April 2024: A Weekend Away in New Orleans

Neither Robert nor I had ever been to New Orleans, but we'd heard friends rave about it--the food, the music, the atmosphere, and more--so last year when Robert said he thought we should plan more three-day weekends, and when I realized I had a Jetblue flight credit from the pandemic to use up, we planned to spend Patriots Day weekend this year in New Orleans. As it turned out, we only had forty eight hours in town, almost exactly; we landed around 11:00 on Saturday morning, and we flew out at noon on Monday. But it was a nice short-ish flight (just over three hours) and getting from the MSY (named after an old stockyard, before being renamed after Louis Armstrong) airport into town was a relatively short and easy Uber ride. We stayed at the Homewood Suites on Rampart, on the edge of the French Quarter, using credit card points, so pretty much our only expense were some tours, our food, and occasional Ubers around town.

Above: a pro-choice billboard I saw at a gas station; a ubiquitous New Orleans hot dog cart; and an electrical box painted to look like alligators, the only gators we saw all weekend.

Upon landing, we realized that Marcus and Helen's tee shirts accidentally made us look like a cobra-obsessed family. They posed in front of a model rocket from a Louisiana NASA assembly plant just before we left the airport.

Our drive from the airport into town was chatty, and talked about a boat driver he had once on a swamp tour who jumped off the boat to ride on an alligator--but then it turned out he'd raised the alligator from a baby and would bring it into his house when the temperatures got too chilly. He also talked about char-grilled oysters, and how delicious they are, with parmesan and butter, and how he'd made three dozen of them just the other day. Our appetites were tantalized already.

This weekend happened to be the French Quarter Festival, so there was live music on almost every block on Royal Street, which we walked down to go to the Historic New Orleans Collection, a free museum I thought we'd have time to hit up in between dropping our stuff at the hotel and making our 2:00 pm food tour. It happened that the museum was having some special activities, so Marcus got to play chess with a guy in their lobby while Helen painstakingly made and decorated a tamourine. Everyone loved the museum, which included an exhibit called "Unknown Sitters," featuring portraits of people whose names and identities were lost to history. Samantha copied one of the portraits, and Helen tried her hand at a self-portrait. Upstairs were a few galleries about masons in New Orleans, and one about the history of the French Quarter. Helen and Robert really loved the player organ that was on the top floor.

Samantha enjoyed a strawberry ice and a slice of quiche lorraine from their cafe, and then we all walked over to the French Quarter food tour, stopping to listen to a great street performer who was singing and whistling and accompanying himself on various instruments. Marcus loved all the music, but this guy in particular.

On the tour itself, no one except Robert liked the calas (a cinnamon-y rice-based fried dough ball), but the alligator sausage was a hit (Helen ate two large ones), and most people liked the shrimp po' boys, and gumbo, and pralines, and praline cookies. We walked through the French market and all around the French quarter, and we learned about the colonial history of New Orleans, about Creole vs. Cajun as descriptors of food and culture, and about key ingredients from the area.

Along the way, we took pictures of some interesting architecture and some of the more crooked than average houses. We also learned the difference between a gallery (a balcony supported by poles on the sidewalk, and lots of cast iron) and a balcony (just a little tacked-on balcony with no supports, quite wobbly looking).

After the tour, which ended near Jackson Square (ha), the girls and I went back to the hotel and Robert and Marcus walked along the river for awhile. We had previously been to the beginning of the Mississippi River, in Minnesota, so it was pretty exciting to be here at the mouth of it.

The girls and I saw a wedding procession near the hotel, marching through the streets with a brass band and everyone waving white handkerchiefs. It was actually a tad difficult to see it was a wedding, or anything at all special, at first, as there were so many people and bands just walking around the streets as it was.

We had a mostly quiet night that night, with Marcus feeling like he was going to be sick (he wasn't), and me saying "dehydration! dehydration!" like a broken record. Robert and Samantha did go out to Mother's Restaurant, which supposedly has the world's best baked ham. They just got fried shrimp and a soft-shelled crab po' boy, though, no ham nor any of the "debris" (shredded bits of roast beef that have fallen off the roast and mixed with pan drippings), but the soft-shelled crab sandwich was fantastic, so I was not at all displeased.

Early on Sunday morning we took an Uber up to a gas station on the outskirts of City Park to go kayaking along Bayou St. John, and to learn about the ecology of the bayou, its importance to trade and indigenous and colonial development, and then the effects of Katrina on the bayou. Actually, the bayou now is much cleaner than it was pre-Katrina, our guide said, because of the efforts to replant native trees and protect the ecosystem since the hurricane clean-up started.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, and I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the kayaking. Samantha was my partner, and she was amazing at saying "left only, mother--LEFT ONLY" if I got carried away and wasn't noticing that we were drifting too close to the shore. I only got us stuck under a tree once, and then while she protected her head from that lovely native cypress tree, Marcus patiently told me how to paddle backwards and dislodge us. Helen and Robert were in a kayak together, and Marcus was alone, and they all did fabulously. We saw some cute turtles, some jumping mullets (fish), and lots of fat red and brown and white ducks which had originally been imported for their feathers for down mattresses and pillows.

Robert had run over to Cafe du Monde before the kayaking and came back with a couple orders of beignets, so those were joyously consumed. Afterwards, we walked through the sculpture gardens in City Park, appreciating more free concerts and really liking some of the different works of art.

Helen duly took note of her favorite pieces on a map, giving them all zero, one, or two stars.

From the sculpture garden, we took an Uber over to Hanson's Sno-Bliz, which had just opened for the day, and joined a line stretching out their door and around the side. Snowballs are apparently New Orleans-style shaved ices, and this place is known for its excellent syrups. Samantha had a strawberry shortcake cream, Helen had watermelon, Marcus had passionfruit, and Robert and I split a coffee cream and earl grey cream. They were fantastic! Huge, pillowy soft, and delicious.

We ate them as we walked a few blocks down the street to our brunch/lunch reservation at Mister Mao, which has South and Southeast Asian fusion small plates--we had a fairy bread, a poha breakfast potato dish, some amazing deconstructed Indian-ish brussels, buttered garlic noodles, a pork belly and a lamb belly dish, and some sesame balls and some beefy shumai.

No one liked lunch as much as I did, but everyone ate at least something, and then we walked up to the streetcar so we could take that back toward the French Quarter. Marcus observed that while we may love to complain about Boston public transit, particularly the Green Line (our trolley/streetcar line), even the worst segments of the Green Line are faster, smoother, and better running than these streetcars. We were happy to sit while we could, and then move for some clueless tourists, and eventually we made it to the French Quarter. Here I should pause to say that possibly I was the only adult in the country who did not know that the French Quarter was known for open containers, public drinking, tourists in vulgar tee shirts ("F-bomb mom with pretty eyes and thick thighs" was one of the less bad ones; "This guy's getting stone drunk and forgetting the way back to his hotel!" was another, and they really just kept descending from there). I had to consciously turn off the part of my brain that reads words in order to move through the city, sadly not before I noticed a lot of "Gentleman's Club" signs, including one out on the public street at 3:00 in the afternoon advertising "Hot Ass, Cold Beer, Warm Titties." Marcus stared at that sign and said "How can they actually...print that on a sign?" in amazement. I covered Helen's eyes and moved us forward in a determined line. At one point, when we were inside a restaurant, and I'd explained open container laws and states rights and regional differences, Samantha said "so wait, is drinking and driving legal here too?" and I said "What? No! Of course not! Why would you say that?" only to turn and follow where she wordlessly pointed to a guy in a car inching by outside (traffic was miserable in the French Quarter--we always walked up to Rampart Street if we wanted an Uber, and I cannot imagine who was actually driving through this), calmly and not even covertly sipping a can of beer while holding onto the wheel.

With all of that going on around us, we made a quick stop at Felix's for some char-grilled oysters, topped with parmesan and butter and then grilled. We ordered two dozen of them, and Marcus must have eaten a solid 20. I had one, and Robert maybe 2-3. The girls split a fried shrimp platter, but the oysters really were the star. (Note that elsewhere in Nola we saw some pretty fabulous oyster shell art, including these clothed pet portraits done in gilded oyster shells.) Marcus loved the oysters. Spoiler alert: they may not have loved him, though.

From Felix's we walked back along Bourbon Street to take an urban enslavement tour of the 1831 Hermann-Grima house, with a tour guide who was extremely characterful, extremely memorable, and, all things considered, really not that great of a tour guide. He began by commenting (as many people do) on Samantha's unlaced shoelaces, and then he rambled on a bit about his own shoelaces, which happened to be tied, but he said they're often not, and he checked them and secured them. He also talked about Robert's Star Wars tee shirt and said he'll watch the prequel trilogy and of course the original trilogy but not the final trilogy, and going on a tangent about these. Somehow he also talked about how much he loves the movie version of "Gone with the Wind," which was having an anniversary and was showing on his favorite cable station that night. And so on--those were all before we even set foot in the main house! When he did start the tour properly, he was excellent about asking if anyone had any questions, but he was not so great at actually answering the questions in a useful way, and eventually everyone stopped asking them. I persisted longer than anyone else, because I couldn't quite believe that this time wouldn't be the time he answered them usefully. For instance, he had made the point that the friezes above the doors were painted wood, and the baseboards also, made to look like marble, whereas the fireplace was hugely expensive imported marble. I asked why that was--was the family trying to cut corners, with the baseboards? Was it just that it was so difficult to get marble that practically speaking no one used it for anything except a fireplace? The tourguide began his answer to this by taking a deep breath and saying "Okay, who here has ever bought a pair of ripped jeans?" and then going on a fairly long digression about contemporary fashion, 80s fashion, and ripped jeans. Eventually his answer to me was "it was the style," which didn't really fully answer my question. At another point, he talked about how the slave code allowed for slaves to be able to buy their freedom, but he told the story of one enslaved person in that house who bought her freedom but ended up staying another 20 years working for the enslavers because her children and grandchildren were still enslaved here. I asked what happened to her, ultimately, and instead of just saying "Gee, I don't actually know," he told another unconnected story.

After the Hermann-Grima house, we did a ghost tour, which may (I admit) have been an overload here, but with such a short time in town I wanted to try to pack as much in as possible. (The kids congratulated me on packing so much in, but made clear they were DONE by this point.) This tour guide was the opposite, in some ways--everything he said was awful and painful and almost impossible to listen to unless you were eight--Helen and another eight-year-old on the tour listened to him wide-eyed and carefully put their hands through the barred windows of the "haunted" jail, but possibly we were just not his target audience. I knew the Anne Rice and vampire connections, but we all learned a lot about yellow fever and the fires and death rates and other mosquito-borne illnesses, and we did stick it out until the very end. At that point, with Helen exhausted, we took an Uber north (I know--nobody says north there. Up?) to Mopho, an Indian/Southeast Asian fusion restaurant where the girls had plain bowls of pho, and the rest of us had some interestingly spiced things, including a vindaloo chicken sandwich and a shrimp and grits with a butter-chicken style sauce, and more. Robert walked us around looking for alligators after dinner--he'd been asking a wide assortment of people "Where do you go to see alligators?" since we arrived, getting a truly diverse set of answers to that ("I don't" was one of the responses, but not the most common; most people really took his question very seriously and talked about the last place they'd seen one, and a lot of people ended up saying some version of "they're everywhere."). Sadly, we did not see an alligator.

Back at the hotel, Marcus did not say he felt sick (unlike last night) but actually was sick (unlike last night), so we had a fun evening. He said he felt perfect immediately afterwards, though, and again I was shrieking "dehydration! dehydration and TWENTY OYSTERS WITH BUTTER AND CHEESE!"

On Monday morning, we packed up our stuff and took an Uber to Russell's Marina Grill, where Marcus had a delicious fried oyster eggs benedict (I told you, he bounced back fast) and the girls had chocolate chip pancakes, and Robert and I split sweet potato beignets and a shrimp omelet with a crab sauce on top. Over breakfast I gave people a quiz--what year was Katrina; explain what's important about Bayou St. John and define a bayou in general; how many fires destroyed New Orleans and when did the first one occur; until how many weeks along is abortion legal now in this hellscape of women's rights that is Louisiana, etc. Then everyone climbed the stairs to look over the wall at water before we took our final Uber to the airport for the quick flight home, waving goodbye to Nola. It was a great three-day weekend, though perhaps I could have done without the middle of the night hotel vomit. Ah well. Next time!


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Created: 4/20/24. Last Modified: 4/20/24.