Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spotted Cats and Turkey-Free Thanksgiving in The Big Easy

You all know how much I like to pretend that I live in Victorian times. By sheer luck I happened into a museum called the 1850 House, fully furnished in the style of the day and with explanations about the building's various Creole residents. While touring the home i learned that William G. Hewes, president of the New Orleans, Opelousas, and Great Western Railroad from 1858 to 1866, once lived there. Coincidence? I think not.

After having my fill of Victorian furnishings and trivia, Janessa the tarot mystic told me about my promising future as a travel writer, and I then stumbled upon a tiny bookstore named after William Faulkner, who briefly lived there in the 1920s. Of course I requested a book set in Louisiana during the jazz and/or railroad era, and was recommended The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. It had a recommendation from the San Francisco Chronicle and a beautiful cover, so I was convinced. During this scientific book selection process I befriended a large group of international exchange students working on their post-graduate studies in D.C. and we made a pact to find and revel in some fabulous jazz that evening. I waste no time!

To start the evening we had a "Creole sampler platter*" then had almost worrisomely cheap cocktails at a karaoke bar called Cafe Lafitte in Exile.** Sufficiently fueled in the local fashion, we were ready to get jazzy. But first-

There are two neighborhoods housing the main concentration of nightlife, each with its own central thoroughfare. The first and most famous, and also quite probably the worst street in the whole world, is Bourbon Street. Tacky souvenir shops, expensive hotels, and strip clubs and music venues glowing with neon lighting jostle for your 30 second attention span along this rum-soaked street lined in broken glass and bright green, grenade-shaped souvenir cups. Music from every business blares at competitive levels, and one is surrounded on all sides by 60 year old ex-fraternity brothers chugging Bud Light starting at ten in the morning. The other is the Faubourg Marigny, with its main drag being Frenchmen Street. Things are a bit more mellow there, and the locals say it is an accurate representation of what The Quarter was like before the city became so popular amongst tourists in the 1930s. There are bohemian bookstores, tranquil restaurants, dive bars and jazz clubs, and pleasant people of all types, drinking human beverages from normally shaped glasses. It was there that I found The Spotted Cat, which is always cover-free and has nightly live jazz, blues, folk, ragtime, and even swing dancing. They also store an extra piano in the women's restroom which is labeled the "Pee-anee.***" Need I say more?

(The Panorama Jazz Band at the Spotted Cat)

The next thing I knew it was Thanksgiving, and my dear friend Dani invited me to partake in my favorite holiday in the beautiful home of her friends in the Marigny. I do not want to brag too much but the gourmet chef hostess and her lovely parents provided raw oysters, duck sandwiches with macadamia butter and roasted plantains, steamed purple potatoes with herb butter, poached salmon and soba noodles, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, yam and lentil salad, chocolate chip pumpkin cookies, sour cream raisin pie, and some sort of peanut butter confection dipped in chocolate. We held up our end as well, with sun dried tomato and pesto mashed potatoes, corn bread with sour cream and bacon, and bourbon-spiked fresh apple cider. Jealous?

I also became the token American in a different group of French/German/Chinese grad students and researchers as well, these ones staying at the hostel with me. We ate together at the Croissant d'Or, played complicated European dice games, wandered the streets during a rain storm, played pool/danced/drank daiquiris, and by Saturday at 3am had completed a fool-proof business plan to start a language school in Shanghai.

It is that type of creativity and inspiration that just bubbles up from the bayou and through the man eating potholes in this town. At least, I hope that is creativity.****


*$24 gets you enough different courses of typical Louisiana fare to fill two hungry San Franciscans at the aptly named Gumbo Shop in The Quarter.

**Three notes about this one: 1. $2.75 for a mixed drink? How is that even legal? 2. Our bartender, upon hearing we hailed from San Francisco, exclaimed, "That city's beautiful honey but those earthquakes... I don't want nothin' movin' under me but a man, you know? Hoo wee!" and 3. I read in the weekly paper afterward that the bar claims to be the oldest gay bar in all of the U.S.!

***Ha ha!

****It may, in fact, be a mixture of oil, silt from the Mississippi, and a terrifyingly named cocktail called "The Hurricane," but I am sticking with creativity.

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