Mile 2,230: A few words about New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS  ”This is a city who has cried until she could cry no more…”

Actually, no, I’m in no position to make declarative statements about New Orleans. You simply haven’t earned the right after 36 hours. 

What little I knew about the Crescent City, the Zatarainized version of French Quarter trombonists discharging eighth notes-on-fire, was replaced by CNN’s. The version with wailing. Then, probably for sympathetic reasons, I became obsessed with everything New Orleans. I began listening to Zydeco, I bought books about Katrina, I spent the six requisite hours making my first pot of gumbo, and like everyone on Super Bowl Sunday, cheered on the Saints.

It wasn’t until I stood on Claiborne Avenue in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward that I understood. There were several others obviously not from the area, snapping pictures. Something about this felt tacky, if not downright unsettling, until I saw the camera clutched in my hands too. Tackiness became guilt. Guilty that we were visitors on a poverty tour. We were addicted to disaster porn, that is, deriving voyeuristic pleasure from the tragedy of others. 

After being shown around town by local friends, I can say this with certainty: New Orleans doesn’t want your sympathy. It doesn’t need pretentious out-of-town writers making grand statements about the city’s soul.

What it needs is you dragging your ass down here, eating gumbo, drinking Abita, buying tchotchkes, doing all the touristy stuff and spending your cash. Do this and you can take all the pictures you want. 

I feel no need to describe every detail about food in New Orleans. Maybe it’s because the part of my brain that interprets taste has been on sensory overload, rendered into a mush of Southern hash. Besides, read the stuff by the Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson, who we were lucky enough to dine with Friday night. He does it better.

All that needs to be said is that every meal was fabulous and made me very, very happy. At Domilise’s, an off-the-menu Po’Boy of fried shrimp, Swiss cheese and roast beef gravy was sloppy and sensational. At Willie Mae’s, fried chicken with a Cracker Jack surprise: hot chicken juices exploding like a Shanghai soup dumpling. And a chicken-fried pork chop with batter as thick as a winter’s glove, the best thing I tasted this trip. Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, swarming with tourist but entirely justified. At Pascal’s Manale, “Uptown T” shucked Gulf Coast oysters with equal parts panache and humor. At Patois in Uptown, New American dining via Southern techniques (the headcheese was extraordinary). At Liuzza’s by the Track, a garlic-butter fried shrimp Po’Boy, and a remarkable gumbo.

Pralines, Hubig’s pies, Zapp’s Tabasco tomato-flavored potato chips, Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, Cajun Power garlic sauce. I could go on. New Orleans is not a city to be enjoyed in 36 hours. And yet, I enjoyed it more than any other American city. Come down, spend cash, never feel sorry.

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