Downtime in the Big Easy, December 16, 2010

The French Quarter is the center of nightlife in New Orleans, especially Bourbon Street, with its wall-to-wall clubs and bars packed every night with party-goers and boozers. But I arrived in the morning, when the streets were sparsely populated and rather quiet, and the bright autumn sun had bleached away any sign of the previous night's debauchery.

What the neon lights block out at night emerges in the light of day. Everywhere I looked, there were lovely streetscapes of 19th-century townhouses fronted by intricate iron balconies thick with vines, potted trees, and hanging plants. Along the side streets, there were many charming cottages painted in bright colors and rich with architectural detail.

I had no particular itinerary that morning, so I simply explored at random. The French Quarter is a rectangle six blocks wide and stretching 13 blocks along the Mississippi River. Bourbon Street runs the length of the Quarter, cutting through the middle. I walked along Bourbon Street and then Royal Street, parallel to Bourbon and filled with art galleries and antiques stores. Next I went to Decatur Street, alongside the river, and stopped at Southern Candymakers. As soon as I entered this sunlit shop, I was hit by a heavy sweet aroma. All sorts of freshly made soft candies were laid out on trays, but I made a beeline for the counter displaying pralines, a New Orleans classic that I'd never tasted. The woman behind the counter offered me a sample, and the combination of butter, cream, sugar, and pecans melted in my mouth, the cloying sweetness a bit overwhelming. I bought just one cookie-sized piece, deciding that the best way to eat it was very slowly.

Big Easy
New Orleans. Photo credit: Virtual Tourist

Still munching on the praline candy, I made my way along Decatur Street toward the center of the Quarter, Jackson Square, a neatly landscaped park that was once the main square of the New Orleans. At one end of the square is a walkway overlooking the river, at the other, St. Louis Cathedral, a Renaissance and Spanish colonial-style structure built in 1850. I continued along Decatur Street, passing the Café du Monde, a French Quarter institution known for its coffee and “beignets,” a traditional New Orleans pastry. Then I reached the French Market. Reputed to be the oldest operating public market in the US, it originated over 200 years ago as a Native American trading post, and was later the place where servants and slaves bought foodstuffs for their masters' households. In spite of its history, however, the market was not very interesting. There was a shopping arcade with a couple of art galleries and tourist souvenir stores, and an open covered space containing a flea market and farmer's market, both of which sold mainly snacks, a few local products (like bottles of hot sauce), and souvenirs.

A little farther on was one of the boundaries of the Quarter, Esplanade Avenue. I walked up this elegant tree-shaded street, admiring the beautiful mansions and townhouses there. Esplanade Avenue was traditionally home to “Creoles of Color,” who were of mixed French, Spanish, African, and sometimes Native American descent. Some Creole families were wealthy, participated in city politics, and educated their children in France. They were never fully accepted into the white elite, but they did command a certain social prestige under French and Spanish rule, in the 18th century, and to a lesser degree in the 19th century, under American rule.

Turning back toward the center of the Quarter, I ended up in an alley behind the cathedral, where I found the Faulkner House Bookstore. This small gem of a shop has floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves filled with first editions and new titles, including a large selection of novels by Faulkner and other Southern writers. I was looking for cookbooks, however, and soon found a couple of volumes on Cajun and Creole cooking published in the 1890s.

After the bookstore, I headed to the nearby Napoleon House for lunch. The restaurant is in a gracefully aged building dating from 1814, with two dining rooms and a pleasant little courtyard. In the main dining room, a bust of Napoleon presides over a handsome mahogany bar, and pictures of Napoleon decorate the walls. There is a genuine connection here. When Napoleon was banished to St. Helena, some loyal followers in New Orleans plotted to free him and give him sanctuary in their city, preparing living quarters for him on the building's third floor. But Napoleon died before they could go through with their plans. The restaurant was crowded, so I settled in at the bar, and had a classic New Orleans meal: jambalaya, a delicious spicy dish of rice mixed with chicken and sausage.

For the rest of the afternoon, I just wandered around a bit more, whiling away a couple of hours before my traveling companions were due to arrive. After they had settled in at our hotel, we set off for a dinner cruise on the Natchez, an imposing white boat that is one of the last steam-powered sternwheelers operating on the Mississippi. The dinner included rosemary chicken, catfish creole, corn macque choux, and roast pork loin with orange marmalade sauce, and everything was flavorful and melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Afterward, we went up to the deck, from where we could hear the boat's jazz band playing as we watched houses, barges, and oil refineries float by. When we disembarked later that evening, we repaired to the Café du Monde for a taste of those beignets, seating ourselves at a table in the café's open pavilion. The beignets turned out to be warm and chewy inside, with a light crust heaped with powdered sugar. They were messy to eat but good. Unfortunately, the café au lait was nothing special. Still, we enjoyed ourselves, just sitting there and watching the crowds go by. It was the perfect way to end a relaxing day in the Big Easy.




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