Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In the Land of Fleur di Leis 2

Blundered through this day thru the mist of hangover. No doubt y'all no what that's all about so won't tediously belabor the point...
We caught a taxi out to Willie Mae’s Scotch House, on St. Ann in the Treme. Noted that the levelled projects are starting to be replaced by "mixed" income housing. That means developments built at one time by one developer but comprising a mix of building styles, serving different sized families. But all built from the same basic materials. So essentially an obvious simulation of an organically growing neighborhood with naturally occurring varied architecture. Still, I'm sure they're nice and if the gov't pointedly brings back the original inhabitants of the neighborhood it'll be all good.

Arriving at Willie Mae's we see that they've now installed a velvet rope outside to form a line; once you get in, you then get on the second line inside in the back room. We lucked out and proceeded directly to the second line and were seated in about 15 minutes. Lunch was as spectacular as we'd hoped - a big old platter of piping hot,crunchy,heavily crusted (distinctly salty but not obnoxiously so) Southern fried chicken, done to perfection as well as platter swimming in creamy butter bean puree. Yeah, easily the best fried chicken we eat all year tho it could be that what my pops used to whip up in his younger days might prove competition -- tho he didn't achieve the thickness and tastiness of coating that seems de rigeur here.

We taxied to the corner of St. Ann's and Rampart with the intention of visiting Congo Square -- where enslaved people's were allowed to meet, dance and recreate back in the bad old days. Yes, we should have done this 10 years ago but frankly, the richness of New Orleans culture, history and experiences on offer make it tough to really get to everything quick -- it takes time. Turns out that Louis Armstrong Park - wherein Congo Square resides, a little ways South of the main entrance - is closed for renovations; it'll re-open around the time of Jazz Fest. One of our local friends told us that it's been getting renovated for years now, being closed then opened then closed on an ongoing basis. I'll note that the temperature was in the low 70's F -- a delight for someone coming from the mid-Atlantic states where the temperatures had plummetted the day we took off for New Orleans.

Since we were already on Rampart Street it seemed a convenient opportunity to walk over to St. Louis Cemetery #1 off Basin Street. This is one of the old cemeteries in town and notorious for the acid trip scene shot for "Easy Rider" there -- which cause the immediate and eternal ban on further filming there by the Catholic Church which owns it. It's also the reputed final resting place of Marie LaVeux. Her name doesn't appear on the crypt in question but every tour guide and would be hoodoo practicioner obviously recognizes it as such. The crypt is covered in "XXX" and offerings of bottles of rum, wine, coins, beads etc. litter the ground in front. As we wandered about -- always a somber, calming experience -- came across another crypt that was even MORE heavily "XXX"ed than LaVeaux's with offerings of full glasses of wine, coins, beads and electronic hotel room keys piled up. As hoodoo practice is about practical, tangible results you hadda wonder who was interred here and what service the worshippers were hoping for: hotel keys?

Leaving St. Louis we walked across the French Quarter to Decatur Street and Café Du Monde. Yes, it's another touristy cliche -- but like many things like this there's a reason for it. Their coffee (with chicory) is simply my favorite; when I have a supply at home this is my weekend morning treat. Dark, distinctive, with a bit of acidic bite, but a lot of body. And the beignet's – as Amy says "Deep fried dough and powdered sugar; what's not to like?" The effect is like fresh zepoles or funnel cakes but lighter and somehow really not greasy - the accounts of Krispy Creme's history hold that their doughnuts are made with a beignet recipe acquired in New Orleans. The location is prime: it's beginning of the French Market, across the street from Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral with the Mississippi River behind it. People watching the folks streaming down Decatur Street (not to mention IN CDM itself) is always prime. The downside is that the place is pretty much packed 24-7; literally. The place is crowded, the ground (the bulk of the seating is outside on a huge covered patio)is covered in powdered sugar, spilled coffee and beignet scraps and usually thronged with pigeons looking for a meal. So...ya toughen up and enjoy.

Today, the Tornado Brass Band was playing out front to my great delight. Now I'll admit something right here; no doubt there's been brass bands outside Cafe Du Monde, or in Jackson Square or on Royal Street I've just passed by and ignored in years passed. Previously this all seemed a bit hokey and utterly contrived to appeal to tourists' sense of nostalgia. One of the gifts of "Treme" has been to give us some insight into the cultural engines that drive and have driven New Orleans. Of course the brass bands DO appear cute and old-timey and suggestive of simpler times to the out of towners (like me!) At the same time the urge to honor and preserve and make dynamic use of traditions like brass bands, Mardi Gras and such is a basic principle of local culture and has been for the odd century or so.

SO...the Tornado Brass Band played an estimable set, playing the modern standards of the genre (which I can now recognize from Rebirth Brass Band albums), as well as their adaptations of more pop tunes to this artistic mode -- following in the footsteps of Jelly Roll Morton and the like who likewise "jazzed up" church music, French dance tunes and blues and established the process we've called "Jazz" ever since.

Warm weather, live brass band music, warm doughnuts -- a nice trifecta of humble creature comforts.

After walking back to our hotel in the Business District we took a long nap. Upon waking we grabbed up cab up Magazine Street to Truckstop, a vintage men's clothes store run by J.R., former frontman for the late great Blackfire Revelation (imagine Blue Cheer playing MC5 songs -- yep, they were that good!) He's got a nice stock of vintage flannel and western shirts (I bought one embroidered with playing cards on front and with three desperadoes playing poker on the back), Frye boots and some new stock (the problem with vintage is -- most pieces are one of a kind and you never get one style/color in a selection of sizes). Cool place. All raw, red brick inside, decorated with vintage metal gas station signs, pinball machine and suchlike. Mecca to Southern boho types.

When the store closed we met up with J.R.s lady, Candice, who is the mastermind behind the Trashy Diva empire (multiple stores and locations in town, different store with different specialties - undies/corsets for instance) and their lovely little boy, Jackson. Drove over to Garden District Books which is located in a little mall on Prystania (Anne Rice used to have a shop in here) for a book signing by Sean Ysseult, former bassist of White Zombie/current leader of Rock City Morgue. She explained her raison d'etre for creating the book (basically, she pulled all her diaries and photo albums and such from storage to contribute to the book accompanying a White Zombie box set -- then Geffen did the most bare bones packaging possible), read some passages from the book (all very funny or poignant), and then signed anything anyone waved in front of her. In typical New Orleans style, there was a nice turn out from members of the community: club owners, folks from myriad local bands including Pepper Keenan late of Corrosion of Conformity, currently with Down.

Next we drove to MidCity for chow at Venezia. This is a big, noisey, family-style restaurant done up in a very 60's style of modern, ergo quaint. Decent prices, decent food (admittedly living across the Delaware from Trenton and 30 minutes North of Philly we're pretty blase about getting good Italian cuisine). Most fun was ordering a bottle of wine and some glasses at the bar and taking that out on the street to drink while we're waiting for our table -- drinking openly on city streets remains a source of ongoing amusement for us!

itselfbought coffee and beignet mix, bought a Saints at at Jackson Brewery. TGhere was a brass band playing in front of Café Du Monde while we were eating – bought their CD
Dinner with John and Candice – took taxi to John’s store Truckstop – which looked very cool – yakked a while, bought a western shirt from him.
Candice, John and Jackson drove to to Garden Book store – the mini mall that Anne Rice store used to be at for Sean Ysseult book signing – she talked a bit, read from the book and signed books.
Met Rik from Phantoms, owner of One Eyed Jacks and Pepper from COC
Then drove to Venezia in mid City on Canal Street – waited there a fairly long time – ok chow. Nice time talking. Candice thinking of opening a Trashy Diva in Austin. Her clothes are going to be used in True Blood again
They say to check out Tracey’s on Magazine Street - the original owners of Parasols (Parasols now owned and operated by folks from Florida)

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