Monday, August 29, 2016

Attending Bouchercon? A Personal Guide -- What to Do (and Not to Do) In New Orleans

Heading to New Orleans for the first time to attend Bouchercon?  Leave your Midwestern sensibilities at home and prepare yourself for America's most remarkable city.

New Orleans is a rich gumbo of cultures, food, sounds, music, history and life. It is the Crescent City, the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy. It  gave birth to Jazz, Louis Armstong and Dr. John. It is a place where piano players are called Professor, and the greatest of all was Professor Longhair.

New Orleans is where there really was a Streetcar named Desire. It was home to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Its literary heritage gave birth to characters as diverse as Walker Percy's Moviegoer and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. It was home for John Kennedy Toole, whose personal story is as compelling and more tragic than his unforgettable character Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, one of America's great novels. And of course only New Orleans could have given birth to the Vampire Lestat, dark hero of the Vampire Chronicles created by Anne Rice, that forever changed the vampire legend.

Streetcar Named Desire
I first fell under the spell of New Orleans in 1987. I've been back nearly thirty times, attending conferences, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras -- and just visiting. I've ridden the St. Charles Streetcar, walked Bourbon Street at 4 a.m., danced with the prettiest girl in New Orleans, tossed beads, eaten crawfish, drank from to-go cups, and walked through the Quarter watching the City wake up on an early Sunday morning. With my son, I worked on houses and served food to victims in the wake of Katrina. And I've written about this city that I've grown to love.

To really appreciate New Orleans, you have to know something of its history. So here's just a quick history of the city and a bit of wisdom about the City I've picked up over the years. But New Orleans is a town you explore and discover for yourself. So bring your most comfortable shoes and plan to walk around.



Nouvelle Orléans was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1718 (his brother Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded Mobile, the first capital of the Louisiana Colony) on the first high ground north of the mouth of the Mississippi. Yes, it is high ground. As the city expanded, it had to grow into areas below sea level -- hence the canals and giant pumps that keep the city (mostly) dry.

Jackson Square, the Cabildo (left( and St. Louis Cathedral
The French Quarter and the American Section (now the Business District) are separated by Canal Street. There never was a canal there, but all street names change as they cross Canal Street.

New Orleans is a Creole city, not Cajun. Cajuns are the largely rural folks from the bayous, descendants of the Great Migration when they were expelled by the British from Acadia (now Nova Scotia). Cajun comes from Acadians, morphed to A'cajuns, and finally to Cajuns. If you don't know the story, read Longfellow's great poem Evangeline.  The Evangeline Oak still stands in a church courtyard in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Creoles, on the other hand, are descendents of the original French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana. It is an honor in New Orleans society to trace your heritage to a fille à la cassette, a casket girl. They were recruited from French orphanages, streets and prisons to come to Louisiana as wives for the men settling the French colony. Before leaving for the new world they were given a small black case that resembled a casket in which to carry their belongings. Hence, the casket girls.

Race has always been a part of New Orleans, but in different ways than any other place in the South. Slave auctions were held in the port of New Orleans. On Sundays, plantation owners would often bring their slaves to New Orleans and allow them to go to Congo Square, which was located where Louis Armstrong Park now stands across from the French Quarter. That is where slaves could play music, dance and have a touch of freedom from their masters. Congo Square still has a special meaning to those in New Orleans.

But New Orleans was also the only place in the South where one would find Free Men of Color, some of them slave owners. New Orleans also had a social strata based upon degrees of color. Quadroons (one-fourth black) and Octoroons (one-eighth black) were recognized in society. Quadroon and Octoroon Balls were staged by mothers hoping to match their daughters with white lovers.


Streets are generally built to follow the contours of the river, so they do not travel in straight lines. Consequently directions in terms of north, south, east and west are useless.  Ask a local directions, and you are likely to have them given with referring to Downtown (toward the Quarter); Uptown (toward the Garden District, Tulane University and the Audubon Zoo); Riverside (toward the river) or Lakeside (toward Lake Pontchartrain.

All street names change at Canal Street.  Here's a list, with the street name in the Quarter listed first:
North Rampart / South Rampart
Burgundy / University Place
Dauphine / Baronne
Bourbon / Carondelet 
Royal / St. Charles
Chartres / Camp
Decatur / Magazine
North Peters / Tchoupitoulas 


Don't get so drunk (or allow someone else to get so drunk) you don't know where you are or have your wits about you.

Don't go into deserted areas along the backside of the Quarter at night.

Don't flash money. Keep your wallet in a front pocket and don't carry a dangling purse. Pick pockets abound.Don't walk into the cemeteries (Cities of the Dead) by yourself or in a small unescorted group, except for Lafayette No. 2 across from Commanders Palace. They are dangerous places.

And whatever you do, when some six or seven year old boy comes up to you and says "Bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes?"  DON'T make the bet.  Sure as hell you do, he's gonna tell you, and then some big guy will step up and say, "Pay him."

(The answer:  "You got your shoes . . . on your feet.")


Wander Jackson Square, particularly in the morning as the city comes to life.  The street artists set up all around the iron fence of Jackson Square. The square is anchored by St. Louis Cathedral at one end, and the centerpiece is the namesake Statute of Andrew Jackson in the center of the park.  Next to the Cathedral is the building called The Cabildo.  That is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed.
Beignets and Cafe au Lait

Start your day (or end your night in the Quarter) with beignets and cafe au' lait at the Cafe du Monde. Open 24/7/365.  Nom nom nom. Order more.

After lunch, wander along Royal Street. Nose around in the art galleries and old shops and listen to the street bands that set up there for the afternoon.

Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar. It's a great way to see and be a part of the city.

Get off the St. Charles Street Car and stroll through the Garden District. There are maps available. Magnificent homes.

World War II Museum.  Few know that the Higgins boats -- those WW II boats that delivered troops from ships to invade beaches, not only in Normandy, but also in Italy and throughout the Pacific, were all built in New Orleans. This gave rise to the World War II Museum, which is far more than you might expect.  A really wonderful museum.


Drink a Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. Actually, do two. One in the piano bar and one in the patio.  Patio is wonderful day or night. But be careful.  Hurricanes taste like fruit punch & kick like a mule. They also have a variety of other tasty rum concoctions. All are worth trying, but they are potent! Note: At the piano bar, you have to pay more to have them play "Saints" -- but you don't have to pay extra to have them play the New Orleans classic "They All Axed for You"

Try a Hand Grenade at the Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street.  Beware -- its topped with a 151 rum floater. This has a sentimental attraction for me from my first visit in New Orleans -- where I gallantly saved the prettiest girl in the Big Easy from some oaf who was bothering her -- then danced with her.

Get a drink at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a bar on Bourbon Street a few blocks away from the heavy trafficked areas. I'm not sure anything has been done to Lafitte's in 200 years except add electricity for the dim lighting and move in the piano. If you want to seem like you know what you're doing, ask the piano player to play something by Professor Longhair.

Get a drink at the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street. Do this early in the evening.  It's a revolving bar, which may prove difficult to dismount later in the evening. By the way, the Monteleone was at one time home to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams -- and is a wonderful place to stay.

Try a Sazerac - a wonderful New Orleans combination of rye whiskey, Absinthe and bitters.  You can get them many places, but check out the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone (on Royale Street) where Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams once lived.

Beers -- Anyone who visits the Quarter will see the Jax Brewery, which now houses a variety of shops. Unfortunately Jax hasn't been brewed since the mid-1970s. The City's only remaining regional brewery was Dixie, which is still brewed, but post Katrina, it is brewed on a contract basis outside of New Orleans. Abita is a popular brewer from nearby Covington, La. It brews a a wide variety of craft beers including TurboDog, AndyGator, Purple Haze and my personal favorite, Strawberry Harvest.


Just wander through the French Quarter -- not just Bourbon Street.  Stroll the Moon Walk along the Mississippi (not named for the lunar body, but for Moon Landreau, long time mayor of New Orleans whose son is the current mayor). On the Moon Walk, you find the Aquarium and the Natchez Steamboat where you can take a ride down river around Algiers Point.

Take a Ghost Tour. They are campy, but lots of fun,  particularly if you have the right guide.

Visit the Fauberg Marigny District. This trendy little area is just outside the French Quarter. It's full of little bistros, bars and shops, but without the tee shirt shops and staggering drunks in the Quarter

Cities of the Dead ­‐ Cemeteries are part of the New Orleans mystique. St. Louis Cemeteries #1 is home to  Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau. But don't go alone. They can be dangerous places. Take the tours.


New Orleans is music. It surrounds you everywhere you go.  Pick up a copy of Friday edition of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper that includes the Lagniappe Section (Creole French expression for "a little extra" -- like getting 13 in a dozen donuts). It contains a list of all the music places and who is playing.


Crawfish - Yummm !
There are hundreds of great places to eat in New Orleans -- maybe thousands. And as one wag put it, restaurants have to be good because "they're competing with your momma's cookin'." This is just a sample, but you can check the many lists of great New Orleans places to eat online, and make up your own lists. Here are some of my recommendations.


Cafe DuMond -- Beignets & cafe au lait. That's it.

Court of the Two Sisters -- Ideal for Jazz Brunch.  Located on Royal Street, you walk through a carriageway to get to the reception desk. The buffet is acceptable and a good way to try a variety of New Orleans dishes. Best part is the atmosphere. Order a mimosa, sit under the grape vines and enjoy the music and life.

Muffaletta and Po Boys-- A muffaletta is a HUGE sandwich of Italian cold cuts & cheeses, topped with mounds of olive salad, served on fresh round Italian bread brushed soaked with olive oil. Central Grocery on Decatur between Cafe DuMond & the French Market is famous for making them. Frank's Restaurant two doors down from Central Grocery is my favorite. Others swear by the ones served warm at the Napolean House. Po Boys are a New Orleans staple available everywhere. They are sandwiches of all types served on crusty baguettes. Order it "dressed" (lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise). My favorite: Acme Oyster House Shrimp and Oyster Po Boy, dressed.

Lucky Dogs
Mothers -­- A New Orleans legend. In business district at 401 Poydras Street. Known for breakfast and great po boys for lunch.  Try the debris sandwich made from the pieces of ham and beef that fall onto the table while they cut the meat.

Old Coffee Pot Restaurant -- Located on St. Peter's between Bourbon & Royal and right next to Pat O'Brien's. Not well known, but one of the few places you can order calas, those wonderfully spiced sweet rice cakes served with powdered sugar and syrup.

Acme Oyster Bar  and Casamento's Oyster Bar -- Great place for oysters on the half shell and shrimp & oyster po boys. Wash down with an Abita beer. Acme is right in the Quarter and draws a lot of tourists, but locals too. Casamento's is on Magazine in the Warehouse District. Fewer tourists and more locals, but also more limited hours. Only open Thursday-Sunday.

Lucky Dogs -- For more than 50 years, these little carts shaped like hot dogs have made their way onto New Orleans streets in early evening and stay until nearly dawn, feeding the late night / early morning cravings of New Orleans partiers.


The Upperline Restaurant
Upperline Restaurant -- A personal favorite. Located in a house on Upperline Street in the Garden District.  You can get there by St. Charles Streetcar. It's only a block or two from the stop.  Extraordinary food and service.  The walls are covered with local art work.

Muriel's -­- I enjoy this place so much I set a scene in my first novel in the upstairs dining area. It's my traditional stop on my last night in New Orleans. On Chartres Street in Jackson Square just a few steps from St. Louis Cathedral. The double cut pork chops are sensational, and the creme brulee may be the best I've ever eaten. Make sure to go upstairs and see the meeting rooms that look like an 1800s bordello.

Patois -- Located in a converted house in a hidden away uptown residential area, this is a MUST. One of the five best meals I have ever eaten, and the duck confit salad is my favorite salad/appetizer EVER.

Bayona -- Located in a renovated 200-year-old creole cottage on Dauphine Street in a less-heavily traveled part of the French Quarter, this is award-winning owner-chef Suzanne Spicer's gift to the world. Extraordinary elegant food and friendly attentive service in a beautiful setting. But no worry. Business casual - no jackets or ties required. Oh, and no cell phones in the dining room.  That's a good thing.

Pascale's Manale:  Known for one thing: barbeque shrimp.  Huge head-on shrimp cooked in spicy butter sauce, served with a bib and a baguette for dipping in the butter. Located in Garden District just off St. Charles.

Commander's Palace -- ­ An ageless classic, winner of six James Beard Awards whose former executive chefs include Paul Prudhomme and Emerill Legasse. Need reservations and jackets for dinner (but not brunch).

Britzen's  and Gatreau's -- These two restaurants are favorites spots for locals and a few knowledgeable tourists. Upscale, located in converted houses in/near Garden District.

Classic New Orleans Restaurants:   Don't forget about the classic of New Orleans, upscale restaurants dating back a century or more in the Quarter:  Antoines (oldest restaurant in city); Arnaud's, Galletoires, Brennan's, Mr. B's, Tujague's

Here is the link to nola.com's top restaurants in New Orleans by category: CLICK HERE 


New Orleans language has it's on special sound and rhythm.  There's a bit of French, a touch of the south, and a lot that is just New Orleans. And if you run into someone from the Irish Channel area, you may hear something that sounds more like the Bronx than the deep south.

A few terms to help you understand:

Where yat:  How are you. People speaking like this may be referred to as "Yats." Not to be confused with "Who Dat," the cheer for the beloved New Orleans Saints

Laissez les bons temps rouler:  Let the good times roll (popular expression)

Snowball:  Shaved ice ball with syrup

Cher:  Common term of affection. "Where yat, cher?"

Gallery: The balcony walkway

Banquette:  Sidewalk

Gris Gris:  A voodoo good luck charm.

Lagniappe (lan' yap): A little extra. (Think getting 13 donuts when you order a dozen)

Shotgun shack:  Common New Orleans style house built on long narrow lots. A long narrow house with a central hallway. You can shoot a shotgun through the front door, and it will go out the back door without hitting anything in between.

Neutral ground:  the area between the travelled lanes of traffic, often where you'll find streetcar tracks

Most importantly, be open to all that New Orleans has to offer. You will have a wonderful time. And if you're lucky, it may change your life. -- Stephen Terrell

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