If you have 36 hours in New Orleans…

One of the best things about having family visit is the excuse to do some typical touristy things in a city I love. This past weekend, my youngest sister and her fiancé visited my second (third?) home, New Orleans. Should you find yourself in Louisiana for a summer weekend, here are my recommendations, all “sister-approved.”

Thursday evening:

For the most special dinner in town, head to Stella, owned by Chef Scott Boswell. This is definitely a special occasion splurge, the four course tasting menu with wine pairing will leave you delighted, but not overly full. While I am a fan of all of the fish dishes, my sister’s was their best-selling Duck 5 ways.

After dinner, we headed to Frenchman street, where despite the summer off-season period, the music was plentiful. DBA remains a favorite, and this past Friday night was no disappointment.

Friday:

After a morning of work, we headed to Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar uptown. This is perhaps one of the most reknowned Po-Boy places in New Orleans, a hole in the wall with freshly made Po-Boys like you cannot find outside of New Orleans. The traditional option for a Friday lunch is half fried shrimp, half fried oysters, but I prefer the ham and cheese Po-Boy. Either way, there is no wrong way to go…

Since we were already uptown, we made a slight detour by Magazine street, one of the longest shopping streets in the United States. I finally got to visit my new favorite shoe store, Ceces, and of course we went across the street to Jean Therapy, both locally-owned boutiques of course. While we could have spent the rest of the weekend on Magazine, we quickly moved on to avoid going over-budget.

Only in New Orleans do cemeteries qualify as major tourist attractions… indeed, as the city is built on a swamp, the dead have to be buried above ground, which makes for elaborate crypts and mausoleums. We stopped by Lafayette Cemetery for some quiet reflection, a cemetery established in 1833 in the Garden District (which reminded me that next time my sister comes, we will have to go to Commander’s Palace, perhaps the most famous restaurant in town).

Finally, our last stop that afternoon was the World War II Museum, formerly known as the National D-Day Museum, located in the Central Business District. For two Europeans, the Pacific part of the exhibit was particularly interesting (our museums focus mostly on the European part of WWII).

As no day is complete in the Big Easy without a fabulous dinner, we headed to Maximo’s Grill, my favorite Italian restaurant in the city.

The rest of the weekend was spent in the Hammond / Springfield area of Louisiana, mostly on a wakeboarding boat. And that, my friends, will make for another story, one involving the Prop Stop (a bar accessible only by boat), alligators, and a couple epic face-plants…

A family Jazz Fest

The end (at the beginning)

The evening of day 7 of Jazz Fest is always bitter sweet. Nothing can explain it better than the photo below, which makes me so happy and breaks my heart at the same time.

While I don’t know this for a fact, I would bet that this couple has loved Jazz Fest in that house, together, for many a decade. And this year is their last. They somehow symbolize what Jazz Fest is all about. It’s not about the music, it’s not about the food. It’s about family. About family love.

My water booth family

The magic of Jazz Fest, for me, happens at the Water booth. Yes, we sell water. “Cold water, 3 dollars…” I have re-mastered my multiplication table of 3. Which is sometimes thrown off by the Monster Energy drink that we sell for $5. No, we don’t sell beer (oh, the hand movements and grimaces we have witnessed in answer to that cold hard fact). No, we don’t sell Coke (despite the bright red Coca Cola truck out of which we get the Dasani water we sell). The magic of the water booth is the family of friends that every year comes to help sell water, manage the cash register, and make Jazz Fest so fun. There are too many to name, but the highlights this year were the sisters… the Smith sisters, the Schwarzmann sisters. Maybe I just think that because I am fascinated by sisters…

My family of friends

The water booth is also amazing because it becomes ground zero for friends. Best friends Josh and Jaclyn are there rain or shine (Jaclyn modeling the classic Jazz Fest rain outfit). Ric and Michelle make the trek from Dallas annually (Michelle rocking the best rain boots ever). And more…

The family of music

There is, of course the music. I didn’t want to like him or them, but I loved Adam Levine and Maroon Five. How could I not?! I wanted to love Fleetwood Mac, and did, but not for as long as I thought I would (the music family in that band, and the re-configuration of those couples is amazing to me). Then, I discovered Phoenix, an alternative rock band from Versailles, France. They are so very French, and there are two brothers playing in that band. My people. Then, of course, there were the Black Keys. Not brothers per se, but Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney could have been… and amazed the crowd with the fact that two musicians can make the sound that seems like it should be coming from a band of 5+.

My family

Above all else, there is family. And that is perhaps the most amazing magic of the Water booth, the fact that it brings family together. Multiple generations. Multiple family units. Multiple brothers. The modern reconfigured family, all coming together, with love, happiness, and an open heart. Thank you Mary for making it all happen. 7 magical days.

My sisters

Of course, there are my three little sisters. I tell them about Jazz Fest, about the music, about the Water booth, about the headsets that their babies can wear to protect their ears. Next year, I hope. Next year, maybe one of my three little Swiss sisters will have the opportunity to experience what I have the pleasure of now calling a family tradition.

The end

It will come as no surprise that these 7 days filled with family and families ended up on a slightly bitter-sweet note. The painting that was created today in the water booth, the

painting that had all of us in it, somehow ended up in the hands of a stranger (at least, a “stranger-to-me”). Then again, we have our family, so who needs the painting? Then again even more, Paris wasn’t in the painting, so it wasn’t a real representation of the family anyway… We will just have to have Alex do another live painting next year… Till 2014, Jazz Fest!

The true meaning of "hunkering down"

I married a man from Louisiana. Translation(s) = I married a man who can cook amazing dishes and introduces me to things such as turduckens. I am learning to appreciate bourbon. I now own seer-sucker clothes and know not to wear them before Easter or after Labor Day. Also, I married a man who knows a lot about hurricanes. Actually, we kind of started dating during Hurricane Gustav, now that I come to think of it.

We split our weekends between New Orleans and DC. And of course, as luck would have it, this weekend my husband flew from New Orleans (where hurricane season is over), to DC, only to be greeted by Sandy. He is stuck here for a couple extra days, which makes this entire “hunkering down” experience a lot more fun – and has been teaching me all kinds of things about hurricanes. Here is his top 10 to-dos to prepare for, and during, a big storm.

  1. To be always fully and correctly informed, forget about the TV. There’s an app for that, specifically, Hurricane by KittyCode. Don’t trust any other source of information.
  2. Have spare cash. As he tells me, “who knows when you will need to buy siphoned gas or produce from a guy off his truck.” (Me: “What?”)
  3. On that note, make sure your tank is full of gas. Since we prepared so late, this means I had to gas up at the (expensive) Exxon on Q and Wisconsin. I’ll plan better next time.
  4. Have bottles of water to spare. (Me: “What?” Him: “In case the sewage system backs up and you can’t drink the tap water.” Me: “Let’s go to Safeway.” Sold out. Conclusion: we have cases of Perrier in the house.)
  5. Make sure you have plenty of flashlights. His favorite one is a fluorescent Coleman lantern. (Me: “What? Let’s go to Safeway.” Sold out. “Let’s go to the hardware store.” Sold out.)
  6. Conclusion: plan B. I have plenty of candles and matches. Less effective, but so much more romantic… (my favorite: Aveda Shampure candles and tea lights).
  7. Make a pot of jambalaya. For the 6th time, Me: “What?” He explains, make a big pot of stew, so you have something cooked to eat for a few days if need be. The alternative, make sure you have lots of canned goods. (I now know he loves Cambells Chunky Sirloin the best).
  8. Pick up the lawn furniture. I don’t have any, now I know why.
  9. Make sure your car doesn’t flood. Meaning don’t park in an underground garage on K street. I was thinking that was a great idea since then no tree would fall on my car. I forgot about the flooding risk… maybe the sand bags should have given it away.
  10. Make sure all of your electrical devices are charged: phones, Ipods, Ipads, laptops, Wifi cards, Kindles, backup batteries, potable DVD players, and anything else you can think of.

And my favorite of all, have a (or a few) bottle(s) of Jameson’s to play the “hunker down drinking game.” Whenever anyone says, texts, or facebooks “hunker down” (including the news channel), take a shot.

Be safe, stay dry, stay warm, and “hunker down” my friends!

Be safe, New Orleans!

This morning, Louis Armstrong International airport is abuzz with more nervous energy than is typical on an early Monday morning.  The lines are longer at the checkin counters, at security, and at the PJ’s Coffee stand; people seem simultaneously more awake and more tired. As I sit by gate B12 and wait to board my flight back to DC this morning, I can’t help but feel like I am abandoning my city, abandoning my family. I have had this flight scheduled for months (and tomorrow I fly to Geneva), but leaving this morning seems like taking the easy route out. Shouldn’t I be staying to help fight Isaac?

This weekend was one of the magical Louisiana weekends that I have the privilege of enjoying. After months without a working boat, I was reunited with the Natalbany River. As boat weekends go, this one was particularly enjoyable. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t been on the river since the end of June. Perhaps it was the company. Perhaps it was the weather, which was particularly perfect – cooler than typical for this time of year (apparently, we have Isaac to thank for this). Perhaps it was the mechanical problems we experienced despite a completely new engine. I now know what spark plugs look like, what “hydrolock” means, and why having a 5’8 wrench is essential. Most importantly, I have witnessed the “code of the river,” the kind helpfulness of strangers.

As we were stranded on the river with a dead boat, without tools, and with a single, small paddle, two boats stopped by to offer their assistance. The first boat went to the Prop Stop (the river bar) to find us a 5/8 wrench. They came back with a mechanic. By then, however, we were back in business, thanks to the second boat that stopped by, and offered us their 5/8 wrench. For free, no questions asked, refusing to take any money for the part. With this tool, which may now be one of our most prized possessions, Josh, who earned the nickname “Josh the amazing mechanic” was able to remove the spark plugs, dry them off, put them back in, and start the boat. This process was one we would all be quite familiar with come Sunday evening…

The weekend was complete with my first experience at Waffle House, and the discovery of their famous eggs and cheese with cinnamon toast. The weekend was also complete with Sunday night dinner at my favorite restaurant in New Orleans, Maximo’s. At the end of the meal, instead of the usual cheerful “Good night,” the Chef gave us a solemn “Be safe.” Indeed, the topic of conversation throughout the meal was of course Isaac. Tulane cancelled classes until Wednesday, so my step-son (who just moved in to his new dorm) will be heading to Hammond for the coming few days. As I fly back to DC and a “normal Monday” awaits me, my husband’s to-do list today includes purchasing a generator and making sure the house is filled with all of the necessary hurricane foods. Somehow, I feel I should be staying. And not just for the hurricane parties I know I will be missing…

Crawfish season

One of the things I have learned about New Orleans is that there is always a festival, and if there is not, it is still always the season to celebrate something. Right about now, after Mardi Gras season and before Jazz Fest season, it is Crawfish season (crawfish is best between March and June). Believe it or not, Louisiana is responsible for 90% of the US crawfish production, 70% of which is consumed in the state. While Louisiana’s earliest commercial crawfish harvest on record dates from the 1880s, crawfish eating in the state goes back to early Cajun settlers. And while for a while crawfish were considered “unclean shellfish,” the lowly dirty siblings of the more precious and delicious crabs and lobsters, crawfish farming developed in the 1950s and the mudbug regained its popularity as both a delicacy and an emblem of Cajun culture.

While I have not yet had the pleasure of going to a crawfish boil in someone’s backyard, I have fallen in love with J’s Seafood Dock at the French Market. For the last few sunny Sundays I have spent in New Orleans, I have eater oysters, crabs, and my fair share of crawfish at J’s, sitting on a stool, people watching. J’s Seafood Dock is family-owned: the Mom is the boss, the Son shucks oysters (a friend of theirs owns the oyster bed) and entertains the crowd, while the Sister handles the register. The Uncle, meanwhile, cooks the crawfish in the two massive pots are constantly boiling. The crawfish are boiled in spicy water (I can still taste the nutmeg and clove), with a mixture of fresh vegetables including celery, garlic, lemon, and more. They are then consumed by the pound, no silverware needed. I am just learning how to peel those little guys myself… indeed, apparently there is a rule in Louisiana: “you peel your own crawfish.” Two hours and three pounds of crawfish later, I am getting pretty good at it!

Muses and beads: Happy Mardi Gras

When my now husband and I started seriously dating, the topic of Mardi Gras came up very early on in our relationship. I had always heard about this New Orleans celebration, I thought I knew what it was all about (beads, right?), but over the last few Mardi Gras, I have truly learned to appreciate the meaning of this special day, really, this special week-end.

Of course, the clichés about Bourbon street, beads, and what ladies (and gentlemen) are ready to do to get the really good ones are only partially exaggerated. But truly, Mardi Gras is about friends, about fancy beaded dresses, about celebrating life and its many pleasures, before the arrival of Ash Wednesday.

In learning about Mardi Gras, I have learned a few new English words, such as “krewe.” Prounounced as “crew,” krewes are the organizations that put on parades and/or a ball during the Carnival season. Being a member of a krewe has quite the social cachet, and is quite expensive. One of my best friends, Angie, is in Muses.

While most krewes are men-only, there are three that are exclusive to women. My favorite, of course, is Muses. First off, its symbol is a shoe, and it really has the best floats. And while strange things happen on Bourbon Street to catch beads, the excitement of seeing the parades on St. Charles Avenue has nothing to do with showing skin, and everything to do with catching the best possible bead.

My Mardi Gras started on Thursday evening, when Muses rode to kick-off to the really fun parades. The festivities continued on Friday, the day of my friend Angie’s annual Mardi Gras Luncheon. Hosted in a private room at Arnaud’s, Angie brings together 11 of her best friends for a 5 hour lunch filled with champagne, famous dishes such as Shrimp Arnaud and Turtle Soup, and lots of laughs. Arnaud’s (and Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, the other two classic New Orleans restaurants) is taken over by Mardi Gras festivities and ladies in hand-made beaded dresses.

After lunch, around 4 pm, we stroll through the French Quarter, with stops at two of my favorite bars, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Cosimo’s. Overall, the perfect ending to a Friday afternoon filled with more pleasure than work. Luckily, Cosimos’s is literally across the street from my New Orleans home, and while by then my feet hurt, I make it home thrilled to have experienced another successful start to Mardi Gras week-end.

The rest of the week-end was slightly mellower, with visits to Frenchman street for some fabulous live music and dinners (not 5 hour dinners) with friends. By the time you read this, it will actually be Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. At midnight precisely, the New Orleans streets will be cleaned, broken beads will be thrown away, and people will focus on Ash Wednesday – and what to give up. I have only started giving something up for Lent since I have started partaking in the Mardi Gras celebration; if I do one, I must do the other, right? This year, I am giving up artificial sweetener in all its forms (Splenda, Equal, whatever is in Diet Coke). Wish me luck…