Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Big Chief 3
Tom and Arion had told us that there'd be a Second Line on Saturday and agreed to meet us and be part of it. We walked down Bourbon Street at about 11AM -- probably the only time to do with without drama. It's shocking how much is going on even at this hour! There's even a few dudes staggering around still nursing last night's bender. But overall it's pretty civilized.
Considering the national image of Bourbon Street as one continuous bacchanal going 24-7, the reality is decidedly different. As you enter from Canal Street, things start out decisively classy with big fancy hotels, expensive restaurants and the first of Larry Flynt's Hustler clubs. As you proceed things get more down home and rambunctious with more and more dacquiri and hurricane bars (basically a wall full of churning clear plastic vats filled with various colors/kinds of high test booze-slushee), some are basically just a kiosk right on the street, no seating - you takes yr plastic alien fulla frozen hooch and stagger on), cheapie souvenir shops and the like. Eventually you come to the residential zone which is shockingly, quiet, sedate and frankly quite beautiful. Lotta little homes, fronting right on the sidewalk, no front lawns. Remember, these were literally "town houses" - the real home was in the country, on the plantation. These places were essentially a parlor for entertaining and a place to crash out when you'd eaten and drunken your fill either at home or at another town house.
Passing out the end of the Quarter we walked West to Arion and Tom's apartment - a charming little place in a larger subdivided house. High ceilings, aged, planked flooring. Tiny kitchen. Kinda Manhattan style - basically it's a clothes closet and place to flop because - the city is your living room, kitchen, dining room etc. We ambled down Esplanade and then crossed on Decatur to Elysian Fields.
The Second-Line was sponsored by WWOZ-FM featured the Treme Brass Band leading the parade, then the New Wave Brass Band sitting in the center, and a third (didn't catch the name) bringing up the rear. Most of those participating were on the bourgie side (like us!) and the parade route was thoroughly tourist friendly - up Decatur, West on Esplanade, South on Royal, across to Decatur and then North to the end of the French Market. Nonetheless -- a LOVELY experience. It took a minute to find a groove for dancing while walking, especially to a brass band beat -- frankly this is one of the great, unique beats going; easily as attention grabbing and addictive as classic DC GoGo or Mississippi Hill Country blues if ya ask me -- but finally got it and just had a merry old time along with everyone else second-lining.
Amy appears at 1:33 on right hand side
we're at 1:08 to the far side, boogying
There were moments when it seemed pretty surreal - a big old second-line of largely middle-aged white folks being cheered, photographed and filmed by their peers but also a significant number of black folks. Dunno what they made of it. They could have thought it was pretty funny, but then again I saw folks coming out of restaurant kitchens having a look and then start dancing along and shouting encouragement.
I'd like to think that this is part of a strange kind of transition. It's no big secret that the Louisiana State gov't was all to happy to see large swathes of New Orleans poorest neighhoods depopulated by The Flood and made no effort to try and repatriate those residents to their home. As people move back into New Orleans and more and more white, middle class bohemian types. Which of course aids the evisceration of the indigenous culture. EXCEPT for the fact that many of these immigrants hold that vanishing culture in high regard and would appear ready to do whatever's in their power to help perpetuate it. I'd speculate that this is not lost on the original inhabitants of New Orleans that remain or have managed to make it back and I'd like to think that they see that there're alliances to be made to everyone's advantage. Some of these white invaders are those people who'd most support initiatives to restore historically black neighborhoods like the 9th Ward, Treme, etc. That's an outsider's perspective. I could be wrong; undoubtedly I'm oversimplifying. Mea culpa. I hope y'all can see some positive intent beneath it all.
All that being said -- it was a GAS to be sashaying 2 miles sandwiched between two great bands. I could mainly hear the New Wave Brass Band and they were kicking it, hard! I'm surprised at how many selections I recognized.
When we finished all four of us retreated to the Market Cafe in the French Market. I think the ladies had fish and Tom and I split a Muffaletta. This of course is one of the signature dishes in New Orleans. The night before J.R. had mentioned that it was originally known as the "wop" sandwich - oh boy! But eventually Italians came to be treated more respectfully and they came up with Muffaletta. Basically this is a hoagie, sub, etc. but served on a big round loaf of crusty bread - basically a whole one would cover a small dinner plate. The key ingredient is a slightly, spicey, vinegary relish made with various pickled vegetables - the components vary from place to place. Green olives are a main ingredient in some places. Here it was carrots, peppers, cauliflower. In Philly the big downhome food controversy centers on who originated and who now makes the best cheese steak - Pat's on Passyunk has the best claim to originating it but there's a passionate division between folks who favor Pat's as opposed to Jim's (on South Street) or Geno's (near Pat's actually). In New Orleans there's various places claiming to make the best Muffaletta tho most agree that Central Market on Decatur is the originator -- tho I recently had a friend claim that Central Market is owned and operated by the same folks as own Frank's - a short distance down Decatur and thus their muffaletta is just as good though not commonly given the same glory.
Afterwards, we sauntered down Decatur to Cafe Du Monde for the usual. Today entertainment was provided by a brass band of 12 year olds. The performance was not great and it seemed that they floundered about trying to catch a groove. Nonetheless, very cool to see a buncha pre-teens working to master actual instruments, let alone brass (as opposed to sitting at home playing Guitar Hero) and learning a repertoire whose roots could likely be tracked back a century or more. And here's strange facet of New Orleans culture in full effect -- kids could be doing ANYTHING on their day off. There's certainly other part time jobs to be had that take a lot less training and discipline and are a lot more contemporary. That anyone chooses this option is kinda extraordinary.
Then it was back to the hotel for another nap until we headed off into the Arts District to do unspeakable things. After that...
Some friends took us deep into the Bywater to Bacchanal. This is a place that could ONLY exist in New Orleans. The main building seems like it was a garage or storage shed; it's just two big, low ceilinged rooms (painted concrete, plaster?). Decisively ramshackle. Rudimentary kitchen in the back room, front room covered in raw wooden racks full of wine bottles, one wall covered in second hand refrigerator cases, the last wall being a crude bar. Out back there's a buncha beat up looking tables and white resin chairs strewn around. Two piece band playing on a rickety wooden platform in one corner. Pretty humble looking.
ONLY - the wine selection is extensive, canny, adventurous and eminently affordable (Amy got a glass of dry Spanish sparkling wine - a wineglass full, not a flute - for $4.50). Meanwhile, if you walked out back, and hung a right you found a tent rigged up where you could order up entrees of beef shoulder with fingerling potatoes and seasonal vegetables or a roasted quarter chicken with braised greens and rice - $12 a plate! And granted, it was served on a paper plate but -- frankly this is fine cuisine on a par with any place with a maitre d up front and linen on the table. Teh cheese platters were impressive too -- nice selection of distinctive cheeses served with a variety of breads and crackers -- enough to fill up the kinda serving platter you'd bring out a turkey on.
We spent some quality time here, then got a ride home.