Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Walk Around New Iberia

It was a dark and stormy night.

We had listened to heavy rains all night. Sometimes a steady light rain on the RV can act as aid to sleep.

This was not one of those rains.

This was one of those pounding rains with frequent changes in rhythm and force, interfering with the hypnotic effect of a steady downfall that lulled one to sleep.

One of those rains that led me to think: "Did I leave a window open on the truck?"

The next morning revealed the results of the night's rain. From one to three inches of rain covered the RV park.j

As of this writing, we've been camped in Duson, LA, (about 10 miles west of Lafayette) for about three weeks. One of our first stops was New Iberia.

Glenn R. Conrad, writing about the history of New Iberia, asked,
"What's in a town's name? Some names say little about the town or its inhabitants; others tie together diverse heritages to form a community. New Iberia is one of the latter.

"New Iberia was founded on the banks of Bayou Teche in 1779 by a group of Spaniards from Malaga. It is the only extant town in Louisiana to be founded by Spaniards during the Colonial Era. The Spanish pioneers called their town 'Nueva Iberia' in consideration of their homeland. Their French neighbors along the Teche referred to the town as 'Nouvelle Ibérie'.

"Then, after the Louisiana Purchase, incoming English-speakers dubbed the site 'New Town'. In 1814, the Federal Government opened a post office here, and it was officially known as 'New Iberia'. Postmarks shortly thereafter reveal that the town was being called 'Nova (Latin for new) Iberia' and 'Nueva Iberia'.

"Then, in 1839, the town was incorporated by the state legislature as 'Iberia,' to the consternation of French speakers who supported 'Nouvelle Ibérie' and English speakers who favored 'New Town'. A compromise was worked out in 1847, and the legislature designated the town's name to be 'New (not Nueva, Nova, or Nouvelle) Iberia'. This exercise in nomenclature is, nevertheless, reflective of the town's varied cultural history. It does not, however, take into account the African-American contribution which was present from the beginning" (cityofnewiberia.com).

As we walked around the downtown area, we were attracted to the decorative brickwork on the facades of a number of buildings.

In 1899, a fire destroyed one square block of the primarily wooden commercial district. "As the century closed, New Iberians began rebuilding the stores of nearly one-half of the commercial district. A lesson had been learned concerning wooden structures crowded together. The rebuilt stores were constructed of brick with metal roofs and decorative metal facades. Today many of the buildings built in 1900 still stand, albeit with updated facades."

The outline of a "Bull Durham" sign is still visible on the wall of one of the buildings.

Some of the newer buildings rounded out our walk around the downtown area. Victor's Cafe is shown here.

The Evangeline Life Insurance building.

Monday, January 30, 2012

From What I’ve Been Told,...

New Orleanians, or at least those who don’t live in the Quarter, have ceded the French Quarter to the tourists—especially on weekends. The streets are too crowded. The sidewalks are too crowded. And the restaurants are too crowded. And, for the most part, we have emulated that behavior. But knowing that our time in New Orleans was coming to an end, we ventured forth one Friday to wander the streets and have lunch.

Our tentative lunch destination was Johnny’s Po-Boys, a spot we had visited and liked about twenty-five years ago. While we were resting on a bench at Jackson Square, we toyed with the idea of returning to Stanley Restaurant just a half block away. Then we saw the mob milling by the doors. So we headed down Chartres Street where we passed a perennial favorite—the Napoleon House. Line out the door. When we turned onto St. Louis in the direction of Johnny’s we saw that the line was down the block and to the corner. Come on, folks. It’s a good poor boy, but not that good!

Then I looked across the street and realized that we were a few feet from NOLA, one of the three Emeril Lagasse restaurants in New Orleans. We had eaten and enjoyed dinner there during a Christmas visit fifteen years (or so) ago, so we decided to make this our lunch destination. And, there was no line out the door.

“Located in a renovated warehouse with a bright yellow stucco facade, large French door windows, and second floor balcony (right), NOLA is Emeril's casual and funky restaurant in the French Quarter.... Featuring an eclectic menu of New Orleans Creole and Acadian cuisine with an occasional ethnic twist, the rustic style of cooking showcases Southern Cajun, Vietnamese and Southwestern influences using Louisiana products (emerils.com/restaurants/neworleans_nola).

“Chef Emeril Lagasse received his first culinary experience from his mother, Hilda, when he was a boy growing up in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts. As a teenager, he worked at a Portuguese bakery where he mastered the art of bread and pastry baking. Upon high school graduation, Lagasse was offered a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, but decided to pursue a career as a professional chef. He earned a degree from the respected culinary fortress, Johnson and Wales University.... Lagasse then traveled to Paris and Lyon…. Returning to the United States, Lagasse practiced his art in fine restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia before heading south to the Big Easy. Lured to New Orleans by Dick and Ella Brennan, Lagasse established his star at their legendary restaurant, Commander's Palace, where he was executive chef for seven and a half years” (emerils.com/restaurants/neworleans_nola).

And, as was the case for most New Orleans restaurateurs, Emeril’s restaurants were affected by the post-Katrina flooding. “Lagasse's troubles started when Hurricane Katrina hit…flooding 80 percent of the city and forcing a complete evacuation of residents. The storm damaged his three restaurants—Emeril's, NOLA and Delmonico's.... And even though Emeril's was reopened in early October 2005, and NOLA a few weeks later, Delmonico's was closed for over a year because of damage to the building” (blog.al.com).

Chuck decided to begin his meal with a bowl of that day’s gumbo—turkey and andouille, which was made with a not quite dark chocolate roux, large chunks of white turkey, and discs of andouille sausage. It tasted of hints of bay leaf and thyme and had just a slight heat from red pepper. It was from watching Emeril that I first heard about “layers of flavor.” Emeril maintains, for example, that a small amount of salt be added at each stage of the cooking process to achieve the maximum flavor of a dish. This gumbo was the perfect example. I kept sneaking my spoon across the table and Chuck finally pushed the bowl in my direction. Only one problem. I had to give it back.

He then decided to order the beef brisket.

“That’s a surprise,” I told him. “I was sure you would order the chicken.”

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Second item from the top,” was my response. Somehow he missed this, but the buttermilk fried breast of chicken with bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, country ham cream gravy and sautéed sugar snap peas became his choice.

His plate contained two large pieces of boneless white chicken with a superbly light and crisp seasoned coating under which was the moistest chicken imaginable. I can only describe it as succulent. The mashed sweet potatoes had a hint of the smoky, oaky flavor of bourbon. And both the chicken and potatoes sat in a pool of cream gravy that was flecked with bits of ham. And all of this came with crisp cooked sugar snap peas.

My selection was the least “Southern” item on the menu—the seared rare yellow fin tuna (similar to and closely related to ahi tuna) with avocado, wonton crisps, cucumber, wasabi aioli and ponzu (a Japanese sauce with a sweet, sour, slightly salty flavor) vinaigrette. I have had quite a few meals of rare ahi, but nothing to date compares to this. Atop each fried wonton sat a slice of avocado and then a slice of beautifully rare yellow fin. The texture of the buttery fish and avocado were balanced by the crisp wonton. Add a dollop of wasabi aioli and a drizzle of the ponzu vinaigrette, and you have dining perfection. And the crisp cucumber “spaghetti” added to this textural balance.

And, of course, we had to have dessert—apple crostata with brown butter filling, cardamom ice cream, and candied orange zest. Now, as I have said before, I can’t eat oranges so asked our server John if the orange zest was just a garnish or an integral part of the dish. He very helpfully asked the kitchen and determined that, if we held the garnish, no orange was used in the construction of the crostata.

This matched the excellence of meal that preceded it. The pastry was flaky and buttery. The apples still had a bit of crispness. And the cardamom ice cream provided a slightly spicy taste to offset the sweet apples. The taste of cardamom is described at cardamomspice.com as a “complex flavor that can be described as slightly sweet, floral, and spicy with citric elements. It leaves the tongue with a warm antiseptic sensation similar to eucalyptus with an additional peppery after taste. Some have described its flavor as spicy and cola-like.”

A quick note about the service. It was attentive without being intrusive. Suddenly you would notice that your water glass had been refilled. And you never noticed the server.

And where is Kitty Humbug, you may be asking. Even I know better than to drag out a stuffed cat toy at an upscale restaurant like NOLA.

What a way to exit New Orleans than with a fine 5.0 Addie meal.

Exit New Orleans!!! The bon temps have just started to rouler!!! So many neighborhoods yet unvisited. So many meals yet uneaten. So much music yet unheard. What to do. Tear up the spring schedule, that’s what. We are still headed to Layafette until early March for Mardi Gras. Then, instead of working our way east to Florida (And who wants to go to Florida and hang out with a bunch of old people? And yes, I know I’m one of them.), we are coming back to New Orleans for another two months. We will be here for the French Quarter Festival and the two weekends of Jazz Fest. And we have just learned that Bruce Springsteen has been added to close the first weekend of Jazz Fest. His last appearance at this festival was the spring following Katrina where he brought the audience to tears by ending his performance by singing My City of Ruins which he wrote in 2000 as a tribute to his hometown of Asbury, NJ.

So the next time we write (that will be tomorrow) we’ll be in Lafayette, LA—another city where the bon temps rouler.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I-310, The Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway

The year was 1946.

Newspapers may have carried an article about the city planners of New Orleans consulting with Robert Moses, the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, Rockland County, and Westchester County, New York.

Although he was the shaper of a modern city, he was also one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban planning in the United States. And in the 1940s and early 1950s, city planners in many smaller American cities hired Moses to design freeway networks for them.

His idea for New Orleans? An elevated freeway along the riverfront as part of an arterial plan for New Orleans.

"The preservationists had been fighting for years to protect the character of the Vieux Carré. They believed that the proposed Moses expressway was an alien twentieth-century intrusion that would irreparably harm the fragile beauty of the old city.

"Supporters of the expressway believed that, on the contrary, the expressway would help preserve the Vieux Carré by taking traffic off the narrow streets of the French Quarter. Baumbach and Borah* commented: 'Thus, the Second Battle of New Orleans became more than just a conflict between environmentalists and downtown developers over a freeway; it was a clash of values, a clash in attitudes, a difference in priorities and perspectives about the character and personality of the city'" (fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/neworleans.cfm).

Over the next couple of decades, the debate continued. Early applications for designation as a National Historic Landmark were voted down by the City Council.

A tunnel, an elevated expressway, and a six-lane surface expressway were also proposed.

"On July 9, 1969, Transportation Secretary John Volpe made it official. A press release explained why he canceled the Vieux Carré Expressway:

'Secretary Volpe said a depressed route alternative is not acceptable either because of its disruptive effects, excessive costs and construction hazards which might cause damage to the levee protecting the entire city.... "A careful review of the highway proposal and the positions of various interests," Volpe said, "convinced me that the public benefits from the proposed highway would not be enough to warrant damaging the treasured French Quarter. The Riverfront Expressway would have separated the French Quarter from its Mississippi River levee and water-front"'" (fhwa. dot.gov/ infrastruc ture/ neworleans. cfm).

Could you imagine New Orleans without an intact French Quarter? We much prefer the barricaded streets for use by street performers and pedestrians, the parked delivery trucks the make even one-lane traffic difficult, and the vehicles that park so near an intersection that turns are not possible to the congestion "relief" that I-310 was reportedly going to provide, and the views of weathered doors and balcony ironwork that would either be missing or obstructed due to the presence of an elevated highway.

Can you imagine a tunnel in the Quarter? Well, actually the tunnel was started in the early 60s and is only used for valet parking for Harrah's Casino. But, nonetheless, can you imagine a tunnel?

We are very grateful that "progress" has passed the Quarter by.

*Richard O. Baumbach, Jr., and William E. Borah, The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront-Expressway Controversy (The University of Alabama Press, 1981).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Close-up Look

We had the opportunity to take another leisurely walk around the French Quarter.

There was an occasional focus on the roof and the chimneys of a building, but the primary object of our attention was the decorative cast iron present on the balconies of most of the buildings.

We began at Bourbon Street's intersection with Toulouse and then headed south on Toulouse. We had walked the street often, but this was the first time that we had concentrated on the ironwork.

From a distance, the ironwork presented a rather uniform architectural
"trademark" for New Orleans, but when viewed through a telephoto lens, the intricacy of the designs was revealed.

We came to realize the uniqueness of the designs as we studied them from the sidewalk.

Examples of these designs are shown here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

To Tour Or Not To Tour

Touring the French Quarter can be done in two general ways--one way is as part of a formal, informational tour. Whether it be by a horse-drawn or mule-drawn carriage, a van or bus, or by one of several organized walking tours, it is easy to acquire a pretty good history of a specific part of the Quarter.

But to experience the life of this vital part of New Orleans, one needs only to walk its streets.

This informal walking tour will encounter streets blocked
off--some for a portion of every day, others on special days--for performers, from a small ensemble to dancers, a mime, and a solo cellist.

Moving on to Jackson Square, the performers increase in number of range of skills. A very animated band performs, a number of psychics and tarot card readers are available for consultation, artists display their works on the fence surrounding the Square, others express their individual styles through their dress or their transportation, and individual performers carve out their space to display their talents--together they make up the colors displayed on the canvas of the Quarter.

Walking past the buildings in the Quarter brings us into contact with the exterior of the businesses and homes, but from the sidewalks, we can only get a glimpse of the courtyards of the homes. (We were unable to take part in a tour of these courtyards because the RV Park's shuttle's schedule did not coincide with the tour's start time.)

On occasion, we encountered scenes from the working world of the Quarter.

At other times, our walk would coincide with the formal tours. One example was the stop at the Cornstalk Hotel.

It was here that "Harriet Beecher Stowe stopped and was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin from the sights at the nearby slave markets.

"Surrounded by a unique and intricate 165 year-old 'corn-stalk' cast iron fence, it is now a lovely hotel in the Victorian tradition of elegance.

"There is a lovely old story of an early owner who brought his young bride to live here far from her native Iowa. To soften some of her loneliness for the waving fields of corn back home, he caused this replica to be made in graceful iron so that from her front gallery she could forever see something of her native land.

"Ripe ears of corn a-shucked on their stalks are seemingly ready for the harvest, each kernel a work of art.

"Pumpkins form the base of the massive iron columns around which are entwined the pumpkin vines and the leaves and morning glories" (travelguides.com/bb/cornstalk/).

If we could establish an ending spot for a walking tour of the Quarter, it would be the Royal Pharmacy. Well, the Royal Pharmacy of 1935.

A stop at the soda fountain in this pharmacy with the floor covered in small hexagonal white tiles with a few black tiles placed throughout the floor and the tin plate ceiling would have been a fine spot for a soda, a sundae, or, maybe, a banana split.

"Could I get one of those 35¢ Butterscotch Nut Sundaes?" I asked.

The elderly gentleman, probably tired of being asked this same question by thousands of "clever" customers, answered, "Sure can, just come back 40 years ago."

Touchè, sir.