Beignets, Muffuletta, and Jazz
There’s no doubt that New Orleans has a personality all its own. When you’re in New Orleans, you know you’re in New Orleans.
Like other great cities, New Orleans unique character is a product of the blend of cultures who have called it home. Think Chicago and its ethnic neighborhoods. Or New York, where new immigrant populations are constantly changing the face of the city.
In New Orleans’ case, you marinate a French colony for almost fifty years, then Spanish rule for another forty, add immigrants from Italy, Germany and Ireland along with African slaves, Free People of Color and Native Americans and you get one of the most vibrant cities in the US.
A Short History
The native Chitimacha people have inhabited the delta in and around present day New Orleans for at least 6,000 years. After European contact, their population shrank by 99.7% to just 55 persons at the beginning of the 20th century. Their numbers have since rebounded but are still far below the number of people before Europeans landed.
The original colonizers, the French, ceded Louisiana to the Spanish after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. While under French control, the port of New Orleans was an important point for the Revolutionary Army to get military equipment from the French during the Revolutionary War.
Napoleon, as every schoolchild knows, then sold the territory to the fledgling United States in 1803. During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the decisive Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
As a port city, New Orleans was instrumental in slave trade; not only receiving slaves for forced labor in Louisiana, but shipping shackled humans all over the south. Ironically, New Orleans was also home to the largest and most prosperous Free Persons of Color community in the United States.
In 1862, the city was captured and occupied by Union forces during the Civil War, thus sparing it the destruction of other southern cities. Many freed slaves from the city fought for the Union Army under the name of Corps d’Afrique.
Racial segregation was enforced through Jim Crow laws beginning shortly after the war. African-Americans were not allowed to vote, serve on juries or hold public office. Schools were segregated by race as recently as 1960. While the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the mid 60’s restored some rights to minorities, even today, many blacks suffer socioeconomic hardships as well as covert and overt racism.
Hurricane Katrina scored a direct hit on Louisiana in 2005, flooding much of the city, causing widespread destruction, and killing over 1,500 people. Many of the people who evacuated opted to relocate to cities like Houston and Austin, never returning to the Crescent City. Subsequent rebuilding has been quick and efficient in some wealthier and more tourist-friendly areas of the city, while some poorer areas have yet to recover.
Treme’s Backstreet Cultural Museum
The Treme neighborhood is one of the most culturally rich in the city. Musicians Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty are from Treme and Louis Prima and Alex Chilton lived here as well. If you’re staying in the French Quarter, Armstrong Park in Treme is an easy walk. Check out the statue of Louis Armstrong and Congo Square where you can learn about this important gathering place for slaves and the earliest beginnings of jazz.
My favorite spot in Treme is a teeny museum housed in an old funeral parlor. Backstreet Cultural Museum began life as a display of Sylvester Francis’ photographs in a garage, thus the “Backstreet” in the museum’s name. As the display gained popularity, costumes, decorated parade umbrellas and other artifacts were donated. Today, the museum’s collection can be viewed in a tiny house on St. Claude Ave.
Two rooms are stuffed with artifacts from Mr. Francis’ extensive photographic and film collection to posters and costumes and all kinds of ephemera. Tthe highlight of the museum is the set of Indian Chief Mardi Gras costumes. These colorful feathery items are worn by Indian Chiefs at Mardi Gras just once, then a new costume is created for the next year. I can’t imagine the time it must take to hand sew these incredibly intricate pieces.
Yes, the museum is small, but take some time here. Each corner reveals something new and exciting. It is a mistake to think that this is simply a Mardi Gras museum. Mr. Francis photographed and filmed Mardi Gras, but also hundreds of Jazz Funerals, second lines and the other parades that take place throughout the year.
Better Than Bourbon Street
After you watch short films of Mardi Gras and Jazz Funerals, you’ll likely want to see some live music. And yes, there’s music on Bourbon Street. But, Bourbon Street is the Disneyland of New Orleans, a warped cartoon version of the real thing. Tourists in shorts and sandals carrying blinking giant plastic cups match the gaudy neon enticing you inside.
A few blocks away you can see the real deal. Frenchmen Street is lined with jazz clubs offering music every night of the week. Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro regularly features the Ellis Marsalis Quintet and the Charmaine Neville Band. Or cross the street to the Spotted Cat. It’s a bit worn and dated but the music is legit and there’s no cover (one drink minimum). Don’t limit yourself to one place. If there’s not a big-name band playing, a lot of these places have low or no cover charges, especially during the week. We like to wander up and down Frenchmen and listen outside at a bunch of places before we decide where to go. And, if you get don’t like anything on the docket that particular night (although I’m not sure that’s possible), head to the upper end of Frenchmen’s to the dive bar The John. It’s dotted with toilets (non-functioning, of course) as seats.
On your way home be sure to grab an Uber. Though Frenchmen Street itself is rather safe, the adjacent neighborhood can be a bit dicey after dark.
On our last visit to New Orleans we stumbled upon the Joan of Arc Parade (held every year on January 6th to celebrate the saint’s birthday). The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc, the organization who puts on the parade, sets the event in Joan’s time, France of the 1400s, complete with period costumes and entertainment. Unlike other raucous parades, this one is subdued, with angels dressed in white carrying candles. Someone handed us one of the commemorative medallions that are made each year for the parade and we hopped in line and followed the procession to Washington Park where the baby king cake was crowned.
Italians in the Crescent City
You might be surprised to learn that the first Italian immigrants to North America didn’t arrive in New York or Philadelphia, but New Orleans. In fact, so many Sicilians were living in the French Quarter in the early 20th century that some suggested renaming it the “Sicilian Quarter.” They worked on the docks, sugar plantations and sold fruit in the French Quarter.
In 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was assassinated outside him home. As is often the case, immigrants were blamed for the killing. Dozens of Italians were rounded up and put on trial. None, however, were convicted and the outraged public lynched 11 Italians, many of whom had never stood trial. While this monstrous action was praised by the mayor, it caused an international incident. In the end, no one was ever tried for the lynchings. Recently, the City of New Orleans has officially apologized to the Italian community for the incident.
There is still a strong Italian influence in New Orleans. The Central Grocery, where the muffuletta sandwich was invented, has been in owned and operated by the same family for over 100 years. St. Joseph Day, Italy’s Father’s Day, is widely celebrated in New Orleans. And, Italian-American social clubs have been in existence for 175 years.
We like to stay at Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. It was started by a Sicilian immigrant, Antonio Monteleone, in 1886 and has been owned and operated by the same family ever since. The hotel is famous for being mentioned in literary works by Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemmingway, and many others. But it is probably best known for its famous bar which features a carousel of seats that slowly rotate around the bar. Keep an eye open for patrons getting ready to leave, open seats are snatched up quick! The Vieux Carré is a specialty.
Big Easy Beignets and Chicory Coffee
Beignets are fried dough pastries similar to a doughnut, but square rather than round and without a hole. They are served hot and topped with powdered sugar. If you’ve heard of beignets, you’ve probably heard of Café du Monde, the most famous food attraction in New Orleans. They serve only beignets, chicory coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice. And they’re always crammed with tourists. I find it a bit sterile.
Café Beignet, on the other hand, has a more intimate atmosphere. Just a block from Hotel Monteleone, there are lines here, too, but they are manageable. There is seating inside, but just outside the side door is a peaceful courtyard where wrought iron tables and chairs sit under shady trees.
Their beignets are crispy on the outside and fluffy and light on the inside. The perfect antidote for a late night of jazz and cocktails on Frenchman Street.
If you’re so inclined, they have a full breakfast and sandwich menu, plus lots of delicious pastries in a huge display case. Home cooks can take home some beignet mix or king cake mix. But my favorite thing in New Orleans is getting up early for three hot beignets and a café au lait and sitting under the trees in the courtyard, planning out another day in New Orleans.
Speaking of café au lait, this is a distinctly New Orleans style of coffee brought to the Big Easy by French Acadians via Nova Scotia. During wartime, chicory root was roasted and used as a coffee substitute in Napoleonic France. In the colonies, especially French speaking ones, this custom continued, but faded from favor during peaceful times when coffee was more readily available. That is, except in Louisiana.
Café au lait is made with chicory root and coffee, creating a strong but not bitter beverage. In New Orleans it is almost always served with warm milk, though you can get it black if you ask.
If you’re looking for something a little stronger in the French Quarter, try Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. Some call this establishment the best bar in America. They make an exquisite French 75, of course, but all their cocktails are outstanding; made with homemade syrups and fresh ingredients. They also have an excellent bar menu. I mean, black-eyed pea and tasso beignets, c’mon!
Voodoo, the set of spiritual rituals and remedies first brought to the new world by enslaved Africans, is very popular with tourists in New Orleans. Many flock to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter only to be disappointed and feel ripped off by the meager displays. Others look for an authentic experience at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo because it is located in the Queen of Voodoo’s former home. Alas, despite rumors of Marie’s ghost haunting the site, this is another tourist trap.
Perhaps to get the best experience is to go on a tour. The New Orleans Voodoo Tour by Free Tours on Foot takes you to Congo Square where Voodoo took root with African slaves, the house Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and Voodoo shops. A great way to learn about the religion of Voodoo. Note that the New Orleans Voodoo Tour will not take you St. Louis #1 Cemetery where Marie Laveau is buried. For that you will have to take a dedicated St. Louis #1 Cemetery Tour.
For a reading, see Sallie Ann at the Island of Salvation Botanica. They also have a shop with oils, statues, bath salts, and Haitian art.
Esoterica in the French Quarter is run by Mimi and her coven of Wicca. You can shop for potions, statuary, herbs, jewelry and everything else you need to outfit the alter in your hovel. Best of all, Mimi provides expert advice for whatever good spell you are casting (bad magick strictly forbidden!). Be warned, Mimi and the employees can have a short fuse if they think you are not serious about their chosen path.
Voodoo Authentica has a storefront as well, but being the digital age, they also offer readings by Skype. Check out their collection of Voodoo dolls for sale; they’ll explain what each one is for.
Flights to and from almost every major US city.
Public bus service, shuttles, taxis, and Uber are all available to get you from the airport to New Orleans.
New Orleans has excellent public transportation. In addition to a bus system, there are also three trolley lines which are a great way to see the city, especially the Garden District. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority operates a ferry service across the Mississippi River. Taxi service and Uber is also available.
Index of in Things to Do New Orleans
One-of-a-kind collection of Mardi Gras Chief costumes and ephemera.
Renovated 1800’s storefront is now a jazz club with an excellent pedigree.
One of the best places for music on Frenchmen Street.
The cities marquee festival held each spring. Features international acts as well as New Orleans finest musicians.
Massive parties and parades throughout the city during the two weeks leading up to Lent.
Offbeat parade celebrates the saint.
See several Voodoo sites and learn about the religion of Voodoo. Pay what you like format.
Index of Food & Drink in New Orleans
Sicilian grocery store operated by the same family for over 100 years.
Fantastic beignets (better than Café du Monde, IMHO) and a relaxing outdoor patio at their Royal Street location.
The Treme institution has been serving Soul and Creole food for over 75 years. Chef Leah Chase is a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
Now run by Willie Mae’s great-granddaughter, this Treme restaurant is famous for its fried chicken.
New Orleans most famous warm weather treat. Expect long lines.
Charming restaurant in the garden district.
On Bourbon Street but a world away from noise and rowdiness, this internationally known restaurant is expensive. Dress code requires jacket and tie for men.
Excellent cocktails including the namesake French 75.
Index of Shopping in New Orleans
Plenty of trinkets and potions but many come here for a reading from Sallie Ann.
Voodoo and Magick shop in the French Quarter. Serious shoppers only.
Voodoo store with readings and consultations available.
Readings and consultations along with a store.
Ask to see the secret room where paintings by Monet and a dinosaur skeleton are for sale.
Wigs and makeup for when you play dressup.
Cool recycled and repurposed household and personal products. The Mardi lights are especially attractive.
Index of Places to Stay in New Orleans
Wonderful hotel with a rich history and a carousel bar. Great location in the French Quarter.
Boutique hotel decorated with vintage 19th century flair. Mile and a half to the French Quarter.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.