Like many, I've been frustrated by my inability to help the people and the city of New Orleans for the past few weeks. Other than sending money to the Red Cross, many of us have had our hands tied. I decided today to try to make a small contribution to Redszone in honor of this city that inspired Charles Kuralt to remark:
"Unique" is a word that cannot be qualified. It does not mean rare or uncommon; it means alone in the universe. By the standards of grammar and by the grace of God, New Orleans is the unique American place.
I spent quite a few hours today typing up the "New Orleans" chapter of Kuralt's fantastic 1995 book Charles Kuralt's America. I have inserted the amazon link above partially in hopes that I'm not breaking any copyright rules by transcribing this chapter. If you enjoy the New Orleans chapter, do yourself a favor and order the book. I've probably read it close to twenty times myself, and I find a few new nuggets of interest every time.
The premise of the book is that Charles Kuralt has just retired from CBS and his long-running hit programs On the Road and Sunday Morning. He wanted an adventurous passage from work to retirement.
Here, then, is Charles Kuralt unsurpassing tribute to that most unique of American cities:Quote:
I would revisit my favorite American places at just the right time of the year -- the Florida Keys before it got too hot, the Minnesota canoe country before it got too cold, Charleston in azalea season, Montana in fishing season, Vermont when the oaks and maples turn crimson and gold. I would go to New Orleans and Alaska and the Blue Ridge Mountains and old New Mexico and the coast of Maine.
It's not a long taxi ride from the airport to the hotel where I like to stay in the French Quarter, twenty minutes or so if there's no traffic. That was plenty of time for John Laine, the cab driver, to discourse on the main themes of the city: family, music and food.
"My great-grandfather was one of the first white jazzmen, 'Papa' Jack Lane. You must have heard of him. He played with Kid Ory and Leon Rappolo and those guys around the turn of the century. His drums are in the Jazz Museum. You can see 'em there.
"Of course, what I remember him for is not his drumming. He used to work with mules down beside the old molasses factory, and he'd stick his whole arm into a mule's rectum to lubricate up in there. I was just a little boy, and I'll tell you, that impressed the hell out of me!"
I could have closed my eyes in the backseat of the taxi and known where I was purely by the pungent accent washing over me from up front. The authentic dialect of New Orleans has been compared to Brooklynese, but really it is like no other in the world. From the first time I heard those sweet New Olreans intonations, they have been music to my ears.
"My grandfather Alfred played the trumpet. He came up with Louis Armstrong. He loved that man, and I did, too, especially when he sang 'What a Wonderful World.' Louis Armstrong should have been a U.S. ambassador. Everybody loved him."
John paused just long enough for me to murmur agreement and moved on to another subject, the truly universal one of spices and sauces and sustenance.
"I don't know where you're going to eat tonight, but you can't go wrong in New Orleans, you already know that, right? I got relatives in Spokane, Washington. I can't believe it, these people from Spokane just eat plain food!"
"Papa" Laine's great-grandson turned into Toulouse Street and stopped in front of the Maison de Ville. "Here we are," he said. "Life is short, now, so have a good time while you're here."
The next noon, I heard those exact words from Ella Brennan. I was sitting at a second-floor table in Commander's Palace, her Garden District restaurant, arguably the best eating place of all in this city devoted to eating. I had finished a good lunch of sauteed trout encrusted with pecans, and was surreptitiously sopping up the last of the brown sauce with a crust of bread. Just then, of course, the grand dame of New Orleans cooking dropped by to catch me eating with my fingers. I think she forgave me; we have known each other since we were in our twenties.
We fell to talking about the city's chronic problems: poor people and crooked politicians.
"I wish we didn't have the poverty and the corruption," Ella said, "but a friend of mine asked me, 'Do you like Italy?' I said of course, everybody likes Italy. My friend said, 'Well, think Italy.'
"I guess it's true. New Orleans is a Mediterranean city. It has certain habits, like good food, good times, families, friendship, poverty, sin...We're not going to change it."
Her gaze shifted to the rows of great gray tombs in the old Lafayette Cemetery across the street. "Just look over there," she said, and when I did, I knew right away what she meant.
She gave my hand a little squeeze as she got up to go. She said, "Have a good time while you're here."
Unless you're broke or sick or blue-nosed, I don't see how you could have anything but a good time in New Orleans. "Unique" is a word that cannot be qualified. It does not mean rare or uncommon; it means alone in the universe. By the standards of grammar and by the grace of God, New Orleans is the unique American place.
This would still be so if all the city had to offer were the flickering gas lamps in the soft nights, or the delicate tracery of the iron work on the galleries of the French Quarter (in New Orleans, they are galleries, not balconies, and they hang above banquettes, not sidewalks), or the open doors of the Dionysian dives bellowing loud music into Bourbon Street. But there is also the all-important matter of grillades and grits, of red beans and rice, of crawfish etouffee and and file' gumbo and pompano en papillote.
"If you understand New Orleans food, you understand New Orleans life."
This is Joe Cahn talking, standing in the bountiful herbs and spices aisle of his Louisiana General Store in the old Jax Brewery building on Decatur Street.
"Most of the United States was settled by Anglo-Saxons and Puritan types. The work ethic prevailed, and all the pleasures of life were frowned on. It's real simple: work ethic equals bland food."
"But New Orleans, on the other hand -- oh, man, New Orleans didn't know what the work ethic is, still doesn't! We were settled by Catholics from Spain and France who thought work should never interfere with the enjoyment of life. And that's what makes this place different from the rest of America. People in New Orleans believe in living in the present, and skimming off as much pleasure as they can today and eating as well as they can tonight. That goes for everybody. If you go to confession and say to the priest, 'I overate, Father,' you'll have his interest right away. He'll probably ask you, 'Where did you eat?'"
Joe Cahn has become a ruminative philosopher of food, maybe because he grew up in New Orleans gastronomically deprived. His father was not Cajun or Creole. He was Jewish, the southern representative of B'nai B'rith. Joe's mother couldn't cook. But Joe liked to eat. It didn't take long for the city's pervasive cooking culture to draw him.
"I worked in restaurants, always in the front of the house. I was never a chef. I appreciate chefs, but waiters are almost as important. The best food in the world served with arrogance is no good at all."
Anyway, the real New Orleans cousine, Joe Cahn says, isn't in the restaurants.
"It's in the kitchens, where the people who do the cooking only have so much to spend on food. One way to learn to cook is to go to the supermarket and hang around the greens counter or the meat counter. When you see someone buy a cheap cut of meat, ask "What are you going to do with it?"
In the back of the store, Joe Cahn operates the New Orleans School of Cooking. His tenured professor is an enormous and congenial man named Kevin Belton, six-foot-nine and 360 pounds, who moves about the kitchen classroom with the gladness and grace of a dancer. With many generations of New Orleans in his lineage, Chef Belton had the kind of upbringing Joe can only dream about.
"I always realized I was eating really well," he told me. "I imagine when I was about two weeks old, I thought, well, this nursing milk is fine, but let's get to the fish and crabs and shrimp, all that good stuff!"
"I'd come home from school and say, 'What's for dinner, Ma?' She'd be looking in the pantry and she'd say, 'I don't know yet. Give me a minute.' She was a real New Orleans cook. She could make great meals out of whatever there was in the house.
"I was always in the kitchen with my mother. She was a teacher, and if she had to speak to a student on the phone while she was cooking, she'd say, 'Kevin, do this' or 'Kevin, do that.' So I learned to do it all.
"Now my sons do their homework in the kitchen with me, and they're learning to cook the same way I did. Getting together in the kitchen is so much better than getting together in the TV room. If you go to a party, it's always two parties, the one in the living room and the one in the kitchen, and the one in the kitchen is the best."
In a three-hour class, Kevin Belton cooks for a roomful of adoring out-of-towners, mostly women making notes. The day I was there the women hailed from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, England, and Japan. They were cultivated folk and probably pretty good at cooking the food of wherever they came from, but Kevin, a missionary possessing Holy Orders, approached them all as aborigines in mortal need of enlightenment. He wound himself up and started preaching the true gospel, beginning with the Louisiana Trinity -- onions, celery, and green pepper. His sermon was so fervent that I started making notes myself.
"Jambalaya!" he exclaimed. "Jambalaya! The basic dish of rich man and poor man! Couldn't be simpler! One cup of rice, two cups of Trinity, two cups of liquid!"
He made the women repeat after him in unison: "One cup of rice, two cups of Trinity, two cups of liquid!"
"Right!" Kevin said. "And your two cups of liquid should include three-quarters of a cup of liquid from your cooked Trinity. The other cup-and-a-quarter is seasoned water if you're poor, fine stock if you're rich, whatever you've got!"
A mental image came to me of Kevin's mother looking around in the pantry for the dinner ingredients.
"Now," he asked, "shall we use butter or margarine in this recipe?"
The women were catching on. They recited, "Whatever you've got!"
"Right!" Kevin boomed. "Shall we add some chicken or some sausage?"
"Whatever you've got!"
"Right! And if you're cooking in big pots for a crowd the way my mother did -- whole households of relatives would come over to our house on the weekends -- you just have to be able to multiply: twenty cups of rice, forty cups of Trinity, forty cups of liquid!"
He set the jambalaya on the stove to simmer and moved on to the next recipe. When class was over, he served the students heaping dishes of jambalaya and bowls of gumbo, and for dessert, bread pudding with whiskey sauce. He set a place for me, too, and I can certify that a happier lunch was not consumed in New Orleans that day. One of the women at my table asked Kevin, "Could I substitute rum for the bourbon in the bread pudding sauce?"
Kevin beamed her a wide and silent smile.
"Oh, right!" she said. "Whatever I've got."
My purpose in revisiting New Orleans was to eat my way through a whole month of contented days and nights. This might be considered gluttonous anyplace else, but New Orleans is not any place else. I had a collaborator, Phil Johnson, wirter, musician, comrade, cook, and connoisseur, who has a busy schedule but is always ready to drop everything to go to dinner. We have been going to dinner in New Orleans for thirty years, Phil and I, and I have yet to pay for a meal. I guess I am going to have to put Phil Johnson in my will to pay him back, for this is his town and these are his restaurants. He is proud of them, and when he sits down at their tables, it is always as host, not guest.
Phil grew up in the third ward, a blue-collar neighborhood bounded by Canal Street, the river, and the cemeteries, among immigrants' children who learned to appreciate good food at home. One of Phil's childhood friends was Warren Leruth. Whle Phil worked his way up in journalism -- starting on the roof of the Pelicans' baseball park collecting foul balls for seventy-five cents a night, getting to know the sports writer for the New Orleans Item, and becoming, in time, a writer for the Item himself -- Warren was making a similarly modest start as an apprentice chef. Both of them eventually became famous in town, Phil as the nightly editorialist on WWL-TV, Warren as the proprietor of the city's most celebrated restaurant, LeRuth's. (He thought the capital R gave a little class to the name.)
Well, technically, LeRuth's wasn't in the city. It was across the river to Gretna, where Warren could afford the rent. Before he opened the restaurant thirty years ago, unpaid carpenters and tinsmiths were banging on the door with Warren barricaded inside hollering, "Mr. Leruth's not here! Come back tomorrow!"
Not long after LeRuth's opened, however, Warren's ingenious and original cooking brought people streaming over the bridge to have a meal -- including his old friend Phil Johnson. My first dinner there with Phil one night in the Sixties was a mouth-watering and eye-opening experience which I have remembered all these years. Warren Leruth's artichoke and oyster soup shook up the old Galatoire's and Antoine's world of New Orleans cuisine the way Paul Prudhomme's blackened redfish was to do a generation later.
There's no LeRuth's any more -- the daily pursuits of perfection finally wore down the chef and he closed the place rather than diminish it -- but Phil and I had a reunion with the great man at the annual Chef's Charity at the Fairmont Hotel one afternoon. The chefs in the kitchen, many of them illustrious in their own right, crowded around to shake hands with a living legend. I thought I caught Warren, a modest man, blushing. I was touched to see that chefs really are as venerated in New Orleans the way movie stars are in Hollywood -- even by one another.
In retirement, Warren has become a "taste doctor" for the big food companies, showing them how to make their salad dressing more palatable or inventing a better over-the-counter chicken sandwich or precisely copying a competitor's food, if that's what they want. His son, Larry, told me Warren recently copied all the Pepperidge Farm cookies, just to prove to himself that he could.
Starting, I suppose, with Warren Leruth, Phil Johnson long ago became friendly with every great chef in town. He is welcome to enter their restaurants through the kitchen to see what's cooking before ordering his meal.
With Phil's wife, Freida, we drove through a biblical thunderstorm one night, thirty miles across Lake Pontchartrain to the beautiful country inn, La Provence, near Mandeville, where Chris Kerageorgiou creates sauces that would make cardboard taste delicious. It is a trip I have made many times. I think those sauces alone make La Provence one of the best restaurants in the world.
Chris's friend and foil -- "I am the sexy one, he is the old one" -- is Goffredo Fraccaro, founder and chef emeritus of La Riviera in Metairie. Phil used to take me to lunch there (in the days before the restaurant was open for lunch) with a friend from the third ward days, A.J. Capritto, a lawyer given to sage pronouncements about New Orleans. (The poor ye have with ye always, but the rich go away in the summertime.")
Chef Goffredo is a master of veal and pasta, but his supreme accomplishment, the one that guarantees his immortality, is his Scampi La Riviera, still on the menu years after his so-called retirement. I stood over his shoulder one day and watched every move as he prepared this dish. He gave the world a cunningly abridged version of the recipe in a popular cookbook, but here is the real thing. If you care anything about good cooking, you will thank me for this:
SCAMPI LA RIVIERA
2 lbs. large shrimp 1/2 cup butter
6 cloves garlic, chopped 1/2 cup red vinegar
2 Tablespoons olive oil 8 mint leaves
1/4 cup parsley, chopped 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon paprika pinch of oregano
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Shell the shrimp, leaving only the tail shell. De-vein and rinse the shrimp and place them in a large cast-iron skillet atop a thin layer of olive oil. Season them with salt and sprinkle them with paprika. Bake in the over for 7 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the oven and add lemon juice, chopped mint, garlic, vinegar, and parsley. Sprinkle on a little more olive oil.
Place the skillet on a medium flame.
Add a bit of water and the butter and oregano. Cover the skillet and cook for 2 minutes, or until the flavor is concentrated and the sauce is smooth and thick enough to coat a spoon.
Top with parsley and serve.
After I first tasted this dish from Goffredo Fraccaro's stove, I have never seen any reason to order scampi anywhere else.
Oh, the dinners I had that fabled January!
I remember braised duck with duck crackling, andouille sausage and sweet potatoes at Brigtsen's in the River Bend section. Frank Brigtsen studied Fine Arts at Louisiana State University, then came back home to apprentice under Paul Prudhomme, first in the kitchen at Commander's Palace, then at Prudhomme's vastly popular K-Paul's on Chartres Street. Now Frank practices the Finest Art of all in his own restaurant, full every night of admiring local folk.
Emeril Lagasse, another Commander's Palace graduate, opened his own place in the Warehouse District in the spring of 1990. By the end of the year, Esquire magazine had anointed Emeril's Best New Restaurant in America. His is an open kitchen, so I was able to sit at the table and watch the artist at work.
Gunter Preuss of the Versailles served snails in a brioche, then scallops wrapped in fish on a plate with three sauces. I ordered a terrific, expensive bottle of cabarnet. Phil paid, as always.
Tom Weaver gave us a haute Creole masterpiece of a dinner at Christian's in a converted church.
A wry young Frenchman, Gerard Crozier, served us the best quail I've ever tasted, at Crozier's.
I remember a dish of oysters, spinach, and leeks in phyllo pastry (a variation, come to think of it, of Oysters Rockefeller) at Susan Spicer's Bayona Restaurant on Dauphine Street.
And I had several good meals at the popular tourist bar and cafe named "Olde N'Awlins Cookery" on Contri Street. The place is owned by Mike Lala, a long-time television cameraman in New Orleans who, after all those years of hanging out in bars, decided to open one. He has made his fortune serving the same four appetizers, four soups, and eight entrees year after year. It's a successful formula with the out-of-towners. "I don't change anything," Mike told me. "I don't even like to change the lightbulbs." Phil has known Mike Lala even longer than I have, but I always went to Olde N'Awlins alone. Phil says he isn't going there until Mike starts using tablecloths.
It is perfectly possible, I suppose, to have a bad meal in New Orleans; "What a pity," Orleanians would say about such a disappointment, and "Ain't that a shame!" But I got an early start in the better oyster bars and po' boy sandwich joints of the city. I have been a frequent visitor since I was a young reporter in the late Fifties covering the integration struggles and astounding politics of Louisiana. This beginning, and the informed culinary prejudices of my friend Phil, led me to a lifelong passion for New Orleans cooking. I have been overfed in this city, Lord knows, but I cannot remember ever being poorly fed, and I return frequently to New Orleans, always in anticipation, my eyes, as my mother used to say, always bigger than my stomach. I can't swear that all these recollections of New Orleans meals and New Orleans events date to my one January sojourn. Some of them may go back to the January before, or the January before that. My memories of New Orleans are glazed with remoulade sauce, and happily converge.
I admit that in this January it felt peculiar at first to have no assigments, no duties, nothing to do for a change but enjoy myself. I am a product of the Puritan work ethic Joe Cahn was talking about, and it seemed wrong not to be working. I kept these misgivings under control, and after a while they began to go away.
Most mornings, I was out early while the shop keepers were hosing down their sidewalks and the residents of the floors above were still opening their shutters to see what sort of day it was going to be. I was purely pleasure-bound, and I followed this route: down Toulouse toward the river, pausing at the newspaper boxes on the Bourbon Street corner for a Times-Picayune and a New York Times, left on Royal, right on St. Peter, and diagonally across Jackson Square, scattering the pigeons on an unswerving course for the Cafe du Monde in the French Market. There, I usually was able to settle myself at the same curbside table for my beignets and coffee.
You can buy beignet mix and cans of distinctive chicory-flavored Louisiana coffee and take them home, but the sugary square doughnuts and the cafe au lait never taste the same as when they are brought hot to your table and served in the open air beside the crossword puzzle and the basketball scores there at the corner of Decatur and St. Ann. There is never an hour of the day or night when beignets and coffee are not tendered at the Cafe du Monde, but even if you have to keep your jacket buttoned against the cool fog rolling over the levee into the market squares, the hour after sunrise is best. Then, late revelers and early risers meet. Once I was among the former, but in my old age I have discovered that the coffee, the best in the world, tastes even better after a little bit of sleep.
My early walks to the Cafe were mostly uneventful, but not always. One morning, I followed a trail of bubbles hanging in the air. The bubbles led me around a couple of corners before I spied their source: three tipsy college girls carrying rum drinks and bubble wands. (The Cafe du Monde is not the only place open all night; so are most of the bars.) These young women were lost. They stopped me as I past to ask where they could find a taxi to the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. When I pointed out that they were standing, at the moment, squarely in front of the hotel, they giggled, blew me some bubbles of thanks, and wobbled through the door.
This also happened: At the corner of Dauphine and St. Louis, a bottle broke with a loud crash. Scruffy young men poured out of a bar. An unmarked car with two plainclothesmen in it roared up and screeched to a stop. Somebody hollered, "He's the one with no shirt!" A guy in a clown suit shoted that he'd been robbed. One cop jumped out of the car and ran down St. Louis Street, the other circled the block fast with siren and lights going. By the time I had walked to Bourbon Street, a man with no shirt was lying on the corner out cold. Blood was coming from his head. He was handcuffed. The clown raced back down Bourbon past me as fast as he could run. Police cars arrived from all over, then an ambulance. All these things happened, and I walked on without knowing exactly what happened. My reporter's instincts failed me. I didn't even ask. I am a retired reporter.
By mid-morning in the French Quarter, after breakfast is done, a parade of familiar characters begins to appear. After a few days, as I met them or they became known to me, I could identify Ruthie the Duck Lady, who used to walk with a live duck and now carries a stuffed one; Willie the Dancer; George the Street Cleaner; the Chimney Sweep advertising himself with his top hat; the Clothes Pole Man selling forked poles to hold your clothesline up; and a changing cast of peddlers, shoeshine guys, mimes, painters, caricaturists, and musicians, all seeking a living in the street.
I met Mike the Banjo Player, who plays and sings old songs on the Moon Walk above the river, a nice guy with weepy drinker's eyes. The hat at his feet had only three dollars in it, though he had been singing for an hour. "Just trying to get enough money -- not for a drink," he said, "though I do drink -- but for lunch at my girlfriend's cafe down there." He waved vaguely toward Decatur Street. Mike said he could play in clubs but prefers the street. "We're a family out here," he said. "We're closer than some families that live in houses together."
I ran into Hack Bartholomew, who has been playing his horn at the French Market for years, and singing, soulfully, old marches and ballads, and hymns like "Amazing Grace." His grandfather was Reverend Hack, the preacher at Mahalia Jackson's church, Mt. Maria. Hack remembered me and wanted to know if I am a Christian.
"More or less," I said.
Hack said, "More is better."
Some of the street performers are precocious beginners, like Joseph Urby, nine years old, who tap-dances on Royal Street in sneakers with bottle caps tacked to the souls.
Some are old pros, like David Leonard and Roselyn Lionheart. She plays guitar, mandolin, and several African instruments -- kalimba, morimbula, and the like -- and he plays guitar, cornet, and harmonica. They both sing. They are very good, and their open guitar case fills quickly with cash whenever a crowd gathers.
Here is Roselyn explaining New Orleans jazz funerals to a knot of tourists:
"You're not supposed to cry at a funeral. Did you know that? You're supposed to rejoice that another poor soul has escaped this vale of tears. And if you can't rejoice that another poor soul has escaped this vale of tears, at the very least you can be glad it wasn't you!"
At that point, the two of them launch into a fine, swinging "Saints Go Marching In." Since the audience never tires of the song, neither do they. When the weather gets too hot in New Orleans, David and Roselyn said, they go off to play in the streets of Paris or Perugia.
The French Quarter street scene offers livlier sounds than most of its indoor music clubs these days. Sad to say in the city of Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, there is no single place a visitor can go to hear consistently suprerior traditional jazz.
"The good jazz clubs were mostly mob-owned," Banu Gibson told me. She ought to know. She used to sing in them.
"I don't know whether those guys liked the music, or whether it was a matter of mob price -- 'My club is nicer than your club' -- or whether it was just a way to launder money, or what. But when they cleaned the mob out in the Eighties, the clubs all folded one by one."
Banu is a bright, pretty, grown-up woman who thinks and walks and talks music and dancing and records with her own "New Orleans Hot Jazz Band." She came to lunch with me at the Bistro on Toulouse Street and brought along a copy of her itinerary for the coming spring: Spokane; Kansas City; New York; Chattanooga; Little Rock; Vienna, Austria. . . There's a place for her and her New Orleans band everywhere but New Orleans.
But she's not leaving. "I was born in Dayton, and I lived in Florida and New York, and when I moved to New Orleans, I wasn't ready for this place. I was in the supermarket checkout line and the woman behind me said, 'Do you have a car?' I started thinking New York thoughts. She wants a ride, or worse. She's trying to pull some kind of scam. Then she said, "Cause I hope you don't have to carry all those bags all the way home on foot.' She was worried about me! I was not ready for the friendliness of New Orleans, or the heat or the hedonism. But now that I'm used to it all, I can't imagine living any place else. I hope to find a regular gig, maybe open a jazz club of my own in one of the new hotels.
"However it works out," she said, "I'll say this for music: It's a business that doesn't hurt people. You go through your whole life singing and dancing, and you do no residual harm."
The remarks endeared Banu to me. Thinking about it later, I realized she had put her finger on the reason I have always liked musicians so much, though I can't even carry a tune myself.
I made the rounds: Preservation Hall, the Famous Door, Pete's Fountain's nightclub at the Hilton, the jazz brunch at the Court of the Two Sisters. All good tourist fun, but the best music seems to have drifted out of the Quarter downriver into precincts where tourists rarely venture. I took a long walk across Esplanade along Frenchmen Street one night and heard some first-class musical improvising at places with the unlikely names of Cafe Brasil, Cafe Instanbul, and Snug Harbor.
I heard rumors of late Thursday night jam sessions at a neighborhood place out near the Naval Base where self-taught young brass players show up to show off, but the directions I got weren't good enough to get me there. This was just as well, because it forced me into my one encounter with true greatness. I returned to the Quarter to hear Percy Humphrey play a set of his legendary trumpet solos at the Palm Court on Decatur Street. He plays only on Thursday, and maybe not for too much longer; Percy Humphrey is ninety years old. I concluded that jazz is hanging on in New Orleans, if not exactly flourishing.
This frustrates Ellis Marsalis, Jr., father of the celebrated Brandford Marsalis (saxophone), Wynton (foremost trumpeter of our time, I say), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums), and a fine pianist himself, who plays at Snug Harbor Saturday nights. I found Marsalis pere in his office at New Orleans University, where he heads the jazz faculty.
"Louisiana doesn't care a thing about its own music," Ellis Marsalis said. "Nobody encourages the young musicians. One year the state budgeted zero dollars for all the arts, less than any other place, less than Guam! There's just no support."
I asked him where he got his own jazz education. He laughed.
"I started out playing clarinet at Xavier school," he said. "If you were taught by the nuns, you didn't play jazz, I guarantee you. And my dad was the manager of an ESSO station. There was no music in the family. I learned mostly by listening to records, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum. I did hear Dizzy Gillespie in person one time, and that was an education right there. I just picked music up. I played for strippers, played for shuffles, played for comedians . . . If genes account for my sons' ability, they're genes from their mother's side. She's related to Alphonse Picou and some other great early musicians.
However that may be, as a pianist with a famous saxophone player and trumpeter in the family, and a fine trombonist and promising young drummer coming along, all Ellis Marsalis needs is a bass player and he'd have a band. I couldn't help suggesting to him that it might be one of the greatest jazz bands of all time.
"Well, maybe," he said, "but I never wanted a family band. You shouldn't ever stifle your children, and that's what a band would do if it was a bread-winning thing. An opportunity would come along for one of them, and he'd feel he'd have to turn it down to keep from deserting the family. I told each of them to look over his options and do what was best for himself. That's the only way a person should live his life."
A procession of young students came and went in the hall outside Ellis Marsalis's office as we talked. As Professor Maralis, he is helping them perfect their art and find their own opportunities in music, as he helped his sons. Most of them are going to find the opportunities outside New Orleans, which doesn't encourage them to stay. What a pity, as they say. Ain't that a shame?
I tramped all the streets of the French Quarter in the cool January afternoons, in love with the arcades and shaded courtyards, the ferns in hanging baskets, the glitter of old silver in the shop windows, the faded pink patina of brick walls in the sun. I made one extravagent purchase, at Waldhorn's on Royal Street, the oldest antique shop in town. I meant only to walk in and look around. Before I knew it I'd bought an eighteenth-century English partner's desk, an old leather armchair, a stylish architect's table, and a library ladder to equip the small office I planned for myself back in New York. That's what happens to a man suddenly liberated from the sheltering bosom of a big corporation. He gets drunk with freedom. Temptation overcomes prudence.
New Orleans is a city teeming with temptations, of course, and always thinking of new ones. They are building a world-class casino for organized gambling, which strikes me as a world-class mistake. Las Vegas is one kind of city, New Orleans is another, and I'd hate to see the two become confused. But New Orleans is not without greed. They are already selling potions for gambling success in the voodoo shops on the side streets.
If you are comfortably situated in a French Quarter courtyard, as I was, with a fountain murmuring, the greatest temptation of all is to settle for the fascinations just outside your door. This is a local attitude of long standing. When the Americans flocked to New Orleans early in the last century to settle the city uptown (that is upriver, on the other side of Canal Street), the original French and Creole residents saw little reason to cross the dividing line and mingle with the uncouth newcomers. New Orleans is still a city devoted to staying put. People live distinct lives in distinct neighborhoods, with precious little coming and going between them. Joe Cahn told me about an old woman, a friend of his, who moved from Chartres Street to Royal, a distance of one block. She came moping into his store one day, obviously feeling a little down.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Yes, yes," she said, "but I miss my old neighborhood."
A visitor really shouldn't succumb to such constraints, so as the days went by, by a force of will, I directed myself from the Quarter into the other 350 square miles of the sprawling reclaimed swamp of a city (two hundred of which square miles are said to be more or less on dry land).
I took a rickety seventy-year-old streetcar out St. Charles Avenue, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, clickety clack, a satisfying slow, stately way to travel through the quiet precinct of live oaks and crape myrtles and great antebellum houses. This other New Orleans was put here by the Protestant planters and entrepreneurs who floated down the river from the East after the Louisiana Purchase. The Garden District stands in elegant contrast to the crowded Creole city only a mile or two away, and it reflects an entirely different view of what life should be: serene and sumptuous, not brazen and exciting. I admire the mansions the newcomers built, but I think I would have preferred the more stimulating company of the Creoles. Look at the names of the streets where the Americans built their most beautiful dwellings: First, Second, Third, and Fourth. These people were long orthodoxy and short on imagination.
Streets in such a whimsical metropolis should have better names than First, Second, Third, and Fourth. Luckily, a more creative class of street names was also at work. Half a dozen blocks away, the stroller seeking more felicitous streets, comes, sure enough, to Felicity, and then to the Greek muses in turn, Polymnia, Euterpe, and Terpsichore, pronounced Terpsy-core. Never mind pronunciation. Who wouldn't rather live on a street named for Thalia, the muse of comedy, than on First or Second or Third? Erato, who inspired love poems, has her street, and so does Clio, goddess of history, almost under the Pontchartrain Expressway. Melpomene Street, after it crosses St. Charles, becomes Martin Luther King Boulevard. I wonder whether somebody in City Hall, looking for a street to rename for the martyred Dr. King, remembered that Melpomene was the goddess of tragedy.
After you get over the disappointment of the few numbered blocks, it slowly dawns on you that New Orleans rejoices in the most lyrical street names in the world. Where else can you take a walk down Narcissus Street, or Venus, Adonis, or Bacchus? Not only are the gods so honored, but also all the best human impulses, Community, Concord, and Compromise. On my way to the Pontchartrain lakefront one day, riding with a cab driver who blessed himself with the sign of the cross as we passed each Catholic church (but not the other churches), I took note of the names of the streets we crossed: Abundance, Treasure, Pleasure, Benefit, and Humanity. Then I remembered the name of the wide thoroughfare on which we were traveling, a boulevard so familiar that nobody thinks any more about the meaning of its name -- Elysian Fields! The paradisiacal home of the blessed after death is best known, in temporal New Orleans, as the fastest way to get from the river to the lake.
Weakness of the flesh is recognized in the street names too. Everybody knows the name of one such street by the tram that used to run along it, the Streetcar Named Desire. Just for the mainly reverent record of the New Orleans street-namers: the street one block over from Desire is Piety.
Some of the street names are too much for present-day Orleanians to handle. The correct way to pronounce them is exactly the way it's done locally; when in the Big Easy, do as the Easies do. Chartres has become Charters, for example, and if you try to give it the pronunciation of the French cathedral city, nobody will know which street you are talking about.
Other street names defy proper spelling. Phil Johnson told me about a police officer who encountered a dead mule on Tchoupitoulas. Having to write a report, he dragged the animal to Camp.
One rainy afternoon, almost one hundred and eighty years to the day after Andy Jackson fought the British in the Battle of New Orleans, I took the sternwheeler Creole Queen down the river to Chalmette, where the battle was fought. When the boat got there, I turned my raincoat collar up and took a walk across the field. Because of the rain, I had the place pretty much to myself.
It was easy to imagine the brilliant array of British soldiers, scarlet-coated dragoons, proud Highlanders in their regimental tartan -- thousands of them, under the command of the chivalrous and debonair General Sir Edward Pakenham -- charging across that field with drums rolling and pipes playing. Waiting for them, behind a wall of mud, was a genuine American conglomeration, if not exactly what you'd call an army: Kentucky long-riflemen, Tennessee volunteers, Mississippi irregulars, Louisiana militiamen, free black men, Choctaw Indians, a regiment of Irish, a collection of Creoles, and a band of pirates under Jean Lafitte.
It was the last battle of the last war between the British and the Americans. It lasted half an hour. When it was over, Pakenham was dead. Most of his senior officers were dead. Two thousand British soldiers were dead, wounded, or captured, and the rest were in flight. The American casualties numbered thirteen. That must have been some half hour.
The body of General Sir Edward Pakenham went back to England preserved in a keg of rum. Andrew Jackson went back to New Orleans in triumph. They rang the bells of the Cathedral and placed a laurel wreath on Jackson's shaggy head. Eighteen pretty girls in white gowns with silver stars on their foreheads, representing the eighteen states, cast flowers in his path as he strode through the public square. There's a majestic statue of him in the middle of the square now, the conquering hero astride a rearing horse. They don't make them like that any more, either statues or horses.
The Americans supplied the pluck of New Orleans, the Creoles supplied the rapture, the Africans provided the cadence. But that still doesn't account for a certain spice in the life of the city. The spice was the gift of the Cajuns.
The Cajuns came here in the first place because they didn't have any place else to go. More than two hundred years ago, the British expelled them from Nova Scotia, which the French called Acadia. Families were torn apart by the banishment. Thousands died at sea. Three or four thousand found their way to New Orleans, but not being city people, they moved on to the embracing safety of the swamp grass between the Mississippi and the Gulf. Here the Acadians became, in the lingo of their neighbors, Cajuns, and here many of them still live in a sort of preindustrial agrarian life, farming and fishing and hungting in the bayous and letting the good times roll.
I have spent many contented hours in Cajun country, which is south and west of New Orleans in the once-unpopulated countryside. One day years ago, I pulled a chair up to an outdoor table Harvey's Cypress Inn on the Bayou Chevreuil shortly after noon. When the sun went down, I was still there, still working at a meal of boiled crawfish, lightly seasoned, still tossing the shells overboard into the black water, still drinking beer and listening to Cajun fiddle tunes. It had to be a long meal because there is no way to eat crawfish in a hurry, and even if there were, it would be wrong to rush through such a pleasure. I don't have very many regrets about my life, but one of them is that I haven't spent more afternoons like that one.
I wouldn't want you to think the Cajuns are only eaters and drinkers and singers of songs. They have close, strong families. They support one another in time of trouble. the are devout Roman Catholics, up to a point. Cajuns believe in God, but they also believe God winks at a lot of little things.
I fell to wondering how Cajun habits and music and language are prospering these days, so I drove down through the swamps to Houma to see an acquaintance, Lenn Naquin. He and his brother, L.J., took me to lunch at Savoie's Restaurant, where Jimmy and Sandra Savoie, mistaking me for a celebrity, couldn't be stopped from preparing seafood gumbo, stuffed bell peppers, jambalaya, sauteed oysters, shrimp and fried perch, and serving all these dishes at once while Lenn and L.J. talked about Cajun life and how it has changed.
"It's the hunting and fishing life that appeals to me," L.J. said, "and I'd say that hasn't chanted at all. I go deer hunting and duck hunting -- mallards, wigeons, pintails, ringnecks. And I go fishing for red drum and speckled trout and bass and sac-a-lait -- that's our Cajun spotted perch. The hunting and fishing right here in Terrebone Parish is the best I've heard of in the world. I went to Colorado one time with my son and asked at a sporting goods store where we could go trout fishing, and the guy took out a map and showed me a spot. He said, 'One man had a real good day here yesterday. He had three strikes and caught one fish.' I thought, good God, one fish is a good day? See, I'm used to catching a hundred fish before lunch."
"There's always something happening," Lenn said. "Gator season is September. Everybody tries to get an alligator tag and get 'em a gator. Well you can see why. I think this year, a gator was worth forty dollars a foot at the tanning company. You get you a twelve-foot gator and that's pretty good money.
"Shrimping is closed right now, so all the shrimpers are out trapping -- nutria, otter, muskrat, some mink. That's until February, and then pretty soon the shrimping starts up again."
Jim Savoie, who had pulled up a chair, said, "Don't forget the crawfish."
Lenn said, "Oh, yes, the crawfish are just coming in, and they'll be good until about the first of June. During Lent, I still don't eat meat on Friday. Most people don't. It's not a sin anymore, people just don't do it, and the peak of crawfish season is during Lent. On Good Friday, every crawfish in the parish better fear for his life!"
"Ain't that the truth?" Jim Savoie said.
As our talk meandered on, though, I inferred that aside from the sporting aspects, Cajun life is being watered down by the influences from the world outside.
"We were brought up on the bayou," Lenn said. "It's Bayou Dularge, and we were probably the last generation to remember going out in our pirogues and playing in the bayou all day, and then sitting out on the porch and talking all night. Traffic? You could hear a car coming for five miles in the silence of that place.
"We always went barefoot to school. We weren't poor -- Daddy had the grocery store and the shrimpers would take whatever they needed and come back and pay their bill after they went shrimping. It was just that nobody wanted to wear shoes to school.
"Our father spoke French -- well, his customers, that's all they spoke. Out the end of the bayou where the road stops, the old families still speak French. But my generation was the first to have to speak English in school, that was the new rule. It was in the Fifties, I guess, all the school books came out in English.
"Now there's a big effort to teach the children French again to keep the heritage from dying. But they'd rather watch TV. It's too late, see."
"Ain't that the truth?" Jim Savoie said.
"I wish you could meet one old woman I know," Jim said. "She lives back in the swamp. She knows every bird and animal. She calls the alligators up to be fed. There are still some old folks like that, but not as many as there used to be."
"Ain't that the truth?" It was Lenn's turn to say it.
I asked about Cajun music, which is infectious and full of joy, and seems to be thriving at places like Prejean's in Lafayette and Fred's Lounge in Mamou. Fred's is the place you didn't think existed any more, the place your mama told you to stay away from when you were a kid, and you grew up and didn't and were never sorry.
"I love that music," Lenn agreed. "Daddy had a saloon beside the store. Friday was Crab Boil Night, and Sunday was Music Night, accordian and fiddle, I can hear it yet. But right around here, there's not much French music anymore, not even on the radio. Maybe the oil-field workers who came from the outside never got into it, and our people died off. Maybe there were never as many Cajun musicians as we thought."
Was the day coming, then, when Cajun country would be like every other place?
"Well, the day may be coming when Cajun country isn't here at all," Lenn said. "Terrebone is the largest parish in Louisiana, but it gets smaller with every storm. The erosion is terrific. The Gulf is taking the land and we'll never get it back again."
He sat for a minute shaking his head over that sobering fact. "The Lord giveth," he said, "and the Lord taketh away."
Then he brightened and smiled. "But here we still are," he said. "Everybody's friendly, you go around and see. Everybody will talk to you like they know you. That's the Cajun way, and most people here are still Cajuns. You can tell by their names. Just go down the road and read the names. All you'll see are Boudreaus, Heberts, Dupres, LeBlancs . . .
"And here we are eating at Savoie's. How do you like your food?"
That night, back in New Orleans, a woman customer at the bar where I went for a late-night beer was bantering with some boisterous male conventioneers adorned with necklaces of Carnival beads.
"Give me some beads!" she said.
"Show us something! they said.
She pulled up her sweater, undid her bra, and gave them a flash of her breasts.
They cheered and gave her all their beads. I knew it was time to get out of town.
New Orleans looks forward to Mardi Gras, but after a month, I was feeling spiritual about the city. I felt I'd had my darling to myself, and I was in no mood to share her with others at a raucous party.
A night or two later, I had dinner alone at Antoine's, the one-hundred-fifty-year-old restaurant that is one of the abiding charms of the French Quarter. It was just before closing time, but Mr. Guste let me in. (He is identified on the back page of teh unchanging menu: "Bernard R. Guste, Proprietaire Cinquieme Generation.") I ordered six Oysters Bienville, baked in white wine sauce flavored with onions, pimiento, and peppers, a dish created at Antoine's sometime in the last century -- six oysters, nothing more. I ordered a noble bottle of white Burgundy, Meursault Les Charmes. I ate slowly, thinking about the taste of the oysters. I drank a silent toast in the emptying dining room to good food and drink, to all things traditional and enduring, and to a month without care in one of the last places on earth that cares about such things.
The mist was coming in off the river as I walked back to my room. The next morning, John Laine came by in his taxi to drive me to the airport.