Po’ Boys, Hurricanes and Jazz

I visited New Orleans in 2001 (B.K. – before Katrina) for one night just before the madness of Mardi Gras invaded the city, and remembered feeling the intense energy and spirit that was present all around me.  It was in every crack and pothole on Bourbon Street, every dark and smokey alley jazz club, and every savory scent that poured out of the hole-in-the-wall soul food kitchens downtown.   It was like nothing my senses had ever experienced, so I did what any 22 year old American girl would do in a new and exciting city.  I drank and danced that night away with family and friends, and made a promise to myself to return one day for another taste of the Big Easy.

Four years later, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the coast of Louisiana, causing flooding and subsequent breaching of nearly every levee surrounding New Orleans.  The city didn’t have a chance.  As the water rose, so too did the death toll, and spirits began to sink.  Could the birthplace of jazz rise above the murky waters to thrive again?  Would the amazing food and music, so unique to the city, find their way back into the kitchens and clubs of Bourbon Street?  Would the Mardi Gras parade floats, covered in beads and glitter, meander down the streets of NOLA ever again?  Luckily, the spirit of the native people of New Orleans didn’t sink too low before it was fished out of the flood waters and thrusted high into the sky.  The proud people of the Big Easy would see their city alive and bright again if they had anything to do with it.  No hurricane, no piss-poor government response, no broken levees, and no pessimistic public opinion could break them.  They would rebuild and flourish again.

Fast forward four more years, and my promise to return to NOLA was finally fulfilled.  The moment I touched down early Friday morning, along with my friend Melanie, I could feel that spirit and energy again, as if it had never been even a tad bit diluted by Katrina.  We, along with seven other wonderful ladies, had chosen New Orleans for our 5th Annual Girls Trip, and it just happened to fall on the 2nd weekend of Jazz Fest!  The weekend was upon us, and we were ready for what the city had to give.

Most of my first day in NOLA, was not spend in NOLA, but rather with my friends Jess and Randy in Metairie.  I hadn’t seen  Jess and Randy since graduation from PT school in 2002, so this was a very overdue visit.  There were a few highlights from our visit that can’t go without mention.  First, meeting their lil’ boys Noah and Isaac and being greeting with warm hugs and smiles was so amazing.  To know a girlfriend before having kids and then seeing how she glows after having them is a wonderful sight to see.  Noah wowed us with his knowledge of dinosaur names that I had never even heard of.  Seriously I could only remember like 4 names from back in the day.  Either they have made some amazing advances and discoveries over the past 25 years or my teachers jipped me!  Isaac impressed us with his cute lil’ chipmunk cheeks, wonderful trunk control (yes that is the PT in me), and his ability to bounce incessantly on any surface that would hold him.  We didn’t wait long to get our first taste of NOLA, and spent the afternoon enjoying the tastiest po’ boys and onion rings this side of the Mississippi!  After lunch, Randy graciously drove Mel and me to our hotel down on St. Charles Street, and along the way made sure we learned our NOLA history.  We passed houses still marked from post-Katrina body searches, Tulane University, and a scattering of quaint little cafes.  As we made our way into the Garden District, the beautiful old oak trees formed what my mom used to call “tree tunnels”, and provided some much needed shade over us as we rode on.

We arrived at our hotel, hugged and thanked Randy, and got comfortable while we waited for the others to arrive.  Our lil’ mid-afternoon cat nap was pleasantly interrupted by texts and calls as the girls made their way from the airport to the hotel.  There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you open a door to see the smiling faces of people you love.  That feeling may be one of my favorite things about these girls trips.  Even though I get to see most of these girls at least twice a year, there is just something special about our Spring get-togethers.  Maybe it’s the tradition, or maybe it’s the idea of experiencing a new city with old friends.  I can’t pinpoint it, and maybe that is just how it’s supposed to be.

After the screaming, hugging, and laughing subsided a bit (it never really stops completely when you have 9 friends in the same place), we headed out to start our exploration…which lead us just next door to Superior Grill for THE best margaritas in town!  We didn’t have to go too far :).  Bourbon Street was then calling us to come and play, so we headed down to find a perfect spot for dinner.  On the near end of Bourbon Street, we found a little restaurant called La Bayou, which seemed inviting.  So we put in our name and number in our party and waited in the street, talking to complete strangers as they passed.  Everyone was happy and friendly, without a care in the world.  It was like all of the problems in the world or in each person’s life just melted into the pavement and disappeared when on Bourbon Street.  Seemed like a grand idea to me!  Fairly quickly we were shuttled up the stairs of La Bayou and out onto the balcony overlooking the madness below.  Seriously, could we get any luckier?  By that time, we were all a bit toasty (well minus Mel and Mack…mamas-to-be!).  We enjoyed some Louisiana cookin’, some sweet views, toasted to each other and our trip, and then headed out to cruise Bourbon Street.

After bar hopping a bit, we all started to notice a trend.  The DJs at the bars believed themselves to be “semi-professional” singers, and frequently took their acts to the stage.  However, rather than just singing with the band or on their own, they did this little “sing-over” thing…adding in “Uh Uh”s and “Throw your hands in the air”s here and there.  This got old quickly, so we made our way to a jazz and blues club that had ACTUAL talent on the stage.  We danced the rest of the night away and ended the night at Pat O’Brien’s.  After leaving Zoe and Amy at Pat’s the rest of us made our way back to the hotel to crash.

Saturday morning came pretty quickly and we all knew the day was already planned and packed.  What was supposed to be an early morning, and perhaps a jog through the mansion laden neighborhoods, almost predictably turned into sleeping-in, laughing about the happenings of the night before, and light grubbing on the Hampton Inn’s (surprisingly) well-balanced free breakfast before our big Jazz Brunch at The Commander’s Palace!  We took shifts getting 9 ladies fed, showered, and beautiful for our one “nice” meal we allow ourselves per Girls Trip.  What our mothers to be did not know, was that the Jazz Brunch was also a joint baby shower.  Kristin and Jenny told a lil’ white lie to get out before the rest of us and set up our table.  The remaining seven finally figured out the street car system, hopped on and made our way down to Commander’s Palace, one of NOLA’s finest and oldest dining establishments.  The street car dropped us off about 4 blocks from our final destination, but the walk wasn’t met with any animosity.  As our heels clicked on the pavement, we took in more of the neighborhood scenery, shaded by oaks, and caught our first glimpse through the cemetery gates at the traditional mausoleums and above-ground graves that seem to be scattered throughout New Orleans.  Our resident photographer Melissa ducked into the cemetery and quickly made her way up and down the aisles of tombs before the gates closed for the day.  There was something very beautiful about that cemetery, which is a concept I have always had trouble trying to explain…beauty in death.  Maybe some things just don’t need to be explained.  The rest of us were greeted by Kristin and Jenny at the door, Melissa finally emerged from the rusty gates, and we asked the young men at the valet station, who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old each, to snap a few group shots below the famous blue and white restaurant sign.  As we entered the building, the walls were lined with workers dressed in starched and pressed tuxedo pants, white button downs and black bow ties, all standing at attention, smiling and ready to serve.  We walked into the main dining room and when Mackenzie and Melissa saw the table, they confusingly looked at all of us and then knew that they had been tricked.  The table looked great…decorated with pinks and blues, balloons, fun favors, and gifts.  It was a great way to combine two very important celebrations into one afternoon.  Now, as much as I want to describe every facet and detail about each and every taste, smell, sight and sound that I experienced at this amazing brunch, I will attempt to simplify it.  The sounds:  beyond the laughter and chatter of our group, we were sweetly serenaded by a cool jazz trio as we enjoyed our brunch.  They played a very special tribute to our mothers-to-be, “Babyface”, which basically brought tears to all of our eyes, and then a great version of Louis Armstrong’s “A Wonderful World”.  The smells:  spicy tomato juice and ice cold vodka…yeah, that’s right…when the waiter came out with a bottle of chilled vodka and created the BEST Bloody Mary I’ve had to date right at the table, it was hard to ignore the scents.  However, once the food emerged from the kitchen, the savory scents took over…Creole spices, cream-heavy sauces, slow-roasted meats, and the freshest of fresh seafood and produce created an olfactory experience like none other.  I thought it couldn’t get better, but that was until the food hit our lips.  I know it may be cliche to describe food as orgasmic, but in this case if you saw the looks on each and every face at our table, that is probably the first word that would come to mind.  Bites were followed by “Mmmmmms” and “Ohhhhh my…” and “You have to try this!”  The initial tease of the scents was followed by the fulfillment of the taste.  I can honestly say that the food at Commander’s Palace, along with the service and ambiance, was and will remain in my top 3 for all-time great dining experiences.  I recommend the Turtle Soup, Cochon du lait main dish (translated “Pig in Milk” but don’t let that sway you), and the Bread Pudding dessert (don’t’ start eating before they put in the creamy brandy sauce…I was a little too eager to taste!)  Everything was flawless, and no, the Bloody Mary’s had nothing to do with this glowing review!

We all left with full and satisfied bellies and smiles on our faces.  The rest of the afternoon was pretty open, but most of us meandered through the cute boutiques of Magazine Street.  I was on a mission to find a dress for a wedding, that could double for a “souvenir” as well.  It did not take long before I found my dress, and then spent the rest of the time fighting urges to buy more.  It’s never a fun thing to shop with a budget, but sometimes it has to be done.  As the energy to shop died down, Amy, Zoe, Melanie and I made our way back towards the hotel.  We stopped and took pictures along the way, and noticed the abnormal number of large caterpillars littering the sidewalks, while doing our best to avoid them.  We were almost to St. Charles Street when Zoe yelled ahead to Melanie, “Mel, what the heck is on your leg.”  I kid you not, within a matter of milliseconds, Melanie was jumping, kicking her leg, and screaming, all while totally avoiding actually LOOKING down at her leg.  I looked down to see a nasty smear of what appeared to be caterpillar guts, and immediately doubled over with laughter.  “Get it off! Get it off!”  Amidst the laughter, I handed Mel the soft case to my sunglasses, reminded her she had a bottle of water in her hand, and instructed her to get it off.  You know sometimes you just need a friend to help guide you through such a traumatic event!  Her reaction was priceless.

After a couple cat naps and a quick glimpse at the Kentucky Derby, we mustered up some energy, got gussied up and headed back down to Bourbon for our final night in the Big Easy.  Our day had been full, but we weren’t about to let that slow us down.  As usual for these trips, we made our way to Pat O’Brien’s in groups..the “Mom’s and Mom’s to be” room was on the ball and got down there to get us a table for a light dinner.  The “Married, Dating, and Single” room followed shortly after and shared in the evening’s first round of Pat O’Brien’s famous Hurricane drink.  It was tasty of course, but said to be pretty lethal if over-consumed, so we all took our time and enjoyed the red concoction.  We then moved into the “Dueling Pianos” room to attempt to get a table to fit all nine of us.  I quickly grabbed one of the guys in green to let him know we were “up next” for a table.  He kindly gave me a nod of the head and promised to help.  I don’t remember if I tipped him, but I should have…even though he was just doing his job.  After about 10 minutes we crammed our bodies into one of the back tables, ordered another round of Hurricanes and settled in for a few hours of tickling the ivories and sing-a-longs.  We lended our voices to many Billy Joel, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and Beatles tunes, as we observed the drunkards around us.  A pair of very cute girls, clearly wasted but having a blast, put on quite a show for us right in front of our table, and even encouraged us to get up and get involved (which of course we did).  I felt like we were playing a game of telephone as we all tried to determine the authenticity of one of the girl’s “girls”.  I think the final vote was: FAKE (but nice).  We got our fill of pianos and the tin tray tapping guy who frequented the stage, paid our bill and freed up a table for the next round of drunk and happy singers.  We were on a mission to check another thing off our list…the Grenade.  As we entered the home of the “Original Hand Grenade”, Tropical Isle, they lined up 7 tall “yards” of Hand Grenades.  They must have known we were coming.  The bar was decorated with some of the most random and somewhat freaky decor I have ever seen, but it added to the entire experience.  We gathered up our drinks and headed up to the balcony for some sight-seeing and music.  Stepping out onto a Bourbon Street balcony makes me smile and feel completely energized.  Perhaps it’s because you never can tell what you are about to witness below, or maybe it’s just the energy rising from the street itself.  Regardless, it’s a unique feeling.  We danced and drank up there for a while, and probably left shortly after someone threw a beer up to our balcony from below and completely drenched Michelle.  I turned around to see her entire head soaked, as she let out her trademark laugh.  The beer throwing was a result of someone NEXT to us on the balcony throwing beer down on someone below.  Unfortunately, that guy’s aim wasn’t so hot from down below.  Eh, it made the night a bit more dramatic!  After Tropical Isle, we stumbled into a gay bar (which was my idea because the music was good!), which should have been evident by the transvestite dancing outside, but it didn’t deter me one bit.  I probably would have stayed, but we were the only people in there!  We made our way from bar to bar, back down to the other end of Bourbon Street, ditched our Grenade yard cups, and ended up in bar with a band who’s lead singer was a sight to see.  I can only describe her as a coke-head meets redneck wanna-be-Janis Joplin, but with what could have been a pretty face.  She reminded me of someone I would see on the show Cops (my grandma’s favorite show by the way).  Anyway, while the guitarist ripped into his solo, she somehow managed to play a little air guitar, with a beer in one hand and a cig in the other, all the while making a face like she just smelled something really nasty.  Again…a sight to see.  The band took a break and then the DJ jumped on stage to do some of that sing-over-the-song stuff that they do so well in NOLA (surprised?).  He was actually pretty funny, but definitely was singing with hopes of being discovered…ahhh, we all have dreams!  We ended our time at that bar by watching a “Birthday Boy” do a skinny white boy’s version of a strip tease on stage.  I just hope his friends got it on video.  Our night ended with a trip to the pizza joint, because no trip with my girls is complete without some late night pizza.  I don’t recall our mode of transportation home, but we all arrived safe and sound.  We needed our rest, because Sunday was JAZZ FEST!

The much anticipated Sunday morning came.  Although a bit more hungover this morning, we all managed to get downstairs to the lobby for another wonderful (but again small) free breakfast.  We needed a little fuel, but wanted to save room for our trip to Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait!  Another NOLA landmark awaited us, so we hopped on the street car again (by day three we were experts!) and headed downtown for a little snack before our trek to Jazz Fest.  We quickly caught on to how popular Cafe du Monde really is, especially on a Sunday morning (and the final weekend of Jazz Fest).  We opted out of the “wait to be seated” line and went straight for “to go”.  Medium cafe du lait and order of beignets…$3.00 (approx).  I mean seriously, you can’t go wrong with coffee and fried dough smothered in powdered sugar for breakfast.  We basically made a mess of ourselves, laughed over the silliness you can do with that much powdered sugar, and checked yet another “to do” off our list.  Now it was time to hail two cabs and make our way out to the Fairgrounds…the jazz was waiting for us!

Once we all got organized and found each other, I was already hungry and salivating at the thought of all of the deliciousness that was at my fingertips.  We were also concerned about finding the “good beer” tent, as well as (of course) figuring out what stage we needed to find.  Although the vendors were plentiful, I really had no plans of buying anything there.  I was there for the food and music.  After the others got their souvenirs, I got my Cuban sandwich to hold me over, and we were successful at finding our Blue Moon beer tent (bonus!).  We made our way to the main stage, planted ourselves and waited for the music to begin.  We stayed there to listen to Alan Toussaint and Neil Young, had our ONE semi-celebrity siting (some guy from Sex and the City), and then it was about time to eat again!  Next stop…cochon du lait po’boy booth.  Seriously, it just melted in my mouth.  I know, I know I had a very similar thing for brunch the day before, but I just couldn’t pass it up!  After grubbing, we made our way to the Gospel Tent to meet up with some of the other girls, which was a great decision.  Let me tell you, it had been a long time since I’d felt that much energy coming from a group of people all at once.  Maybe it was the heat, or the torrential downpour that dropped upon us while we were under that tent, or perhaps it was simply the music.  No matter the reason, that tent became my favorite part of the Jazz Fest.  We were singing, clapping, dancing, hugging, smiling, waving our hands in the air…you name it, we were doing it!  That may have been the closest thing to “God” that I have ever felt, and it felt good!  Everyone was feeling the energy in there…even the guy with the “Cherry Popper” tattoo in front of us, and the lady with the Guinness Book of World Record finger nails (I am really  not sure how she clapped with those nasty things, but she made it happen).  Nevertheless, for about an hour I felt like we were all in the same boat, looking for something to praise and I think we found it under that big top.  Although Buddy Guy was playing in the Blues Tent next door, I was really content with ending my Jazz Fest experience on that note (no pun intended…really).  The rain subsided, and we emerged from the Gospel tent looking like a bunch of wet messes, but with uplifted spirits.

We all made our way back to the hotel in phases.  I think it is safe to say that we were all pretty exhausted and all we wanted to do was to get some food, maybe one last drink, pack our stuff up, and hit the sack.  We walked next door to Superior Grill for a late dinner and reflected on the last three days.  The consensus?…another wonderful trip, void of drama that often accompanies that many girls stuffed into two hotel rooms, and full of lasting and fun memories.

All in all, our whirlwind weekend in NOLA can be summed up into one word…delicious.  The days and nights of our weekend getaway were sprinkled with the delectable tastes, sounds, scents and sights of this great American city.  The time I spend with my girls is always time well spent, and it reminds me how lucky I am to have them in my life and the opportunity to share these experiences with them.

The planning and festivities may be over for the year, but come January 1st, 2010, my little fingers will excitedly type away, I will hit “send”, and that first “GT 2010” mass email will reach email inboxes across the US.  Until then, I will reminice about the po’ boys, jazz and hurricanes I shared with my best friends in one of our nation’s best cities.

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December 30, 2009. Tags: , , , . Friends, Travel.

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