New Orleans Gumbo City

People call us a gumbo. It’s really important that we get focused on the very simple notion that diversity is a strength, it’s not a weakness. Mitch Landrieu – Mayor of New Orleans.
Gumbo is official cuisine of the state of Louisiana. It combines ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including West African, French, Spanish, German, and Choctaw. Gumbo may have been based on traditional West African or native dishes.

orleans1In 1717, Scottish financial wizard John Law, who was Controller General of Finances of France under King Louis XV, deemed that a town named in honour of the French Regent, the Duc d’Orleans, be established 30 leagues above the entrance to the Mississippi. No one in France managed to make any money out of Louisiana and, in 1762, Louis XV gave it away to Spain. Dissatisfaction with the rule of Spanish governor Ulloa turned into open rebellion in October 1768. General Alejandro “Bloody” O’Reilly (those bloody Irish get everywhere) re-asserted Spanish authority. Napoleon wanted to acquire an overseas empire and pressured Spain to cede back Louisiana. President Thomas Jefferson was alarmed at the possible threat to American trade and after negotiations lasting only two weeks, France sold the whole of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million Louisiana joined the Union in 1812. New Orleans enjoyed over 50 years of prosperity after this, mainly thanks to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi. Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. However, slow erosion of the city’s prosperity began in the 1830s, when the Erie Canal began to divert the commerce of the upper Midwest to the East and New York.

New Orleans is below sea-level and has more miles of canals than Venice. The city has suffered more than its fair share of fires, floods and hurricanes, going underwater 27 times. The BP oil spill in 2010 followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. A chunk of the $15 million compensation BP initially sent to Louisiana funded emergency advertising to quell perceptions that New Orleans was laden with oil.

GETTING THERE
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is 15 miles from the city.  There are no direct flights from Colombo to New Orleans but Emirates fly daily non-stop from Dubai to Washington and Houston. There are internal flights to New Orleans from other US cities. Union Passenger Terminal in the Central Business District (CBD) is the arrival point for Amtrak trains from Washington and elsewhere. The terminal also serves Greyhound buses. Major road routes into town are Interstate 10, 55,90 and 61.

WHERE TO STAY
I would recommend staying in the French Quarter, Le Vieux Carré. In the De Luxe category, the Royal Sonesta is on Bourbon Street itself. In the Expensive category, the Monteleone on Royal Street has 600 rooms and is the oldest hotel in the Quarter. Paul McCartney once stayed at Le Richelieu on Chartres Street. This converted macaroni factory is classed as “Moderate”. At certain times of the year, it is best to book in advance. Hotel rooms will be scarce and expensive around Mardi Gras, Jazz & Heritage Festival and Superbowl. You will get exceptional hotel deals in July and August but you will also get heat and humidity.

EAT
I ate alligator tail. It tasted like fishy chicken. New Orleans prides itself on food and sustains 1,500 restaurants. At the top end, there is Antoine’s on St Louis Street, which is still going strong after 174 years. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme works his magic at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street. The place is small and they do not accept reservations, so there are long queues. Another celebrity chef, Susan Spicer, operates at Bayona on Dauphine Street, where the speciality is nouvelle cuisine. She has a number of restaurants around the city.
Everyone has to go to the Café du Monde on Decatur Street by Jackson Square. It only serves coffee, orange juice and beignets (a kind of doughnut dusted with powdered sugar – it can make one cough and sneeze). Many moderately priced cafés serve tasty sandwiches like the po ‘boy and muffuletta.

GETTING AROUND
The French Quarter is compactly walkable but the city as a whole is not walker-friendly. There are interesting things to experience in the Greater New Orleans area, which includes Algiers, the Warehouse District, the Garden District, the Irish Channel, the CBD and Uptown. Some New Orleans taxi drivers are knowledgeable and tell you many things about the city and themselves. This can be charming or tiresome. Some drivers do not speak English and get lost. It is best to establish a relationship with a particular cab firm or driver. The RTA (Regional Transport Authority) operates the streetcars and buses and provides an excellent colour-coded map of routes. You need to have the correct fare ready but you can buy VisiTour Passes for unlimited travel. A ferry operates between Canal Street Wharf and Algiers. It’s free for a 25-minute round trip.

BUYING
Many visitors will feel under pressure to buy food-related items. My own feeling is that too many people labour under the delusion that Cajun or Creole culinary masterpieces can be achieved with readymade concoctions from jars and packets. I was happy buying jazz and other genres on the French Market. Not far from there is the Farmer’s Market, which, in addition to fresh food products, has a flea market on Saturdays. There are many posh shopping malls in the CBD. Go to Royal Street if you want antiques.

orleansSITES TO SEE
The Cities of the Dead have elaborate above ground tombs and vaults because buried corpses had a tendency to float up again. The most ornate tombs are at St Louis Cemetery No.1 and Metairie Cemetery. Most of the cemeteries are in crime-ridden areas. There are many museums, my favourite being the Jazz Museum which is now located at 916 N. Peters Street. Others you might try are Ripley’s Believe It or Not or the Voodoo Museum. There are many art galleries, particularly in the Warehouse District that has developed into the Greenwich Village of New Orleans. Although various disasters destroyed many old buildings, much great architecture remains, such as the Cabildo and the Presbytère. The architect of the Pontalba Buildings on Jackson Square was James Gallier, who was actually an Irishman called Gallagher.

GETTING AWAY
our hotel should be able to arrange a trip to the Bayous. An hour and a half west of New Orleans is Lafayette, the centre of Cajun country, where you will be likely to hear good music and eat good food. The plantation system may have been an abuse of human rights and a contributory factor to civil war but it left some wonderful mansions behind, among them Destrehan (the oldest, built in 1787) and Houmas House which was the location for the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Many of the mansions offer accommodation. You might wish to visit the 100-acre Audubon State Commemorative Area, which includes a mansion I visited on Oakley Plantation. The ornithologist/artist Audubon lived at Oakley while tutoring the daughter of the owner.
There are many companies offering Mississippi river cruises by steamboat. Some carry on the old tradition of riverboat gambling.

orleans3

MUSIC
Cajun and black Creole music developed side by side. There was much intermingling of different cultures. In the 1930s, Dennis McGee recorded with Amédé Ardoin who was black. McGee’s name suggests Irish origin but his facial features reflected American Indian origin. A distinctive Cajun sound is the diatonic accordion adopted from German Jewish merchants. The exotic history of New Orleans and its rich ethnic mixture has made it a fertile place for wonderful music. Some great musicians helped build the city’s reputation: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker, Sidney Bechet, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, the Neville Brothers and the Marsalis family to mention only a few. One can get a great musical experience just walking up and down Bourbon Street. Bars and restaurants cater for musical browsing by providing alcohol in go-cups. The House of Blues on Decatur has hosted everybody from Fats domino to Eric Clapton. On Napoleon Avenue, Tipitina’s (named after Professor Longhair’s most famous song) began as a neighborhood juke joint, established in 1977, by a group of young music fans to provide a place for ‘Fess to perform in his final years’. Uptown offers classic New Orleans rhythm and blues as well as traditional jazz. The Nevilles perform here when they are in town. A Special guest on November 7 was Hugh Laurie!

TRAVEL ADVISORY
New Orleans was America’s most murderous city for much of the last two decades. Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. A cohort of rootless adolescent males translates into potential social disorder. Many of the recommended music venues are on a long street called Frenchman’s. At one end is a park that hosts abusers of many kinds of substances. I don’t know what is at the other end because I got in a cab after being stared at malevolently by sinister groups of people. This was in the bright light of morning. In 2004, a mugger shot and wounded the singer-songwriter Ray Davies CBE of the Kinks at 8.30 in the evening in the French Quarter. Walking alone in Louis Armstrong Park even in daylight is risky.