A recent visit to one of my favorite cities brought back some wonderful memories as well as a full tummy. With great pleasure, I report that New Orleans is alive and well and recovering nicely from Hurricane Katrina.
The French Quarter and nearby environs don’t even appear to have been affected, since it was situated on higher ground. Touring the very upscale Garden District, it also appears that little has changed. However, when one visits the 9th Ward, which was home to many black residents, it is a completely different story. Most damage was not due to Hurricane Katrina itself, but was the result of the levees breaking and water flooding homes to the rooftops. More than 200,000 residents left New Orleans, and many may not return, opting instead, to seek a better life elsewhere.
There are signs painted on houses with an “X”. On the top part of the “X” is a date, which is when the house was checked. To the left and right are a state abbreviation and a unit number corresponding to the Louisiana National Guard unit that checked the home. On the bottom part of the “X” is a number that marks how many people they found dead inside.
Tours to the devastated 9th Ward area are very popular. The one ray of sunshine where there are huge swaths of empty lots is the appearance of new innovative housing. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie funded Make It Right, a nonprofit foundation, to help residents rebuild. There are more than 50 new homes and they are very innovative in providing the maximum room on rather small lots. They are built on stilts in case of future flooding and utilize storm-resistant materials. Rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, tankless water heaters, and efficient insulation are just a few of the “green” ideas used in these homes.
Tours usually include a visit to one of New Orleans’ cemeteries. Because of the high water table, the dead have always been interred above ground in New Orleans. Many elaborate tombs were constructed and remain in the family.
Having been to New Orleans several times before Katrina, including attendance at the Bacchus Krewe Ball during Mardi Gras, I did not repeat a bayou tour, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Insectarium, Audubon Park and Zoo, warehouse district with its many museums and art galleries, and paddlewheel ride on the Mississippi River among other fun things a first time visitor should consider.
The French Quarter can’t be missed and Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral is just one of a thousand Kodak moments here. France donated a statue of Joan of Arc, which is located in the French Quarter. Locals, in their N’awlins street talk, call it Joanie on a Pony.
The one museum I visited was the National World War II Museum because it had not been completed on my last visit. It is an excellent museum with well-done displays and visitors should plan to spend a minimum of two hours here. The Victory Theater across the street has a stirring short of footage of the D-Day invasion, which should not be missed. There are exhibits that describe Nikkei participation, too.
Music, and especially jazz, are synonymous with New Orleans and Preservation Hall, with its famed band in the French Quarter, is a place that is not to be missed. At the turn of the 1900s, “jass” was the black slang for sexual activity. Storyville, an area close to the French Quarter, was filled with bawdy houses. Black musicians would gather in the area to play for tips. The houses would invite the musicians inside as an extra incentive to lure customers and their music was called “jazz” even though the musicians preferred calling it “swing”
A New Orleans friend told me they do three things here: planning their next meal, preparing it, or eating the food. The recent BP oil spill did not seem to limit the seafood available at the restaurants. Having eaten in the past at many of the best restaurants — including Commander’s Palace, NOLA’s, Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, Bayona, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Antoine’s, and of course having beignets (square donuts) and chicory coffee au lait at the Café du Monde at the French Market — a new recommended place is now on my list.
This was Irene’s Cuisine in the French Quarter. While others have complained about the long lines at the restaurant, I made a reservation for 5:30 p.m. when the restaurant opens and was immediately seated. My tasty meal consisted of drum fish pan sautéed with shrimp, roasted red peppers garnished with a corn maque choux and finished with Pinot Grigio beurre blanc. A meal fit for the Gochiso Gourmet.
Luncheon choices in New Orleans should include old standbys such as po’ boys. They are very similar to subs, grinders, and similar fare but can also include oysters or shrimp. They received the name during the depression when a streetcar driver opened a restaurant and would feed laid-off drivers for free. When he saw one approaching, he would say, “Here comes another po’ boy.” Asking where are the best po’ boys is similar to asking New Yorkers or Chicagoans where is the best pizza.
I was going to order my po’ boy from Mother’s but was advised by a native to only get a Ferdi’s if ordering from there. It is a combo of ham, roast beef with a dressing of cabbage, mayo, and mustard and reminded me of the French dip sandwiches from Phillippe’s in L.A.
Another not to be missed New Orleans original is the muffuleta created at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter at the turn of the 1900s. Sicilian farmers used to bring in their produce and eat lunch at the Central Grocery and in their fashion, ate salami, ham, cheese, olive salad and Italian bread or muffuleta bread, each separately. The owner of Central Grocery suggested putting all the ingredients into a muffuletta and the rest is history.
Put on your bib and put New Orleans on your bucket list. There actually is a marked increase in homeless people but tourists rarely see them or are bothered by these folks. Visiting New Orleans can only help the economy and hope some of the money trickles down to them.
To learn more about Make it Right, visit www.makeitrightnola.org.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.
Las Vegas Tidbits
I had seen “Phantom of the Opera” when it first opened in London and starred Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, then twice in L.A. and once more in Las Vegas. When I reviewed the Las Vegas version in 2006, I criticized the actress playing Christine for her distracting onstage moves, and was disappointed by the main leads compared to the Los Angeles cast.
The Vegas production now features a different cast and I was kindly granted another opportunity to review the show. “Phantom” is now the longest playing musical on Broadway. The production in Las Vegas differs in being called “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular.” It has been shortened to 95 minutes from the Broadway version of two and a half hours that includes one intermission. The Las Vegas version has no intermission, some recapping scenes in the second half have been removed and some story plots are shortened, but most importantly, all the songs of the Broadway version are still included.
If you’ve never seen it, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve seen it before, you may not remember exactly what was pared. Bottom line, it is an excellent production with very good performers, but cannot compare to its original stars. The Las Vegas spectacular surpasses the Broadway and road versions with its magnificent stage setting and effects.
To enjoy it even more, read the storyline on wikipedia.org beforehand and read the lyrics at www.lyricsondemand.com. Sarah Brightman said that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber composed “Music of the Night” for her as an expression of his love when they first met. For me, the show-stopper song is “All I Ask of You” but there is no pause after the duet to allow the audience to demonstrate its appreciative applause. I highly recommend the show.