New Orleans is one of those cities that’s likely to be on everyone’s bucket list, or at least, it was on mine. I’ve been putting off visiting for a while but took my friend up on his invite to come visit recently, and had a fantastic time.
I love to try local food when I’m visiting somewhere and was not disappointed by anything I tried while in Louisiana. My first night in New Orleans we stopped at Draggo’s for their famous charbroiled oysters. Naturally, I got myself an Abita Strawberry beer to go with it. It only seemed right. I’m not typically a clam person, but these were fantastic. If I’m being fair, you really taste the cheese and garlic more than the oysters themselves, but I was way okay with that.
During the trip, we stopped at a number of other great places including Deanie’s Seafood, Restaurant des Familles, Café du Monde, and Port of Call. Needless to say there were no bad meals on this trip. (Ok, technically I did get sick from eating gelato at Sucré, but that’s my own fault for being slight lactose intolerant…and it was worth it.)
Two, no wait, three meals stood out in particular though. First, I hate sandwiches. When my friend said we were going to get this special sandwich I had my doubts. Turns out “muffulettas” are amazing and the exception to the all-sandwiches-are-horrid rule. It’s pretty simple, olives, cheese, meat, but it’s oh so good and I’m kind of craving one every time I think about it.
The second dish that surprised me was a fried soft shell crab. I had never even heard of a soft shell crab before this trip. In retrospect, it seems a lot less wasteful than eating a (regular?) crab because well, I ate every bit of this soft shell crab. Turns out, soft shell crabs aren’t a breed or variety of crab, they are just crabs that are in-between shells. As in, they molted their last one off and now they are waiting on the new one. It’s clearly a vulnerable time for a crab, but in the culinary world it means you can cook the whole crab up and eat it legs, head, and all.
The third fantastic dish was crayfish, I mean, crawfish. See, I have always known crayfish as those little guys that muck around in ponds and assumed that, “crawfish,” were some other kind of much tastier swamp critter. Turns out crawfish, crayfish, and crawdads are all the same thing. And I ate them. I also learned that it’s a bit of a process to peel and eat them. It reminded me a bit like shelling peanuts, except for the instructions to eat peanuts doesn’t include, “sucking the heads and pinching the tails.” Despite the work, these guys were pretty delicious. I mean, you can’t really hate something that’s drenched in spices and butter.
As a bonus, because I love meeting random people, the table next to us was a sweet old couple that was chuckling at my crawfish-eating ineptitude. As it turns out, the husband was Louisiana born, and the wife was from Detroit. She assured me that I was doing fine at shelling my crayfish despite being a northerner. (And I was the perfect segway for her to remind her husband that she wanted to visit NY again soon.)
Okay, wait, there was one other dish I remembered liking a lot. It was alligator stuffed mushrooms! I’ve had alligator jerky before and it was really gross. It was stringy and gamey. I could hardly eat it and I love jerky. Fortunately, I don’t learn from bad experiences so I decided to try my luck with some fancy gator meat. The mushrooms did taste like gator meat, but the sauce they used was just the right amount of spicy to make the dish good. It completely masked the horridness of eating a trashcan with teeth. Ten out of ten, would eat again.
Drinking in New Orleans
I decided this needed it’s own section because drinking in New Orleans, as it turns out, is nearly an art. They have everything just right. First off, most people know this so it’s not really a surprise, but you can drink in public in a section of the city. In fact, what might be better is that you can ask your bartender for a to-go cup for your half finished coke and rum for your stroll to wherever you’re headed next. No drinks left behind.
I’m told the tourist thing to do is to get a hand-grenade on Bourbon Street and walk around drinking that. Of course, you want to know what the locals do right? After all, who doesn’t want to look like an experienced traveler and get the “real” vibe of a place when they visit? I have it on good authority that locals go to a place called Port of Call and order “Neptune’s Monsoon.” After doing this myself, even if it’s not what locals do, I strongly suggest it. It’s quite possibly the fruitiest way to get drunk in public anywhere in the world.
Lastly, on drinking in New Orleans, I have to mention the drive-through daiquiris. They have some interesting open container laws in Louisiana as it turns out. If you get a cup with a straw in it’s wrapper, that counts as a closed container. Actually, even if the straw is in the cup, but they’ve left that little scrap of paper on the drinking end, it still counts as a “closed container.” That piece of paper is clearly a seal if you didn’t know. I can’t decide if this is brilliant or stupid. The place we went to for our drive-through daiquiris was an actual bar. No joke. You could see the whole bar vibe just behind the pick-up window. Certainly worth doing even if you’re not much of a drinker because it’s a just a cool experience.
I’ve lived most of my life in a swamp. A large portion of our county was designated wetlands with the most famous section belonging to the Native Americans. Still, the swamp in Louisiana was unlike anything I had seen up north.
I hiked through part of the Jean Lafitte National Park & Preserve and was astonished at how beautiful the swamps were. From the Spanish Moss, to the black water, there was something almost magical about the landscape. This trip inspired me to take up the advice I was given on a previous trip by a stranger in a pickup. The guy had told me I would enjoy hiking more if I started to make a logbook of the interesting things I had seen on my hike. As soon as I got home, I purchased a book and jotted down all the interesting species of plant, insect, and animal that I came across. Of course I saw a number of different alligators, though I was not skilled enough to distinguish them further than that. I also saw a very young baby white-tail deer. I swear it was much smaller than the baby deer up north, but I suppose that was a small sample size. I also got a beautiful photo of a vomiting russla and the Spanish moss. My friend even caught a male carpenter bee that we found trying to burrow into the wooden welcome sign at the park!
One other interesting bit of wildlife that we saw on our trip, though this was on private property and not at the park, were nutra. Nutra (also known as river rats) are actually an invasive rodent that Europeans brought over for fur trapping decades ago. Turns out they really thrive in swampy areas and have made it on the USDA’s most wanted list. There were so many in the swamp it’s hard to even describe it. As we rode through the area on airboat they just sprung from the ground in every direction. I can see why they have tried making them into everything under the sun, including dog treats!
Speaking of airboats, that was a fantastic way of seeing the swamp. Hiking was great because it was at our own pace, but I felt like taking the airboat made it easier to get a sense of the swamp wildlife. Heck, we got to see a mother tree*, and that was flipping cool!
And of course, because I love aquariums, I had to stop in to the one in New Orleans. I’ve been to a number of aquariums, and I always see those, “pet the stingray” tanks, but this was the first time I was ever able to actually pet the stingrays. And yes, the first thing I thought of when I touched it was, “this is so soft…I can’t believe this is what killed Steve Erwin.” RIP Steve. I’m told I missed out on an insectarium in New Orleans, but the aquarium was still very beautiful.
My favorite US War (everyone has one of those right?) is the War of 1812. Mostly and only because it’s the sole naval conflict the US fought in our own waters, the great lake to be specific. How cool is that?! Maybe I only find it fascinating because the great lakes are practically in my backyard and the idea that there are sunken battle ships at the bottom of them is exciting, but whatever. Go War of 1812!
Until this trip I hadn’t actually realized that some of the final battles in the war were fought in Louisiana, specifically, on the Mississippi River outside of New Orleans. This made New Orleans an even more exciting place to visit. And I’ll admit I’ve been listening to the Battle of New Orleans song quite a bit since visiting. I’m told it’s practically historically accurate, except maybe for the part where they started using gators as cannons.
Aside from the War of 1812, there was a lot of interesting architecture in New Orleans. There was a clear French influence in a number of different neighborhoods. The Garden District in particular had a number of fantastic homes including the one that housed the witch coven in American Horror Story! (I didn’t get a chance to go in, private residence and all, but I sure as heck took some photos from the outside.)
I also spent some time walking around one of the older cemeteries in New Orleans. It hadn’t occurred to me that because the area was below sea-level people were buried in mausoleums and not below ground. Up north you only see the richest of people being buried that way, but here I guess that is your only option aside from cremation. Another interesting thing about this cemetery in particular was that many of the tombs made a point of mentioning where the family was originally from. They identified as “Originally from Germany,” or “Native from France,” which I found rather humorous. Even in death they didn’t want to identify as Americans!
Of course, the most magnificent architecture I saw on the trip was the Catholic Church I meandered into. It looked remarkably similar to the Catholic Churches I’ve seen up north, uninfluenced by the French-American architecture style surrounding it. As I did a lap around the pews I took note of the subtle differences including the seashell shaped pulpit for the priest to lecture at, and the inclusion of a number of different religious figures I don’t tend to see, including Joan of Arc. Despite your religious stance, you can’t deny the beauty of these buildings.
After riding around on authentic streetcars (not those stupid busses that look like trollies) and touring all of these historic places we stopped for a more modern New Orleans experience. My friend and guide insisted that we stop to see the Migon Faget store in the nearby mall. This designer is known for her authentic New Orleans style. I have to admit, it was probably the only time I’ve ever seen a gold pendent of a kidney bean. The design of the jewelry and dishes were certainly able to capture the vibe of New Orleans as I had seen it. I debated heavily about getting glasses with etched crayfish or clams on them, but ultimately settled for the clams with their 1950’s charm.
New Orleans is a fantastic city filled with friendly people and rich history. I’m glad I didn’t put off visiting any longer than I did and would certainly recommend that people not pass over it when visiting the south!
*A mother tree in this instance is a tree that has toppled over in the swamp, but isn’t dead. Instead of dying, branches shoot out from the trunk of the tree that look like individual trees. They are still receiving nutrients from the, “mother tree” though and wouldn’t be able to be separated from one another.