New Orleans, Part 1: My first taste of Magic

We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park.  Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby.  The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.

I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket.  The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.

The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking.  Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water.  In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible.  We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it.  I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you.  We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.

As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation.  The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level.  The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.  

We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists.  We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.

We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line.  Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.

“Let’s go there,” I suggested.  “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”

They agreed.  

On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.

“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction.  It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.  

She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter.  The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka.  I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans.  Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.

I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it.  Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.

First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be.  Then our food came out.

We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes.  Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich.  We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.  

The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience.  Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink.  I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit.  I was stunned.

We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street.  We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.  

The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.  

My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes.  The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,

“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”

Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends.  We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.