New Orleans Day 1

October 6, 2o17

Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes, 36 hours at 190 degrees

I landed at the Louis Armstrong airport in the early afternoon two days ago. At the top of the ramp from the airplane I took that first step back on land after being in the air for four hours. The airport smelled as fresh as they all do with their sanitizers and air circulation systems and yet it still had a certain flavor. I thought I smelled a drop of funk at the gate and as I walked out under the skylights in the main corridor. Even with the ventilation and cooling the air felt weighty with humidity, even so far from a door to the outside.

On the way to the French Quarter in the back of a minivan taxi the driver asked where I live. ‘People eat more healthy in San Francisco than they do here,’ he said. In the days and weeks before my trip I had heard nothing so much as the advice that I should prepare myself for entire days without vegetables. Of course there is no such thing as such a preparation, but about a month ago when I booked the trip I did get my blender out of the cabinet and start making kale smoothies in the morning, like I wanted to go right to the core of what it was I was going to be missing.

I walked through the French Quarter and wondered whether I had ever been in a place that looked and felt like this one. The first impression I had was that it reminded me a little of walking certain blocks in Paris in the summer. There is more color in the streets here than there is in Paris, where whole neighborhoods look like smoked salmon and capers on a baguette.

New Orleans is full of bright yellows and deep reds and greens, on the shutters and on the shop signs. There are black people everywhere here, and there is no telling how much the non-white skin tones and patterns of speech and mannerisms contribute to the technicolor feeling in the air.

My first stop was the Café du Monde on Decatur Street. I arrived in New Orleans with several lists of recommendations, and while it’s difficult to spend an entire visit in a new place bouncing from one recommended place to the next, there were certain places I knew I would not miss. This one hardly required very much of a commitment. I took a seat on a patio full of people who also thought a mid-afternoon donut and a cup of coffee might get them through to dinner. My hot beignets and black coffee shortly appeared, courtesy of a kind and fully-uniformed server.

Discretion was on the tip of my tongue as he set them down in front of me, three of them to an order, crispy and darkly golden and nearly buried under an avalanche of freshly-fallen powdered sugar. I was not going to let New Orleans get the best of me. Whether it was the best fried chicken or gumbo or cream sauce or late-night drunken morsel, I was committed to being able to put the fork down. Somehow, two beignets and a bite of the third were gone before I remembered my vow. They were just as I had always heard: sweet and hot and crispy but also chewy and just savory enough to convince me to keep eating.

More than one person mentioned that I would have to see the Rebirth Brass Band if I was lucky enough to be in town on a Tuesday, and so I took a car to the Carrollton District to have dinner at Jacque-Imo’s before going next door to the Maple Leaf Bar to experience rebirth. At Jacque-Imo’s I was shown to a small table on an open-air porch towards the back of the restaurant, where there was no shortage of more bright color. The lights were bright greens and reds and there were one-off plastic coverings--tablecloths--on every table, an orange one with purple fish next on one table and a dark green pattern that looked Native American on mine. On the wall behind me, next to each other in succession, hung a framed photo of Drew Brees, an illustration of the Virgin Mary, and a poster of the Top Chefs Louisiana 2013.

The plastic menu was in black and white, so obviously straightforward that it required no color—shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake for instance. I asked my server, a man in a black t-shirt and cargo shorts who looked like he knew a little about that cheesecake, if there was a drinks list. “No,” he said, “but there is one drink special. A watermelon mojito.” I skipped the watermelon but ordered the mojito, hoping it would help get me ready for whatever rolling thunder my digestive system was about to endure. I passed on the fried green tomatoes and calamari in “dark brown garlic sauce” and thought I ordered sensibly: duck and andouille gumbo followed by blackened redfish in crabmeat hollandaise, with sides of smothered cabbage and corn macque chow. “We take onions, peppers and tomatoes and we dice ‘em up real small, and then we sautée the corn with that,” advised my server. He was used to questions about the macque chow. I heard him repeat that top-secret information to three more tables.

I have had gumbo that was sticky with roux, and this one was deft and dare I say even delicate for a rendition of the famously rich soup. It lulled me into a sense of security. By the time my redfish arrived, and with it the crabmeat hollandaise and corn and cabbage and collards (compliments of the server, just because I had inquired about them) and a large gin and (precious little) tonic, I sent my discretion away as though it had never meant anything to me. All of it was exceedingly tasty, and even if it was rich, apart from the roux in the gumbo, there wasn’t any wheat gluten to be found anywhere, which is usually my nemesis when I eat too much of something. An indulgence in a little fat never amounted to much trouble.

It took every minute of the two hours I waited for Rebirth—the cigarette outside on the bench for please some fresh air and the cold Jagermeister shot because everyone knows about the medicinal properties of the great and sugary herbal syrup—for me to find my equilibrium and a little bounce in my feet for my first ever New Orleans jazz show.

–Matthew Straus