Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Big "Eat-sy"

"Maybe we didn't drink enough."

Jon's comment was the latest in a number of hypotheses as to why we once again returned from a trip with a cold. We had spent at least half of our three-state holiday tour feeling less than 100%, and I, for one, was frustrated by a repeat performance when we traveled to New Orleans over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

Fortunately for me, my daily vitamins were working with my immune system and I was feeling much better by the time Jon attempted to make sense of our illness. Unfortunately for him, he was still doubling over with a barking cough made worse only by the disgusting way he hacked up whatever was lurking in his chest.

Jon did have a point, though. We spent 2 1/2 days in the land of Mardi Gras and could count the number of drinks we consumed on one hand. Yes, we enjoyed the customary hurricane in the touristy bar on Bourbon Street, but in all honesty, we were there to eat. And eat we did.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Even though we had recently returned from our aforementioned holiday trip a few weeks prior, we decided to take advantage of our mutual day off and travel over January's three-day weekend. We'd wanted to travel to New Orleans ever since we moved to Memphis. Jon went to the Big Easy for work about a year ago but was eager to return. So, equipped with a fantastic list of travel recommendations, we hopped the train early in the morning on Friday the 13th and were in Louisiana by afternoon.

It's no secret that we are train travel aficionados. We had a lovely breakfast on the train and plenty of time to read and relax. Jon brought his computer, hoping to get a little work done, although that plan fell apart when we got to the lounge car only to find out that a party had erupted. Cards, dominoes, music, and lots of red plastic cups. Too bad we hadn't gotten that memo. At any rate, Amtrak did a wonderful job getting us to New Orleans, and early at that. We had to wait a bit for our host (but wait, we don't know anyone in New Orleans) to pick us up, so we enjoyed the beautiful weather at the train station in the meantime.

Last summer Jon and I joined the Educators Travel Network. Through this network, we have access to the guest bedrooms of educators all over the country (for a nominal fee)...provided we agree to host at our apartment as well. Our trip to New Orleans proved to be the first time we've been able to use this service, and we were not disappointed.

For a variety of reasons that involved taxes and houseguests, our hosts decided not to let us shack up in their guest room but instead to have full reign of their 6-bedroom (19 sleeping spaces--we counted) guest house. Not too shabby. The house was in a nice, quiet neighborhood, blocks away from the St. Charles Street streetcar line and within easy running distance of the Loyola and Tulane campuses. Our hosts even left a traditional king cake for us. Serendipity #1.


Needless to say, we didn't have much trouble finding the plastic baby in the king cake
After dropping off our meager luggage, we hopped on the streetcar and headed for the French Quarter. We strolled down Bourbon Street, just taking in all the sights and sounds. Yup, we were those tourists. We went over to the riverwalk--because we don't see enough of the Mississippi River--and then headed to a bar recommended by multiple friends. Since it was still early on Friday afternoon/evening, we had just one drink at Port of Call before heading out to dinner. We didn't plan very well, however, because the dinner location we'd decided on (also recommended by multiple friends) was all the way across town. We power-walked down Bourbon--which to me, seemed a lot like Beale Street here in Memphis, except much longer and a lot taller--and hopped on the streetcar again.

The extra time, distance, and wait were well worth it, though. We ate at a place called Jacques-Imo's, and if we had returned to Memphis the next morning, I would have been completely satisfied with our trip. We had been implored to try to the alligator cheesecake, so we did. Hands-down, best alligator cheesecake I've ever eaten. Seriously, it was so good; I'm salivating right now just thinking about it. I don't even know how to describe it--just go down to New Orleans and have some. We rounded out our meal with some traditional New Orleans fare including crawfish etouffee and gumbo. Oh, and the corn muffins were not to be missed. Jon, who doesn't even like cornbread, ate three of them. Who needs drunken debauchery when you can have a food coma?

For multiple reasons--including the meal from the night before--we decided to go for a run on Saturday morning. That was just the beginning of our vitamin D overdose for the day. After eating breakfast on the balcony, we went back to the Quarter for a historical cemetery tour. It was more fascinating than morbid. Like most old cities, New Orleans has a rich and unique history. Our tour guide told us that there was no way she could make up all the crazy stuff she described as we walked to the cemetery. Due to the potential for floods, bodies aren't buried underground in New Orleans, so all around were above-ground tombs, each more elaborate than the next, including the ridiculous pyramid Nicolas Cage has reserved for himself in the St. Louis Cemetery.
 
Future home of Nicolas Cage

Tomb of Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau
After our tour, we demolished a traditional muffaletta and decided to stay in the Quarter to watch the rest of the Saints play-off game at the very touristy Pat O'Brien's. I have no idea what it was like when the Saints were bad (and they were bad), but right now, you'd think everyone in the city bleeds black and gold. All day, we saw Saints jerseys, and if possible, I'm pretty sure that Drew Brees would have no trouble being appointed king of the city (in fact, I think he was king of Mardi Gras a couple of years ago).

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate loyal football fans. I am one. Maybe I was a teensy bit jealous that my NFL team hasn't made it that far in the play-offs since 1993. However, I can't say that I didn't find some satisfaction in watching all the pseudo-Saints fans watch the game. Sure, I'm sorry that they lost, but some of the reactions were priceless. When you stroll in during the fourth quarter in your sparkly fleur-de-lis headband, please forgive me when I don't buy for a second that your tears are real. Where were you the rest of the game, sweetie? At any rate, it was an exciting game, and we were happy to watch it with people who cared...or at least pretended to.

At this point, we were pretty hungry, so we followed our list of recommendations to a restaurant farther downtown...that was closed. Undaunted, Jon led us to a place he remembered from his previous visit. Another feast of alligator, crawfish, jambalaya, and other fishy things I never would have eaten before living in Washington brought on the beginnings of another food coma.

We tried to walk it off as we headed to the streetcar stop. As we waited, a party bus rolled up and offered us a ride. The unbelievably nice driver was working a wedding and since he had several hours to spare, he was driving around town, giving people rides. In addition to this generous offer--especially since there was no streetcar in sight--he gave us an impromptu tour, pointing out celebrity houses and making restaurant recommendations. Serendipity #2.

We wanted to make the most of our tourist status, so before Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral on Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast--with hundreds of our closest friends--at the famous Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait. Yes, we waited in a ridiculously long line, and yes, I got powdered sugar all over my black dress pants, but it was totally worth it. Hooray for the French version of "shmuzinky," which loosely translated from Bohemian is fried dough.

St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral/basilica (depending on who you ask) in the U.S.
Luckily we were within sight of the cathedral, so our wait for food didn't make us late for church. After a beautiful service, we headed next door to the Cabildo, which houses the Louisiana State History Museum. The first exhibit we toured was strictly historical. The highlight for me was the Sala Capitular, or council room, in which many notable things happened including the transfer of land known as the Louisiana Purchase.

The famous Plessy v. Ferguson civil rights case also took place in this room
Since we were in the area, we also toured the new Hurricane Katrina exhibit. Extremely informative, and I imagine for those who lived it, emotional. The final exhibit we saw was devoted to Mardi Gras. I knew it was a big deal in New Orleans, but I had no idea. The colors, the music, the costumes, the parades...it all looks so crazy. I'm sure it's an experience like none other. Jon and I mutually agreed, though, that the history of the Krewes (secret-ish fraternal organizations) totally creeped us out.

By this time, the cold Jon was trying to blame on seasonal allergies had fully taken hold. We were both feeling pretty tired, congested, and hungry, so we stopped for what turned out to be Jon's first po' boy sandwich of the day. Food helped with the tired and the hungry, but not so much the congestion. We went for another run in the neighborhood, which actually did help with that, but after cleaning up and getting some dinner, it was time for bed. In fact, when our host called to say she was dropping by at around 9:30, we were already in our pajamas. We might be the only tourists in New Orleans to ever make that claim.

There wasn't much time for anything on Monday except to pick up our rental car. Unfortunately the train schedule didn't work with ours, so we had to drive a very long and boring stretch of I-55 to get back to Memphis. Regardless of an uneventful car ride and the inability to breathe through both nostrils at the same time, our trip to New Orleans was a blast. I hope we have time for another rendezvous in the Big Easy...I'm hungry for some alligator cheesecake.

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