Lais­sez les Bons Temps Rouler

DINE and Destinations - - LOUISIANA - By Adam Wax­man

Vaulted tombs, coloured beads, Saz­er­acs and trom­bones race through my mind as I wind through Louisiana to­ward the Big Easy. “We’re not as naughty as you might think,” a lo­cal once told me. “We’ve got al­most as many churches as we have bars.” New Or­leans is a Cray­ola box of sights, sounds and tastes burst­ing around ev­ery cor­ner and at any mo­ment. The high­way, the river and the train tracks that fed the Delta blues and the Mem­phis soul be­gan at the port of New Or­leans. Here, African rhythms and Euro­pean har­monies co­a­lesced into an ex­tra­or­di­nary cul­tural ta­pes­try of in­stru­men­ta­tion and gas­tron­omy.

Jazz was born in New Or­leans. As a French colony, Louisiana en­forced its own code noir: slaves were to speak French and be bap­tized Catholic. In order to prac­tice Catholi­cism, they had to have Sun­days off. After church, many would gather in Congo Square ad­ja­cent to the French Quar­ter. Slaves from dif­fer­ent tribes would bring with them their own mu­si­cal tra­di­tions. Dif­fer­ent styles of drum­ming, singing and danc­ing led to serendip­i­tous im­pro­vi­sa­tions where “call and re­sponse” in­ter­plays de­vel­oped. Added to the mix were French, Span­ish and Amer­i­can in­stru­ments along with har­monic hymns from the church. What emerged was an or­ganic gumbo of mu­si­cal tra­di­tions that gave rise to di­verse artists from Louis Arm­strong to Jerry Lee Louis and Lead­belly to Buddy Guy.

Across from Congo Square is the Voodoo Spir­i­tual Tem­ple, where Pri­est­ess Miriam il­lu­mi­nates the im­pact of West African voodoo on the evo­lu­tion of New Or­leans. “It can be found in the way we pro­tect our­selves and in the way we wor­ship,” she tells me. Ask­ing her for a def­i­ni­tion of voodoo is as straight­for­ward as ask­ing some­one for a def­i­ni­tion of jazz. Voodoo se­cret so­ci­eties have be­come part of the folk­lore of Mardi Gras, and voodoo is an in­gre­di­ent in the de­vel­op­ment of the cul­tural mo­saic that ex­ists here.

From the Big Easy’s bay­ous to the bars of Bour­bon Street, ex­pe­ri­ence the sights, sounds and tastes of New Or­leans—and let the good times roll!

Jelly Roll Mor­ton called New Or­leans “the cra­dle of jazz,” and to­day, the panoply of mu­si­cal styles that has evolved from it is ubiq­ui­tous. En­ter­ing the French Quar­ter, we pass a brass band march­ing in the street; and buskers and blues­men with their sa­cred gui­tars. Walk­ing along Bour­bon Street with our to-go cock­tails, we are show­ered with beaded neck­laces from the bal­conies above. An ear-gas­mic com­mu­nity of sounds pours out of the bars, mor­ph­ing from rag­time to rock ’n’ roll. Seated in the his­toric Preser­va­tion Hall, we are en­tranced by brass torch­bear­ers who trans­port us into a eu­phonic es­cape. Our horse and car­riage wait out­side Lafitte’s Black­smith Shop Bar as we si­dle up for some ab­sinthe by the pi­ano. Built in the early 1700s, and lit only by can­dles, it’s a set­ting out of an Anne Rice novel. On French­men Street, we weave in and out of clubs like Snug Har­bor and The Spot­ted Cat, each shar­ing their love and pride of jazz from Gypsy to Zy­deco and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. Sun­day morn­ing at the Franklin Av­enue Bap­tist Church, we are en­rapt by a rous­ing ser­mon fol­lowed by a choir that en­velopes us in waves of mel­liflu­ous soul, led by a voice rem­i­nis­cent of Ma­halia Jack­son. The depth and power of emo­tion in their col­lec­tive voice is over­whelm­ing.

So many dishes, from étouf­fée and roulade to oys­ters Rock­e­feller; desserts from beignets to ba­nanas Fos­ter; and a greater con­tri­bu­tion of cock­tails than any­where else in the world, all orig­i­nated in New Or­leans. At The Court of The Two Sis­ters, the largest court­yard in the French Quar­ter, the daily live jazz brunch buf­fet show­cases the range of Louisianan cui­sine—and we need to taste it all. Leisurely sip­ping mi­mosas in the shade, we sam­ple duck l’or­ange and lis­ten to a Dix­ieland band.

Check­ing into south­ern com­fort and hos­pi­tal­ity at Har­rah’s Ho­tel and Casino just out­side the French Quar­ter, there is an air of an­tic­i­pa­tion and ex­cite­ment. We dine at the lo­cal favourites. While cel­e­brated chef John Besh’s Besh Steak is lo­cated within the ho­tel, we head to his pop­u­lar Au­gust Restau­rant for craw­fish and crisp lamb belly with curry and sugar cane, and meaty panseared lo­cal trout topped with shrimp and mar­cona almonds. K-paul’s Louisiana Kitchen of­fers Ca­jun-spiced, crisp and black­ened drum fish topped with lump crab, and a lus­cious and creamy sweet-potato-pecan pie. The orig­i­nal seven na­tions that make up Cre­ole—na­tive Amer­i­can, French, Span­ish, African, Ger­man, English and Ital­ian—are show­cased at chef John Folse’s R’ Evo­lu­tion. Espresso-crusted veni­son carpac­cio with black wal­nuts and shaved dark choco­late, corn-and-crab cap­puc­cino with black truf­fle and pop­corn, and mo­lasses-lac­quered duck with foie gras foam, punc­tu­ate the menu.

Why is New Or­leans so uniquely rich with mu­sic and food? Chef Folse, a worl­drenowned restau­ra­teur and author­ity on Ca­jun and Cre­ole cuisines, de­scribes Louisiana as sim­i­lar to Eu­rope—made up of small coun­tries with dif­fer­ent peo­ple, life­styles, in­gre­di­ents and cuisines. He as­serts that sep­a­ra­tion and iso­la­tion in the early years of mi­grat­ing into the coun­try­side en­abled vil­lages to cul­ti­vate and main­tain strong tra­di­tions. “The first thing to come out was the mu­sic to en­ter­tain them,” he tells me. “Folks would sit out on the porch and play their in­stru­ments.” As vil­lages over­lapped, they could in­tro­duce new in­stru­ments into their style. There is fierce pride and de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep the cul­ture strong, and yet, mu­si­cians love to share, ob­serves Folse. “Louisianans love to main­tain their con­ti­nu­ity of cul­ture through mu­sic, food, sto­ry­telling, and hand­ing down tra­di­tions.” The mu­sic is not merely learned in school, “but by a child sit­ting on a wash bucket out­side a meat mar­ket with four or five of the great­est fid­dle and ac­cor­dion play­ers in the world.”

The op­po­site of a night­cap is an eye opener. On our morn­ing stroll through flea mar­kets and the French Mar­ket with our gi­ant frozen daiquiris, we de­vour al­li­ga­tor sausage po boys, craw­fish pie, freshly shucked oys­ters, colos­sal gulf shrimp and crunchy fried pick­les. Food and mu­sic tours be­gin out­side the Jazz Park Vis­i­tor’s Cen­tre along the flood­wall in Dutch Al­ley; and a short walk from Jack­son Square leads us to the New Or­leans School of Cook­ing, where we learn the dif­fer­ences be­tween Ca­jun and Cre­ole, and make our own roux.

Pick any week of the year and there is some great mu­sic or gas­tron­omy fes­ti­val go­ing on—the cel­e­bra­tions are end­less, and ev­ery­one is in­tent on hav­ing a good time. There is an in­tox­i­cat­ing al­lure of the voodoo and the vibe, from the sax to the fid­dle, and the bay­ous to the bars. New Or­leans, the jewel of the Re­pub­lic, is de­ter­mined to shine with the lus­ter of all its eclec­tic tra­di­tions.

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