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Day 2 - The Garden District
Before our plane even left the ground I read The Accidental City and half of The World that Made New Orleans to help prepare for this very historic city. The former book was very detailed and took a bit of effort to get through. The latter was very music oriented which was great due to New Orleans being very music oriented itself. I enjoyed both and I'm glad I read The Accidental City first as it gave me a lot of background for the second book.
The history goes a little something like this.
- Some Spanish guy (DeSoto) named after an old Chrysler car company lands in Florida in 1539 and immediately sets up a t-shirt shop
- He then proceeds to travel through the Carolinas and Georgia and accidentally starts a debate about how to bbq a wild pig. To this day the debate has never been settled.
- Later he gets lost and much to the surprise of the locals "discovers" the Mississippi river
- Then he promptly loses it again and spends the rest of his life looking (in all the wrong places since it hadn't moved an inch)
- Fast forward 200 years when the French send out some Canadians to find the Mississippi river more than once which they succeed at
- To celebrate the discovery they have a party with the natives where alcohol flowed, people danced around half naked and music was as loud as possible beginning a long New Orleans tradition
- Upon discovering that hockey rinks don't stay frozen in the south they immediately abandoned the site. Had the French mentioned this fact the Mississippi may still be lost to this day.
- Twenty years later one of the Canadians grants himself a great deal of worthless land along the river. Coincidentally he also decides to build New Orleans at the very same spot.
- Forty-five years of floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, more floods, mosquitoes, forced emigration, the first ever stock crash and famine are broken up with a few days of less than 100% humidity.
- France loses a war to the British and gives Louisiana to the Spanish just to piss the Brits off. The British don't yet know they are the fortunate ones.
- Thirty-five more years of floods, hurricanes, more forced emigration and a few devastating fires with no days on record of less than 100% humidity.
- The Spanish want a refund and give New Orleans back to the French. The French unload it on the Americans in a deal that's "too good to be true".
- The Americans start the long tradition of trying to outdo the French and convince a bunch of guys to dress up as women and parade down a street. It becomes an immediate hit.
- The Americans continue trying to outdo the French and build bigger, fancier houses then those in the French quarter. The Garden District is born.
- Open container laws are struck from the books, alcohol starts to flow (and I mean flow. Down the walls, across the street and into the drainage) and the rest has been a blur ever since.
And that brings us back to the Garden District. As I mentioned earlier this is where the Americans built their fancy mansions. I knew the French quarter was pretty crazy so we rented a suite at the Prytania Park Hotel (not near any Prytania Park) in the Garden District (with no gardens) separated from the French quarter (built by the Spanish) to the west of Canal street (which was never a canal). Got that?
The homes are beautiful and Lafayette Cemetery was a kick as most Catholic cemeteries are. They say that Catholics deep down are real nice people so the Americans buried them above ground. Perhaps that's not the whole reason. Perhaps Spanish tradition and the water table have something to do with it as well.
One of the most interesting houses to me was Jefferson Davis' house. This is the guy who was the president of the Confederate states during the Civil war. I had no idea he had such a long military and political career before leading the rebel forces against the empire (or so it seems). He went to west point and fell in love with future president Zachary Taylor's daughter whom he resigned from the military for. They moved away immediately, got malaria and she died within 6 months of being married at the age of 21. Davis nearly died as well. He went on to marry a 17 year old girl when he was 34 and was elected to the House of Representatives. Later he gathered together a militia to fight in the Mexican American war. He was offered the spot of Brigadier General which he refused because he believed the States should appoint militia officers. He is then elected a senator, then secretary of war, then senator again before he gave a speech against the south seceding. Soon after he was elected to be the confederate president. After the war he elected to the senate again but was barred due to his history. I don't remember spending that much time on him in history class.
The heat in New Orleans was unbearable and the humidity more so. We were hungry so we attempted to go to the Commander's Palace which turned us away due to my sandals having open toes and me not wearing pants. For the record I WAS wearing something, just not pants. We decided to return at a later time wearing the proper attire.
After the previous night's mediocre run-in with Po'boys we decided to try a place known for them. In 1949 a restaurant called Tracey's came into being. It was an Irish pub in the Irish channel which is in the Garden district. The Irish Channel was so named due to the large immigration of Irish at one point. A few years after Tracey's was founded they changed their name to Parasols. Later the owner wanted to sell and the manager wanted to buy but he was outbid by someone from Florida (everyone gasp at the same time now). So the manager moved a few doors down and re-opened as Tracey's again and continued making the same Po'boys they'd been making for 60 years. If these guys can't make one who can?
I ordered Boudin Balls a softshell crab Poboy and a Catfish Poboy. The Boudin Balls - a sausage ball rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried, were very nice (Kris loved them) and the Poboys were pretty meh. There wasn't anything wrong with them but they're really just a sandwich. I'm sure I'll offend a few people but it's bread, lettuce, tomato and meat and none of it's very exciting. You can swap out the meat with crab or catfish and it's still just a sandwich without a whole lot of flavor. They reminded me of Subway but the bread wasn't as bad. I can see that the roast beef Poboy is the one to get but even then...
After wandering until we were overheated again we stepped into Still Perkin' a coffee shop in an old converted Skating Rink. The one thing I've noticed is the air conditioning runs full blast around here which is much appreciated. We've also noticed that not a lot of coffee gets sold in coffee shops here. That is hot coffee like at home. People don't seen to eat a lot of ice cream though even with the temperature what it is. This is very curious.
As we were done with this section of the Garden District we returned to the hotel and cooled down. Since we've now had three mediocre meals we decided to go straight to the top - Commanders Palace. If $100 a meal doesn't buy you good food them nothing will (spoiler alert: it does).
The Commander's Palace gets fabulous reviews on yelp and is very formal. To be honest I love great food but I'm not a very formal person but I can get cleaned up with a little effort. We were greeted by about 9 servers, one of which remembered us from earlier in the day. We were seated my our server who looked like she hadn't smiled in quite some time. It was clear she was not there for small talk. When they served the table ALL people were served at the very same time by an entire team. It was like the dishes fell from the air. The menu is arranged like a French restaurant with appetizer, main coarse and dessert all included. Even with the included appetizer I just had to order Foie Gras. New Orleans chefs are kind of funny as they try really hard to make their food southern even when it makes no sense. Case in point - under my very nice Foie Gras was a biscuit. Yes, a biscuit that did it's best to detract from the nice flavor of the Foie Gras. Next to it was another small piece of Foie Gras... wait for it... with grits hidden under it. I'm fairly certain the grits didn't contribute any more to the meal than the bisquit. Kris and I ate the Foie Gras off of both. Kris ordered Turtle Soup which was very nice although it would probably taste exactly the same if they'd used any dark meat as you couldn't identify the turtle if your life depended on it. I had the Gumbo which I was not very impressed with. Perhaps it's just their rendition of gumbo that I didn't like. For main course I had a praline crusted quail that was excellent. Kris had the Mahi Mahi which was pretty good. For dessert she did Creme Brulee and I had Bread Pudding with a rum sauce. The Bread pudding looked like a puff pastry in a soup bowl. Our server poked a hole in the poofed up part and drizzled the rum sauce into it. I liked it a lot. Finally a good meal in New Orleans.
This begs the question - was this fabulous meal southern? I'd say not. Outside of a few hints like grits under my Foie Gras and using Turtle in the soup it wasn't very southern but it was good so we went to bed happy. I was however, still in search of this wonderful New Orleans cuisine I'd heard so much about.