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Gumbo

by Alice Lowe

 

        New Orleans. It’s the south but nothing like the south. Cooler than cool, hipper than hip, urbane, genteel. High culture and smokin’ jazz. And the food, oh god, the food. I used to salivate when returning friends recited mouth-watering menus and narrated exhaustive accounts of their dining adventures wherever they went—from Acme Oyster House, Brennan’s, and Commander’s Palace to Zimmer’s Seafood—from renowned high-end establishments to the no-less-prized paper-plate eateries.

 

        It was inevitable that I would succumb, and in October 2002 my husband and I made the long-awaited cultural and culinary pilgrimage. I put myself in the hands of food enthusiast Calvin Trillin, who seeks out authenticity as he mocks pretentious haute spots under the only-slightly-exaggerated banner of “La Maison de la Casa House Continental Cuisine.” I flipped to the New Orleans chapters in my dog-eared, marked up and food-stained copy of Tummy Trilogy and put red stars by the barbecued shrimp at Pascal’s Manale, the oyster loaf at Casamento’s, the po’boys at Mother’s.

 

        You can sit down at a white tablecloth or a scarred and sloping counter—we favored the latter—and get a great meal in New Orleans. You can order gumbo everywhere, regardless of the décor or prices. Andouille sausage with seafood or chicken or both, whatever the combination, whether in a paper bowl or fine porcelain, some is better than others, but it’s all good. I wasn’t disappointed in the food, but the city itself was a letdown, sticky and squalid. At first everything seems to revolve around the French Quarter, where drinking is the sport of choice. Boisterous revelers swill rum and citrus Hurricanes out of tall plastic cups, sloshing them in the streets and over the filigreed ironwork of Bourbon Street balconies. We explored further afield, west to Tennessee Williams territory and east on streetcars that ferry tourists through the posh Garden District. Seedy bars and run-down shanties on one side and legendary mansions on the other brought home the sharp distinctions between the haves and the have-nots. I didn’t find the mystique, the old world charm. All roads led back to the French Quarter, and even the food lost some of its allure after a few days.

 

 

        My family migrated from New York to California when I was six, and I’ve lived here ever since, but I still feel a primeval pull to the northeast—the people, the pulse, the crisp beauty. I love New York, from the teeming streets of Manhattan to the Long Island suburb of my early years, but my husband finds it foreign and overwhelming. Don was born in Kentucky and was raised in Southern California too; his affinity is for the south. He loved New Orleans right away—the steamy, seamy ambiance, the Creole patter on the street, mournful blues wafting from dusky doorways, the voodoo vibe, the funk of it all.

 

        The least demanding of mates, Don yields to my whims and wants. I don’t feel guilty about getting my way, but sometimes I like to defer to him. Which is why we went back to New Orleans two years later. We’d done New York twice, so it was only fair that I give equal time to New Orleans. The oysters at Acme would be my consolation. We celebrated my birthday at the Red Fish Grill, an overpriced upscale indulgence, where Don—to my stunned horror—sang “happy birthday” at full volume with stagy embellishments. I sat frozen with embarrassment. The room broke out in applause when he finished, and I muttered through gritted teeth, “Don’t ever do that again.”

 

        My response to the city was unchanged, fresh crawdads, blackened redfish, and abundant gumbo notwithstanding.

The following year Hurricane Katrina changed the face and the fate of New Orleans. The city was brought to its knees by the losses of life and livelihood, home and history. As recovery efforts proceeded, tourism was promoted as a patriotic response—now more than ever—the way to support redevelopment efforts and boost the economy. Harry Connick Jr. sang "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” at a benefit concert for Katrina victims. The song was first performed by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday in the 1947 movie “New Orleans” and since then has been recorded by the likes of Fats Domino, Rosemary Clooney, and Ricky Nelson. Like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the refrain permeates the city on tee-shirts and refrigerator magnets, in hearts and minds.

 

        Don missed New Orleans and proposed it as a vacation spot a few times over the following years. “Not me,” I replied.

 

We usually travel together, but last year I took three trips by myself: a Virginia Woolf conference in Chicago, house-sitting for a friend in Seattle, moral support for a recently divorced pal in Williamsburg. I felt guilty. I told Don, “It’s your turn.”

He shrugged it off at first, then lit up. “I could go to New Orleans….”

 

        We travel modestly, but I seek more creature comforts than Don. We like to walk and explore, but I tend to organize our movements around restaurant locations and meal times. Without me, Don could do New Orleans his way. He stayed at a dodgy hotel/hostel/halfway-house in a just-funky-enough neighborhood between the Garden District and the artsy/industrial Warehouse District. “Not your kind of place,” he told me. He wandered aimlessly, took it all in, ate Subway sandwiches to save money—he wasn’t there for the food. A painter and musician, he came home inspired with creative ideas that included a blues CD, stenciled images on our patio, a mural on the garage door.

 

        He came home itching to go back. He had a plan. The hotel was, still is, in the process of extensive renovation, and they hire people for short stints of part-time work in exchange for lodging. Don was told he’d be welcome with his experience in house painting and light construction. How would I feel, he asked, if he were to take leave from his job to go back for a month? Wouldn’t it be a fantastic opportunity?

 

        “Of course it would,” I replied. “Of course you should.”

We’d never been apart for more than a couple of weeks. After eleven years I was ready to give New Orleans another try, and we decided I would join him for a weekend midway through the month. This time, for the first time, I gave up the reins. I told Don,

 

        “This is your city; you decide what we do and where we go.” The hotel was on a quiet residential stretch of Magazine Street close to shops, galleries, and eateries. We went to the French Quarter—tolerable when it wasn’t in my face every day—early one morning when the streets around Jackson Square were freshly washed, the air sweet-smelling, and people just stirring, to indulge my one “must,” chicory coffee and beignets blanketed in powdered sugar at Café du Monde. Otherwise, I said “Great!” to whatever Don suggested.

 

        Serendipity paid off on Saturday when we passed K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen around lunchtime. Surprised to see a couple of empty tables, we nipped in and had the darkest, richest gumbo I’ve ever had. Paul Prudhomme had died the week before, and I like to think his gumbo earned him a mansion in heaven surpassing any on St. Charles Street. It was a religious experience, Jesus in a bowl.

 

        We strolled through neighborhoods bursting with street art: indiscriminate tagging, found-object sculpture, intricate mosaics, murals everywhere. We skirted areas scarred by Katrina, a mixed bag of extensive restoration and still-evident flood damage. Gentrification has changed the complexion of the region—it’s richer and whiter, with pumped up property values that keep many former residents from returning home. A blues and barbecue festival in Lafayette Square rocked with acts on two stages. Music for Don and food for me; I had a plate of spicy Jamaican greens, fried plantains and hush puppies.

 

        We celebrated my birthday again, this time at Pascal’s Manale. I warned Don: “Singing is grounds for divorce.” We’d savored the signature barbecued shrimp on our first trip, thanks to Calvin Trillin, but this time Louie, our amiable server with a curious local accent that sounds straight out of New York’s Lower East Side, pitched the soft-shelled crab—“There’s just two left in the kitchen, want ‘em?” Afraid to miss out on something memorable, we said yes. We yielded to Louie’s wine recommendation as well after he said of my choice “You don’t want to drink that.”

 

        Monday morning I sipped a Bloody Mary (my unfailing travel-anxiety panacea in airports regardless of the time of day) while I awaited my flight to San Diego. Recapping the weekend, it occurred to me that it was enjoyable and relaxing because I’d managed to get out of my own way, as the self-help gurus say. Could it have happened somewhere else? Sure, but it didn’t, and New Orleans bumped up a notch in my estimation. I’ll always favor Manhattan, always prefer a slice of pizza or a chewy bagel over beignets, and while I’ll never know what it means to miss New Orleans, I’d do it again for that gumbo.

 

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Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in more than sixty literary journals, most recently Baltimore Review, Stonecoast Review, The Chaos, Citron Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Fish Food. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London.

Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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