By Ron Bernthal
Music from New Orleans is like the city itself…vibrant, energetic, full of life. But that was before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and wounded its soul, perhaps forever.
I spent several days in New Orleans in the week before the hurricane. I listened to music, ate in French Quarter restaurants, and a great creole place called Dunbars, west of downton. I also attended a conference devoted to, of all things, the cocktail, which rumor has it was first served in New Orleans.
I was going to write this piece about the cocktail conference, called appropriately, The Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour, and was inspired by the 2001 book about New Orleans drinking establishments – “Obituary Cocktail” by Kerri McCaffety. It was also going to be a piece about New Orleans, and how the city is one of the greatest places to visit in the entire world.
With its creole food, its 18th and 19th-century architecture, and the Mississippi River flowing past the city like a slow moving brown serpent, and with the disaster still unfolding in New Orleans as I write this, the original story is now history that seems terribly outdated.
But I don’t want to ignore the people I met there, or what they had to say to me about their city, just a few days before everything went underwater. Most of the people I met were able to evacuate the city and are living, temporarily, in Houston or Baton Rouge, Little Rock, or Florida. A few stayed, surviving weeks in the higher ground of the French Quarter without electricity, running water, or any sense of normal life. Here are some of my notes from that visit.
One of the best known names in New Orleans is Bourbon Street, and bourbon is the beverage of choice for many New Orleanians. But few natives really know where the name bourbon came from. It takes someone like Chris Morris, the master distiller for a company called Brown Forman, which just happens to produce Southern Comfort, a drink first invented here, to set the record straight.
“Kentucky in the 1700’s was a big bourbon producer, and one of our counties is Bourbon County. And since New Orleans was, and still is, a major market for us, both in terms of consumption and distribution, the folks down here decided to name one of the streets Bourbon Street. OF course, in those days it was a dirt street where horses and wagons roamed, but the name as withstood the test of time.”
Whiskey was taken straight in those days, but it wasn’t long before folks in New Orleans were mixing their drinks. The first cocktail in America was known as the sazarak, made here by the 19th century by pharmacist Antoine Peychaud. Chris McMullen is a bartender at the Ritz Carlton hotel in downtown New Orleans. The hotel is slowly reopening to the public, and Chris will be back behind the bar, one of the few in New Orleans that still serves the sazarak.
Joe Gendusa is a tour guide in New Orleans and takes visitors on walking tours of the city’s historic French Quarter, a neighborhood of narrow streets and alleys first settled by the French in 1718, then the Spanish in 1762, and then the French again, until it was sold, as part of the Louisiana Purchase, to the United States in 1803. Gendusa’s walking tours visit many of the bars and restaurants in the quarter, which has a long history of serving spirits and good food to both locals and visitors.
“The tour really consists of visiting lots of the little places that have existed down here for generations, like Galatorie’s, a favorite of Te3nnessee Williams, and Antoines, the oldest restaurant in New Orleans,” Gendusa says with a passion in his voice that tells you he truly loves and respects this city. “Arnaud’s was established in 1918, and the Napoleon House, where the famous Pimm’s Cup was created and served as the site of the planned liberation of Napoleon from the British fleet in 1821.”
Most visitors to New Orleans come to walk around the French Quarter , nearby museums and art galleries, and visit Harrahs Casino, not far from the river. A good way to get around this city is either by using the restored St. Charles trolley car, which goes from downtown through the Arts District, past the lovely homes in the Garden District, and west towards Tulane University. Another way is by bicycle.
Michael Ferrand owns Bicycle Michaels, a well equipped shop in the quaint Martigny District, just east of the French Quarter. Ferrand says there are lots of good reasons for using a bicycle to get around the city.
“For one thing, the city is so flat you can pretty much get anywhere you want by bike. It gives visitors a great way to see many of our side streets and neighborhoods without having to walk all over the city, or drive. You can bike along the Mississippi, take a ferry across to the Algiers neighborhood, or ride out along St. Charles and stop at the boutiques, antique shops, or little cafes without having to park a car.”
Outdoor music is everywhere in the city, and it’s not uncommon to come across makeshift bands everywhere, horns blaring, voices rising, feet dancing in impromptu concerts, from historic and touristy Jackson Square to residential districts east and west of downtown.
Margarita Bergen is a columnist for several New Orelans publications who writes about the city’s nightlife. She’s famous in some circles for once attending
22 parties in a single night. I asked her what makes New Orleans a good party town, and her answer, coming just days before Hurricane Katrina, was quite prophetic. This is the kind of place that every body wants to come to. It’s a party town, everyone loves to have fun here, and everyone can afford to do that here. There are so many places to go, for eating, drinking, and dancing. It is a city where every weekend is like Mardi Gras, and what makes it that way are the people who live here.”
Since the hurricane hit New Orleans at the end of August, I have been able to contact many of the any of the people I met there, including Ellen Harris and Joshua Clark, friends who rode out the storm in their French Quarter apartment. As far as the others who I have lost touch with, I am hoping they are ok, and I am hoping that when the water recedes, and when the people that were left behind have been taken care of, the city of New Orleans will reemerge from the chaos, and music will once again fill its streets.
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