New Orleans is a Crayola box of sights, sounds and tastes bursting around every corner at any moment. Any week of the year is a different festival with an intoxicating allure of the voodoo and the vibe, from the sax to the fiddle, and the bayous to the bars. They call it the Big Easy, because anything goes. It’s a marvelously complex culture, and it’s never too early to start drinking, although there is one sacred rule: you may not drink from a container–made of open glass–on Sunday–at noon–in front of a church–naked.
“Why is there this constant celebration?” I ask my guide—a grandmotherly figure wielding a massive flask. “Because we don’t have to eat British food!” she cheers. The roots of Louisiana are French Canadian. The port was jostled between France and Spain. Through fortuitous diplomacy the Americans sealed the purchase only to nearly lose it to the Brits in the War of 1812. Apparently the victory lap continues. “We’re not as naughty as you might think though,” she says. “We’ve got almost as many churches as we have bars!”
Jelly Roll Morton once referred to New Orleans as “the cradle of jazz.” Today, the panoply of musical styles that evolved from it is ubiquitous. In the French Quarter a marching band booms; a rockabilly trio slaps a heavy bass; and a lone bluesman plucks tears from his road-worn guitar. Along Bourbon Street, with to-go daiquiris in hand, we’re showered with beaded necklaces from the balconies above. An ear-gasmic cacophony of sound pours out of the bars, morphing from ragtime to rock ’n’ roll as we pass. Seated in the historic Preservation Hall, we’re entranced by brass torchbearers who transport us into a euphonic escape. Our horse and carriage wait outside Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar as we sidle up for some absinthe by the piano. Candle-lit, it’s a setting out of an Anne Rice novel. On Frenchmen Street, we weave in and out of clubs like Snug Harbor and The Spotted Cat, temples of jazz from Gypsy to Zydeco. Sunday morning at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, we are rapt by a rousing sermon followed by a gospel choir that envelops us in soulful waves led by a voice reminiscent of Mahalia Jackson. The resonance of their collective voice is inspirational.
Like culinary jazz, chefs harmonize European techniques with bayou traditions. A Dixieland band plays at The Court of Two Sisters daily jazz brunch. We sample from more than eighty different Louisianan dishes like turtle soup au sherry; etouffee; oysters Rockefeller; beignets and bananas Foster. At Chef John Folse’s R’Evolution the seven nations that make up Creole—Native American, French, Spanish, African, German, English and Italian—reach new heights. Espresso-crusted venison carpaccio with black walnuts and shaved dark chocolate; corn-and-crab cappuccino with black truffle and popcorn; and molasses-lacquered duck with foie gras foam punctuate the menu. “Louisianans love to maintain their continuity of culture through music, food, storytelling, and handing down traditions.” Chef Folse shares. The music is not merely learned in school, “but by a child sitting on a wash bucket outside a meat market with four or five of the greatest fiddle and accordion players in the world.”
On a dirt side road out of town the sun is beaming. A crackle comes on the radio as the opening chords to that old Louisiana state song begin to play: “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey, you’ll never know dear how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away…”
⚜ Plantation Country is home to classic antebellum architecture like Oak Alley Plantation, framed by enourmous oak trees; and Houmas House, a grand 18th century estate with lush floral garden paths.
⚜ Stare down slithering gators meandering through southern swampland with Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours.
⚜ Learn the differences between Cajun and Creole and make your own roux at the New Orleans School of Cooking.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.