Rich food, strong drink and late, late nights along Bourbon Street are enough to drive any poor boy to ruin.
05.10.2008 - 10.10.2008
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There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one
New Orleans will kill you.
Anne Rice would have you believe that it is because of all the ghosts, witches and vampires ready to snatch you from the street, but that’s not what will kill you.
No, it will be a combination of clogged arteries from the rich food, sclerosis of the liver from all the strong alcoholic drinks on offer and exhaustion from lack of sleep.
In fact, given the amount of deep fried and heavily sauced food on offer, I would be surprised if Ms. Rice’s creations Louis, Lestat and Claudia would be able to suck any blood out of what must be thin streams of blood trying to pump helplessly through the residents’ cholesterol lined vessels.
This is my third entry on New Orleans. The first one dealt with the history and architecture of the city. The second entry was on Katrina’s impact and the rebuilding efforts. This entry is about what you can eat, what you can drink and where you can party in New Orleans.
It is probably a little known fact that New Orleans boasts a very large medical research community. The New Orleans Medical District, anchored by researching and teaching programs from Tulane University and Louisiana State University covers a 40 block area close to the Central Business District.
Why is New Orleans such a hotbed of medical research, you might ask? Here is how the tour guide on my Katrina tour explained it.
“We like to eat, drink and stay out late having fun here in New Orleans. It’s a hard lifestyle and we die young, so if you can make improvements to the health of New Orleans citizens, it’ll work anywhere,” she said, with a touch of a wink in her voice. Myself and the rest of the tour participants laughed, though the laughter became a little more strained and nervous after the tour guide also added seriously that as one of the biggest areas of oil refining in the United States, folks along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans also suffer some of the highest cancer rates in the USA.
Setting aside that rather depressing news, let us concentrate on the ways to die that are much more fun - those being food, drink and partying.
The poor (in terms of health) but rich (in terms of calories and sweetness) diet starts early, as both local and tourists make their way to Cafe Du Monde on Decatur Street.
Dating back to 1862, Cafe Du Monde is famous for its cafe au lait and Beignets. A beignet is a deep fried pastry covered with powered sugar. The beignets are served threes, and as a solo traveller I was forced to eat all three myself.
Actually, forced probably isn’t really the right word there. Hot beignets covered in sugar are not hard to eat at all. In fact, they go down a bit too easy. They somehow manage to be both gooey and fluffy on the inside at the same time with a buttery without being greasy crust.
Cafe Du Monde is also famous for its coffee mixed with chicory, so much so that I had requests to bring back cans of the coffee for friends and family. Personally, trying to choke down the cafe au lait just reminded me why I never drink coffee, I hate the stuff. If you are the sort of person that likes coffee, though, apparently cutting it with chicory, originally a move implemented during a naval blockade during the civil war to preserve the rare coffee that could be sourced by serving customers less coffee beans in their cups, gives the coffee “mellow caramel undertones and smooth texture,” according to Ian McNulty at French Quarter Dining.
So a hit on the doughnuts, a miss on the coffee, but one more thing puts Cafe Du Monde in the plus column - location. It is right at the end of a French Market, just across the street from Jackson Square. With a covered patio, it is a nice place to relax and watch tourists and locals stream by as the artists, fortune tellers and human statues set up for the day on the sidewalks surrounding the square.
Those human statues confuse me. I don’t understand why someone would think that painting their face grey, wearing grey clothes and standing still is a skill that should be rewarded with some of my loose change.
Luckily New Orleans is a good city for walking, so you can spend a few hours wandering around the city working off the beignets before settling in for lunch.
Lunch options are numerous, wonderful, often deep fried and about as healthy as the deep-fried doughy breakfast.
In 1929, New Orleans’ streetcar drivers went on strike. Sympathetic to their cause, restauranteurs Clovis and Benjamin Martin created an inexpensive sandwich to serve the striking workers. They put roast beef and gravy on a piece of French bread, and served them out the back of the restaurant to the streetcar drivers. When one of them would approach the back door, the kitchen workers would call for a sandwich by saying, “here comes another poor boy!” Soon enough, the sandwiches gained the nickname po’ boys.
Today, many places serve po’ boys with all sorts of fillings, the most popular now being fried seafood po’ boys. They come dressed with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo with a pickle spear, or sometimes with slice pickles on the sandwich.
If the po’ boy isn’t enough for you, head over to the Central Grocery. In 1906 the grocery’s Sicilian owner started serving the sandwiches with capicola, salami, mortadella, emmenthal, and provolone on a muffuletta bread, which gave the sandwich its name. A “full” sandwich is made with the entire loaf of bread. I got a half muffuletta (the smallest serving size at Central Grocery), and found it hard to complete.
After lunch and another long walk (admittedly a somewhat slow walk while clutching a distended stomach), an afternoon cocktail is called for.
One day I headed over to the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.
As you can see form the picture, the Carousel Bar looks like a merry-go-round. More than that, though, it also rotates slowly, doing a full cycle in about 15 minutes. I pulled up a stool and while I moved slowly to my right, I ordered a Sazerac.
In the 1830s, Antoine Amadie Peychaud, a New Orleans pharmacist started dispensing a combination of cognac and bitters in an egg cup, known in French as a “coquetier.” It is a corruption of that word that gave the world the name cocktail, and as such the Sazerac is considered the first cocktail.
Over the years the recipes for the Sazerac have changed, and nowadays Rye Whisky has replaced Cognac as the base. So famous is the cocktail that on June 23, 2008, The Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed the Sazerac as New Orleans' official cocktail.
The Sazerac is a good sipping cocktail, with nice scent and a balance of heat and sweetness.
Another afternoon drink option can be found at Pat O’Briens. Pat O’Briens bar was opened in 1933 on St. Peter Street, and was successful enough, even during prohibition, to move to a larger space in 1942. The current location has multiple bars, including a large outdoor patio replete with a fountain that shots flames.
Due to rationing in the 1940s due to the war, scotch and whiskey were hard to come by, however rum from the Caribbean was plentiful. To obtain the valuable whiskey bottles, bar owners were forced by liquor companies to purchase many cases of rum.
In an attempt to sell some of the massive stocks of rum now on hand, Pat O’Brien started experimenting with potential drinks to drive sales. They eventually came across a successful recipe of rum, lime juice and passion fruit syrup that was served over ice in a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. The shape of the glass ended up giving the drink its name.
When complete, you can keep the glass for an extra 3 dollars, if you so choose, as a memento of your drinking. Personally, I drink to forget, not to remember, so I passed on the glass.
Pat O’Briens is a busy place chock-o-block full of tourists, so for something a little quieter, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.
As I stated in a previous entry, the building dates back the early 1700s, and rumour has it that it was used by pirate Jean Lafitte as a place to fence his plundered goods. With all the shutters thrown open the bar gets a nice breeze blowing through, and as it is down at the quieter end of Bourbon Street, it is blissfully tourist free. Well, other than me. Perhaps just tourist-lite, then.
I tried not too drink too much in the afternoons, as New Orleans definitely ramps it up at night, and I wanted to pace myself. Besides, given what is about to come with dinner, you want your taste buds sharp and your senses keen.
Given that the USA gets 30% of their seafood from the coastal wetlands in Southern Louisiana, it is not surprising that many restaurants in New Orleans feature seafood.
The Brennan family, immigrants from Ireland, first opened a restaurant in New Orleans in 1946. The various members of the family now own 10 restaurants in New Orleans, including the recently opened Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House. Along with a quite extensive collection of bourbons, the Bourbon House features lots of good seafood, including fresh Louisiana oysters on the half shell, and BBQ shrimp.
Fuelled up from dinner, Bourbon Street’s nightly party awaits.
Beginning at Canal Street, the next eight blocks of Bourbon Street (named after the French royalty by the way, not the drink) feature bars with live music, restaurants, strip clubs and souvenir shops.
The Cat’s Meow features nightly karaoke, and to give you the courage to try, three beers for the price of one.
I went to the Cat’s Meow on Sunday night. The New Orleans Saints were playing the Minnesota Vikings in an American Football (NFL) match the next day, and the bar was filled with Minnesota fans who had come in to town for the game.
In honour of the Minnesota fans, who had a very popular quarterback named Warren Moon, I decided to sing Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, replacing the words “There is a bad moon on the rise” with “Warren Moon is on the rise.” I am nothing if not clever after three-for-one beers.
I must admit that I didn’t think too much about my song choice, and felt a little guilty singing the lyrics...
I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
...given the recent history of New Orleans. The locals seem to took it all in stride, though, and I get some compliments on my rendering of the song.
One of the great thing about New Orleans is that there are no laws against consuming alcohol in public, as long as it isn’t in a glass container. Every bar provides you with plastic cups to carry your drink with you when you are ready to leave, and sometimes if you order a special drink, you get a special plastic container. One of those special drinks is the hand grenade.
Created specifically to compete with the Hurricane on the strength scale, the Hand Grenade comes with 5 ounces of alcohol, making it the “most powerful drink” in New Orleans, as the Hurricane only has 4 ounces of alcohol. The 5 ounces of booze is mixed with a secret mix, and is served at the Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street.
I was just going to take a picture of the glass with the sign in the background, but as I was about to a drunk guy came along and said, “no, no, let me take the picture of you.” He grabbed my camera before I could object, and started to aim the camera. I decided to go with it, and posed.
“Try and get the sign in the background,” I said.
He smiled and nodded, and then proceed to sway back and forth as he tried to frame the photo. “The camera seems to be having trouble focusing,” he slurred, and I wanted to reply that perhaps he was the one having trouble focusing, but held my tongue. Despite the swaying, the photo actually turned out okay.
Not so for the drink. The Hand Grenade may be powerful, but it is really bad. To overcome the alcohol taste, the drink is powerfully sweet. I could only drink half of the drink before wanting to wretch from the sweetness, so I poured the rest down the sink. That’s also the first time I saw the colour of the drink, which previously had been hidden by the retroactive green container. Turns out the drink is a day-glo yellow-green, a colour I have never seen in nature, and frankly rarely on anything other than Ocean Pacific hats from the 1980s.
The best thing about Bourbon Street, though, is the choice of music. Many bars have live music, including jazz, zydeco, blues, country and rock. There are lots of choices. On Sunday night, after the karaoke, I wound up listening to a band at the Krazy Korner, and recorded them playing the last verse of Take It Easy (originally by The Eagles).
And that’s really the best advice for New Orleans, especially if you are spending multiple days there. There is tons of great food, drink and nightlife, but take it easy. You don’t want to burn out too quickly.