BIRTHING ART & PETRI-FODDER
At the end of our last exciting episode it was early Sunday evening and I was wandering down Poydras in solitude on my way to meet up with Chris and Pam Tusa, friends from Baton Rouge. Chris, a writer with an actual published book, Dirty Little Angels (like that means anything!), grew up in New Orleans. Although locals generally avoid Bourbon Street like day-old crawfish (especially during Mardi Gras) Chris was drawing us into the fray with good reason.
I keep preaching like a vexed televangelist that Bourbon Street, while worth a glimpse into the total breakdown of social decorum and personal restraint, is not New Orleans or Mardi Gras. A carnival of the bizarre and unrestrained, it’s definitely entertaining for a short while, but unless you’re the type who feels empowered by yelling at strange women to show their boobs for cheap plastic trinkets, you just don’t want to stay there. Remnants still stand of what Bourbon once was–stoically defying modern comercial opportunism–such as the elegant and locally revered Creole institution Galatoire’s (GAL-a-twah-z) or Preservation Hall, the sparse yet historic jazz club just a few steps off Bourbon; but, for the most part, t-shirt and daiquiri shops and seedy strip clubs long-ago claimed Bourbon for tourists looking for an excuse. Not to say New Orleans was ever angelic. The famous Storyville district where jazz was born was known for red light establishments and rough-housing patrons; but it also gave birth to Jazz!, the great American art form. That is New Orleans: a mixture of the divine and the debauched; the cultural and the crass; the inspired and the insipid; selflessness and self-gratification. On Bourbon Street, the Force is out of balance. The only new things likely to rise up there should be studied in a petri dish and collected by men in big yellow suits.
Frenchman Street is closer to what I expected Bourbon to be when I first visited long ago, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For now we’re heading to Bourbon because the Tusas had a friend playing at Tropical Isle, home of the famous Hand Grenade–a drink that lives up to its name as it takes only one or two before you’re completely bombed!
LOCALS LOST ON BOURBON
As I arrived, still feeling last night’s pain even though it was a quarter after five, I sidled up to the bar and ordered an Abita, hoping the hair-of-the-dog would ease my pain. It didn’t. Turning my attention to the lady on stage, I glided over to glance at the papers and CDs strewn around stage to confirm that this was in fact Lynn Drury. My destination confirmed, I sat back down and studied this lady holding an acoustic guitar and wearing an antique style headband and flowing hippie garb. She was just what you’d expect an acoustic musician living in the French Quarter to look like and I’m kicking myself still for not taking a photo.
As she started into a comforting rendition of “Wagon Wheel,” I texted Tusa that I was here. He responded that so was he. Puzzled, I looked around to make sure I hadn’t missed him amongst the ten people in the bar. The entire establishment was no wider than a walk-in closet–just a bar with enough space to pass and a small stage in the back corner. No Tusa. He asked if I was in Tropical Isle, to which I said yes. He asked for the address. Really!? I had to laugh. A native New Orleanian was asking me for direction on Bourbon! Of course, Chris is gifted with a uniquely whacky, scattered persona as any good English professor should be, so I just laughed, envisioning Mark’s wife Brooke as I’d witnessed so many times before: “That’s sooo Chris Tusa.”
Sadly to say, when Chris and Pam finally arrived, they related that there are in fact three Tropical Isles on Bourbon, thus explaining their confusion. I had just wandered into the correct one by chance. A good story ruined by a reasonable explanation. That’s sooo not Chris Tusa. In fact, the folly was mine. As I sat there, I had been trying to figure out where the large side-room had disappeared to in which my Jacksonville peeps and I had partied in Mardi Gras 2011 during our one obligatory Bourbon excursion. I was in a completely different bar and didn’t even realize it! In my defense, that Saturday afternoon we’d had Hurricanes followed by Hand Grenades so it was reasonable to assume I may have imagined that wide-open space. Heck, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I recalled a bar tended only by Leprechauns reached exclusively via unicorn rides! Now that’s Bourbon Street. Not New Orleans, but where New Orleans funnels stupid people (and encourages normal people to drink themselves stupid) to take their money.
UP-RAISED TOGAS AND LUBED-UP CHICKENS
Thus I was surprised a short while later at Pam’s offense when an already stupid guy who was stupid drunk wandered up to me, pointed to her, and asked: “Is she showing?” I simply told him no, she wasn’t that type, pointed out her husband, and gently herded him back down the corridor. But as Lynn took a break from folksy covers and clever originals (such as a humorous ditty about grocery shopping at the drug store), Pam poured out her incredulity to Lynn’s sympathetic ear that a) this dolt had looked at me for permission and b) had asked what he did. Granted, anywhere else on the planet I would have totally understood the warranted consternation. But this was Bourbon. During Mardi Gras! If someone walked up to me on Bourbon during carnival with a live chicken and asked me to lube it up and shove it up my sphincter for beads I wouldn’t flinch, but rather politely decline, wave, and be on my merry way. When in Rome, you’re gonna see a few up-raised togas.
WEST VIRGINIA GUMBO
Soon a friend of Pam’s arrived with her longtime beau. The two ladies hadn’t met since high school but catching up was difficult as the crowd inside and out continued to grow. We stayed with Lynn as long as we could, but Bourbon soon took its toll. Wandering out and a block from Bourbon to the more stately Royal Street with its antique shops and quaint restaurants, we stumbled past Mr. B’s Bisto and peeked inside. It promised ample shelter and quiet, so we dove in.
Mr. B’s is the first Bistro style restaurant opened by the Brennan family (being a Brennan amongst New Orleans restauranteurs is as to being a Neville amongst New Orleans musicians), and I was steered here during one of my first visits. Although not as bold or creative as many of the city’s culinary temples, Mr. B’s is dependably excellent if not overwhelming. Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a staple place is known for their rendition of a local staple dish: gumbo. Although my culinary knowledge of New Orleans severely pales to my musical and historical reservoir–something I intend to remedy during My Year of Mardi Gras–this West Virginia boy does know gumbo. My love of New Orleans seems to find perfect expression in this dish as I sweat and coo over it for friends several times a year. It’s one of the dishes of which I’m most proud, and, in addition to friends from Virginia to Florida lapping it up enthusiastically–I’ve won the praise of enough initially-skeptical native Louisianans to feel justified in my conviction. I may not be local yet, but I’m already serious and snobby enough about gumbo to pass. In fact my local friend Mark from Metairie nicknamed me WV Gumbo, as you’ll see attached to the authorship of this blog. The story behind this name, however, is one for my next post.
Thus, when I say Mr. B’s is one of the few places I’ll order gumbo, I say it as a gumbo snob. Even here I find the dish to be inconsistent, not that I can totally fault them. There is as much magic as art in how gumbo’s ingredients blend together, making it impossible to make the same batch twice. Still, my past two visits have found the pendulum swinging a bit too far. This past December the Seafood Gumbo was superb but the File Gumbo tasted like the roux (‘roo’–the dark oil & flour gravy that is a staple of Creole cooking) was burnt. I’m one who rarely complains to staff, tending to focus on the positive and order better next time, but I sent this batch back, apparently offending the bartender with my insinuation of charring. Tonight, I safely stuck with the Seafood Gumbo. While good, it wasn’t as transcendent as my pre-Christmas bowl, yet across the table my friends raved about the File Gumbo. Oh, you rascally, roux-based devil.
EXTREME HOME MAKEOVER: DEATH & TAXES EDITION
The rest of my meal was solid but not spectacular. My appetizer trio was annoyingly slight (one fried oyster, one duck spring roll, and one breaded shrimp–shoulda stuck with the cheaper half-dozen fried oysters) but bursting with flavor. The candied pear salad was not earth-shattering, but satiated my need for greens after several days of Creole indulgence. On the other hand Will, our new friend in town from Ohio, raved that the grits in the shrimp & grits were the creamiest he’d ever had while Chris declared it the best rendition of the dish he’d ever had. Candice, Will’s better half and Pam’s old friend, had the grilled fish and declared it excellent. Guess I’ll order better next time.
As we dined, Will and Candice recounted their journey about the city where they were continuously serendipitously steered to restaurants it takes most visitors years to discover. Their visit was further charmed by random encounters such as running into Blaine Kern (the bead-zillionaire whose studio is responsible for most of the elaborate Mardi Gras floats) in a barber shop. As he chatted them up and offered tickets to a swank ball that they turned down, they had no idea who he was until googling him on the way back to the hotel. On the flip side, I still felt as though I’d run into one of Blaine Kern’s floats, and the Sazerac I’d ordered did no more to revive me than my Abita at Tropical Isle. Gradually the conversation grew as dour and heavy as my aching head, covering every cheery topic from childhood bullying to struggling with religious identity–hardly Mardi Gras’ greatest hits. Thus it was much needed comic relief when Candice revealed the professions she and Will had chosen: She a funeral director, he a tax accountant. “We joke and tell people we’re Death & Taxes.”
I doubled over laughing, my first sense of relief all day. When I finally gained my composure, I begged them to return during a slow spot in the New Orleans calendar so I could spice up the blog with an interview with this unescapable couple that would get us all in the end. Such nice, normal people. I’m dying (no pun intended) to pick their brains on how they ended up with these careers and with each other.
When Candice ordered solo for desert, our waiter graciously brought a bread pudding for the table. I’ve yet to have a mediocre bread pudding in this town, and it quickly disappeared along with the last vestiges of my sociability. As the conversation dragged past desert, I stood and gradually eased toward the door, though no one took the hint. Finally I apologized profusely and bid my farewells. It was not yet ten o’clock on a Mardi Gras weekend night yet I beat a retreat to my hotel to engage in the guilty pleasure I for some reason only enjoy in hotels: channel-surfing stupid TV from bed. It was just my fourth night of Mardi Gras as well as of my year-long adventure, with two more days of celebration till Ash Wednesday, and I was already ashed out. It’s gonna be a long year!