel's floats in and around my eardrum like a lullaby, and tourists walk with cups spilling over with alcohol, their gaudy Mardi Gras beads in metallic purples, golds and greens catching the light as they avoid the homeless man singing for a few coins near the market on the corner of Dauphine and Toulouse.
Laissez les bon temps rouler....
Helping New Orleans celebrate her 300th birthday was a real honor and true pleasure. As always, I am humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity and look forward to returning again. I never know when the-city-with-a-soul will call me back home, but she always does.
And, I shall always answer.
*All photos are Copyright Rebecca Housel 2017