We probably have a skewed view of life in New Orleans. We were staying with Glen and Michelle, right in the middle of the Marigny, where the street life is palpable but the tourists are missing. We arrived a few weeks before Mardi Gras, so there were constant parades, and music was always in the air. And as Glen and Michelle ventured out to various parades around the city, they brought us along to the annual big parties their friends were throwing. Maybe they’re dour and stay at home for the rest of the year, but based upon this month-long immersion, we think that the residents of New Orleans just have more fun than anybody else in America.
We didn’t plan on being there for Mardi Gras – we were behind schedule, and we didn’t actually know Mardi Gras was so early this year. Then we didn’t expect to stay so long- we had other places to go, and we thought our hosts would start hinting broadly about us moving on. But once we settled in, we realized that there was nowhere else we really had to be, and nothing could be more fun than hanging around. The timing was right, and it was a once in a lifetime chance to get to see under the surface of this city.
Not only are the residents of New Orleans a gregarious and sociable people, but they understand that these human traits can’t survive in a vacuum. We may think that humans are naturally social animals, but without a support structure of institutions, traditions, preoccupations and habits, this sociability can wither away.
Eugene provides a good example of this – it is a city full of lovely and interesting people (many of whom came from places with a tradition of sociability), who mostly stay home alone with their nuclear families – perhaps it is the legacy of having been settled by dour Scandinavians (those malcontents who came to the new world, leaving the happy, gregarious Scandinavians behind in Europe), or maybe it is the gloomy damp weather.
But southern Louisiana was settled by the Spanish and French-Canadians (Cajuns), who brought their joie-de-vivre to a receptive environment, where it has flourished and grown, reaching the point where the cultivation of the good life is the major preoccupation of the populace, in noted contrast to the rest of the country. When I marveled at the amount of effort and attention focussed on Mardi Gras, Glen observed that if the residents of New Orleans put all that effort into civic engagement, New Orleans would be the best-run city in America. Instead, this attention is focussed upon the food, the drinking and partying, and the engagement in conversation, all of which reach their apotheosis in Mardi Gras.
Greta’s first experiences of the general outgoingness was with Aja, the teenage girl next door in the Marigny, who volunteered to take Greta on a tour of the French Quarter our second day there, showing her the sights and trying to inculcate some street-smarts. Our first week was fairly casual, eating and drinking with Glen and Michelle, and heading to some good neighborhood restaurants. But as the Krewe de Vieux parade loomed at the end of the week, preparations kicked into high gear. I participated in the traditional trip to Costco with Glen and Michelle, to acquire the provisions needed for the massive party at week’s end, and discovered that the Costco in New Orleans has an excellent liquor section, with prices hovering around 60% of what we pay in Oregon. (I considered filling up the bed of my pickup with booze, calculating whether this would pay for our whole trip.)
Two days before the party, Glen began his cooking preparations, with Greta and me providing assistance (mainly chopping and stirring). Greta watched carefully as Glen assembled his venison and wild pig sauce piquante and his carrot etouffee, so although she is no expert, she will at least be returning to Eugene with some understanding of the rudiments of Cajun cooking. Glen and I discussed what types of drinks could be easily batched, and he introduced me to the Roffingnac, an early New Orleans cocktail with raspberry and whiskey.
The party was timed to overlap the Krewe de Vieux parade passing by the end of the block on Friday night – beginning before the parade, so the guests could fortify themselves on what turned out to be a chilly night, come back for a breather during the parade, or finish off the evening after the parade had passed. Mardi Gras proper was over two weeks away, so at the party there was a mixture of normal attire and costumes, although costumes of only the most rudimentary or incomplete fashion.
We met their friends, family, acquaintances and associates, many of whom went out of their way to invite us to their own parties at some point before Mardi Gras. This is an important social, and practical custom: when you go to a parade far from your own abode, it is difficult to find a bathroom. So New Orleans residents hold parties at their houses to coincide with their local parade, so all their acquaintances can be both refreshed and relieved.
News filtered in to the party that the parade had reached the end of the block (no parade in New Orleans is really on schedule), and we went out to watch. I looked for Greta, and couldn’t find her anywhere. (I anticipated another Father-of-the-Year nomination from Linda, for immediately losing my teenage daughter in the crowd at our first Mardi Gras parade.) But Greta had just attached herself to other friends as they headed out, and Harry and I stood on the corner watching the parade. The Krewe de Vieux is the most risqué of all the parades, and indeed the imagery of the floats was rather explicit. (Greta later complained that she is so short that she couldn’t see the floats anyway.) Most floats used their bawdy imagery to comment upon politics and current events; Harry filled me in on the references to local politics that went over my head.
The floats, bands and marchers were the focus of the scene, but the crowd was the environment. People were laughing, drinking and cheering – a parade in New Orleans is a participatory event – it is more like a big party or a dance, and everyone is actively engaged, not just watching an entertainment.
The parade passed, and the party entered its final, prolonged phase, where I saw the true friendliness and openness of New Orleans society. Passers-by who peered in through the doors of firehouse engine bay, wondering if they could use the bathroom, were invited in, and then also given food and drink. They usually then stayed for quite a while, not believing their good fortune at having stumbled into such a party.
There was a lull in the parades and parties until the next weekend, although informal parades were common. Greta and I would be sitting around, and we’d rush out when we’d hear drums. It was usually a high school marching band with cheerleaders, practicing their routines along the parade route they’d follow the next weekend. Or it would be a small hipster brass band, practicing in a vacant lot in an industrial area in Bywater, so they wouldn’t annoy their neighbors at home. Eventually we became somewhat blasé – we’d hear drums in the evening, realize they were a few blocks away, and just go back to our reading. There is always music in New Orleans – parades in the streets, bands in the clubs on Frenchman St. (which you can listen to as you walk by), or buskers on the street. Unlike many cities, all the music is good – even the performers in the most touristy parts of town are worth hearing. (The only bad music we heard was being made by the Christian protestors who descend upon Mardi Gras to rally against the sinners. They were playing the usual bad Christian rock opposite Jackson Square.) I’ve never before been in a place where you’re just surrounded by good music.
Glen asked if we’d like to take a day trip, up near Baton Rouge, where a couple of his brothers had caught some wild pigs on property they use for hunting. Glen was heading up there to help with the butchering and to bring some pork back, as his freezers full of meat had been somewhat depleted by the party. Greta begged off – she wasn’t sure if the experience would bother her, but she decided she shouldn’t risk anything that might possibly interfere with her enjoyment of eating barbecue. So we stayed home, and Glen returned with ribs, which we barbecued the next night.
Tommy and Rita (with whom Glen had gone to high school on Bayou LaFourche) came over, and I was exposed to a depth of knowledge about grilling meat that was enlightening. The ribs were cooked over charcoal on a Weber grill (not in a smoker per se), so I was a little out of my barbecue element, but Tommy instinctively knew how to handle the situation, and the ribs were superb. Throughout dinner the conversation kept circling back to cooking, and we absorbed as much wisdom as we could. New Orleans is known for its food and restaurants, but this was different – we were among Cajuns who had moved from the bayou into the city, and their experiences growing up had centered around cooking the food their families had caught fishing or hunting. Appreciating great food is not something they’ve come to through the current fascinations of yuppie mass culture – it is embedded in their way of life, of their families and their communities.
The next night there were two parades in the Marigny. ‘tit Rex was first, and it went up Mandeville right in front of the firehouse. It is a parade of tiny floats, each about the size of a shoebox: they are of a scale that can be made by individuals, not large organizations, so they can express individual insights and obsessions, not collective ones.
They were fun, the crowd was lively, and the bands were excellent. We stopped in around the corner to visit Glen’s friend Calvin, a UO architecture graduate whose firm does mainly historic preservation work.
We walked over to Dauphine St. to watch the parade in front of Tommy and Rita’s house, where Tommy had a gumbo waiting for his friends. I learned an important refinement from another guest – put the gumbo on top of the potato salad in the bowl, instead of on rice. Much better.
Tommy and Glen’s friend Walter had parked his pickup truck right in front of the house, so the bed could be a viewing platform for friends, including his three-year-old granddaughter. Walter was dressed as a Jedi, and Greta was able to borrow a light saber, so she could engage passing marchers in battle.
Walter lives on St. Charles right near the downtown, and he’s noted for providing supplementary music to the parades that go by his house. He brought his sound system in his truck, and when there was no marching band in earshot, he cranked it up to fill in the gap, turning it down when a band neared. After the parade passed, the crowd dispersed to the many neighborhood parties spilling out onto the street. Throughout the evening there were drunken Imperial Storm Troopers staggering around.
The next day was calmer – we went to the Krewe of Barkus parade in the French Quarter, a parade of pets. It was completely a family affair, with lots of little kids, and lots of old ladies dressing their lap dogs in costume.
It emphasized what many people told us about Mardi Gras – the perception outside New Orleans is that it is all a drunken debauche centering on Bourbon Street. In fact, there are dozens of parades in many neighborhoods in and around New Orleans, and most are oriented towards families. There is always a lot of drinking, but it never seems to be a problem. The people there know how to drink – they have a lot of experience with it, they know their limits, and they know that if they go overboard, they won’t be able to make it through the day. (If you’re going to start drinking at eight in the morning, you have to pace yourself.) Once when Greta and I had run into an unanticipated big parade as we were trying to cross Canal St., we had a conversation with a nice young man about where we might be able to accomplish that. As we walked away, Greta asked if we were the only people in the crowd who weren’t drunk. I said probably, but we couldn’t tell, because everyone was behaving perfectly nicely. The only seriously out-of-control drunken scene seems to be on Bourbon St. late on Mardi Gras itself, when all the New Orleans residents have gone home to their parties, leaving the tourists and frat boys in the bars and streets. (You can tell the non-natives by their lack of interesting costumes.) So while almost every person you pass on the street for a couple of weeks has a drink in hand, it is always a laid-back scene.
Greta paid a lot of attention to the discussion of regional barbecue variations, which she’ll hopefully blog about soon. The museum was hosting an exhibit of the photographs and props from Nathan Myhrvold’s book series on Modernist Cuisine, with the sliced-through appliances and implements used in the sectional photos.
The museum also includes Dr. Cocktail’s (Ted Haigh’s) Cocktail Museum, which chronicles the history of the cocktail through implements, photos and books. Our favorite piece was the mechanical cocktail shaker, which could handle four drinks at once. I was pleased to see some of the older cocktail implements I had inherited from my grandfather represented in the collection, clearly located in the right city.
Usually I abhor costume parties – I think Halloween should be left to the kids, and there’s nothing I’m less interested in than going to a party with people I know, all in ridiculous clothing. But Mardi Gras is different – it’s not your usual small cluster of friends, it’s a whole city. And you don’t know these people – you’re all strangers, and your job for the day is to create a persona that will enhance the ambience. There’s a variety and richness to the participants and costumes – cute kids, beautiful young people, stately or crazy old people. Glen and Michelle had a couple of big boxes of costume paraphernalia (apparently some people have whole closets or rooms of Mardi Gras gear) and Michelle helped us sort through their gear and establish the basis for our costumes. We thought about masks, and after seeing the same cheap masks everywhere, we found a couple of stores which sold beautiful handmade ones.
We visited Maskarade a few times during the week, and Greta eventually selected a leather crown and mask. I wished I had brought my academic regalia, as that is certainly silly enough to be the start of a costume. I decided against a mask, as that would make it too hard to eat and drink.
The weekend before Mardi Gras things really kick into gear, with a few major parades every day and night. We were heading to a party at Mary and Tom’s house in Mid-City, and we caught the Tuck parade on Canal downtown as we walked there. Further up Canal, people we waiting for the Endymion parade, staged by one of the super-Krewes – very large organizations with thousands of members. All along the street families had staked out their viewing turf, and set up shelters, tables and chairs, barbecues and smokers.
There is a peculiar device which we learned had originated in the 40s – a sitting platform on top of a stepladder with wheels attached. You wheel it to the parade, open it up, and then stick your kids up on the platform. The parade was hours away, but it was already an extended street party. I wanted to pick up a bottle of bourbon to take to the party, so Greta and I waded through the crowd in a liquor store on Canal St. right before a big parade; this was not an experience she could have in Eugene.
The party at Mary and Tom’s was full of great food and wonderful company. I met Roy Blount, and then noticed Garrison Keillor standing next to me (which eventually led to me buttonholing him to talk to Greta on the street the next week). There was excellent live music in the living room, and people wandered in and out to watch parts of the giant Endymion parade a block away. These were the most elaborate floats we saw, with video screens, sophisticated electronics, and loud music.
There were also flambeurs, the traditional carriers of flaming torches to light up the parade. Back at the party, Greta was a bit overwhelmed by the adult socializing, so she sat and watched and wrote, until joined by another small refugee.
The next day we all headed to the Mid-City and Thoth parades on Napoleon St., uptown. These were big, traditional parades, not as high tech as Endymion. Some of the most noted high school marching bands were there,
and there was lots of swag being thrown from the floats. We had known about Mardi Gras beads, before, but not their significance. As a float passes, the crowd yells some variant of Throw me something, mister! And if you are good at catching the eye of someone on the float, some beads, or a cup, or a Frisbee, or some other swag is thrown your way. (Greta and I now have a box with about 20 pounds of beads in the the truck headed back to Eugene.)
We had started the day at the mid-century modern house of Glen’s brother Loulan and his wife Tiffany on St. Charles, and we got to hang out with the whole Pitre clan. I had always thought of Glen as the most gregarious and charming person I knew, but now I got to see where it came from. We were welcomed by the whole family, and had a wonderful time, including hanging out with their adorable one-year-old twins, when their grandmothers took a break from doting on them. Loulan had made a gumbo for the day, which everyone agreed was the best he’d ever made, after decades of experience.
Since one party per day is not enough, we went over to Whitney and Brit’s, who had a Victorian house with a big porch right on the parade route. It had been an hour or two since we’d eaten gumbo, so we dove into the oysters on the porch (just throw the shells in the front yard, we were told), and an amazing spread inside. It included a New Orleans specialty which I’m determined to make – oyster and artichoke soup.
After this repast, we took a walk through the Garden District back to the Pitre’s, where everyone was rounding out the day’s eating while watching the Superbowl.
Keep in mind that this post is just about the run-up to Mardi Gras. We had been eating, drinking, talking and dancing continually for two full weeks, and the big event was still to come. Louisiana shuts down for the whole week of Mardi Gras – literally. Schools are closed, and everyone is available for a few days of serious partying. I’ve already posted my impressions of Mardi Gras with the St. Anthony Ramblers, and videos of the Panorama Jazz Band. Since then I’ve had plenty of time to think about the experience, and I’ve decided it was the most fun I’ve had in the twenty years since Jerry Garcia died. Middle age has its good points – the deep contentment and satisfactions of family life, the fulfillment of a worthwhile career – but there just isn’t that much fun, not like you have when you’re young. (Good God, I wish I’d gone to Mardi Gras in my 20s, but had all the connections I have in my 50s.) Even more than the events and parades was the time spent with all these people we’d just met – everyone in New Orleans seems to quirky, funny, entertaining, friendly and open-hearted. I’ve never felt so at home with strangers before in my life.
How can this place be so different from the rest of the US? In most of our country, there isn’t a widespread, socially-sanctioned event where the whole community comes together to celebrate and enjoy the good life. Our celebrations are private, or restricted to the like-minded members of private organizations. Eugene used to have its Eugene Celebration, a fun but fairly innocuous week-long event with music and food and a parade (and beer within certain legal boundaries), but we can’t even make the effort to pull that off anymore. One parade at Mardi Gras is a much bigger event than the whole Eugene Celebration ever was at its peak. (And it’s not that New Orleans is so much bigger than Eugene – it has under 400,00 residents to Eugene’s 160,000). It’s just that this part of life matters to people in New Orleans, and they sustain the traditions.
New Orleans certainly has its problems – with poverty, race, class, climate change, the environment, crime – but somehow all the residents come together in this enormous celebration that epitomizes what they enjoy. Maybe they should redirect that effort into municipal governance, and have a city that runs well. Or maybe it should go the other way – what if other cities had more fun, taking the time to enjoy life as it goes by? Maybe we’d get along better and be able to see past our differences, if we just took the time to have a drink and a good meal together more often. I’d like to think that could happen, but until it does, I’m trying to figure out how to get down to New Orleans every year. I like these people, and I like the way they live.