Last week, I traveled to New Orleans, a sort of culinary homecoming. New Orleans is a hangover materialized in a place. I’d venture to guess that this was true before Hurricane Katrina too, though now, after the storm, tatters of dressed up houses left behind after that oft-mentioned and ever-present marker of time, share blocks with places redressed or rediscovered by new inhabitants, all of whom look to be cut from the same hipster cloth double-daring me to say I like the city’s grit from behind black plastic glasses or perched on a tall bike.
I stayed in Bywater, just across the bridge from the Lower Ninth Ward, where the ill-prepared levees allowed water to decimate a community that news cameras documented the neglect of as their bodies festered in water that our then-president glided over in a helicopter, looking down, concerned.
A visitor here can’t escape mention of “the storm” or “the lower ninth” or “the flood.” Everyone at every moment is conscious of this as I, a New Yorker on 9/11, can identify with.
The flipside to this melancholy is that every single night there is a party. An alcohol and cuisine-fueled escape from everyday life that tourists drop in on for a day or week or two to drink Jell-o shots from a very large, very well-endowed woman’s cleavage because, what the hell? Its New Orleans, baby! The locals are there too, at the fringes, drunkenly stepping off the sidewalk to give way to revelers bound for Bourbon Street because they’ve seen this party before.
And like anyone, or anywhere, that parties too long or too hard, New Orleans herself seems to have lost sight of why there’s a party at all. To make money? To get shitfaced every night without purpose is only cute during a very short window. Look at Ke$ha, or better yet, Brittany, a Louisiana native. What’s cute in your twenties doesn’t have staying power and if the goal is to raise capital, perhaps sobering up and making a plan in the bright of day might be advisable.
I knew I was going to be in trouble, as a morning person. One of the draws of NOLA is the “to go” cup from any bar. A sophisticated and measured blend of citrus, gin and absinthe or Everclear-laced slush in a plastic fishbowl, you can get anything to go, to anywhere. Maybe not church? but maybe.
My homecoming came at Jacques-Imo’s where the cuisine I was raised on cooked from my father’s well-worn copy of Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, was laid in front of each diner and I ate etoufée as good as my own. I learned to make roux as soon as I was tall enough to see into the rondeaux, being warned to this very day by my father to “watch out, that stuff’s cajun napalm!” and it was meaningful to have the real thing, to taste cajun terroir.
As a drinker in New Orleans, I enjoyed the party, the five days chasing my hangover and grogginess with a Bloody Mary, a Corpse Reviver, and somewhere in my brain the knowledge that I don’t want to live on butter and booze forever.
I’m looking forward to twenty twelve and my hopes for it. I like knowing where my boundaries are and looking at me as I write this are my pink beads that I earned honestly from a nice young man on a balcony, right next to my jar of pigs’ snouts that I will never eat. Another talisman of experience to dull the heartache next time I am told at an expensive restaurant back home that the white wines by the glass are chardonnay or pinot grigio and I long for one more blurry night in New Orleans.