Sunday, January 10, 2010

What I Learned in the Crescent City

There really is something about New Orleans. I didn't see it at its best (or its worst, depending on your perspective), as it was unusually cold there, too, this week, and the run-up to Mardi Gras was just getting started. However, I managed to spend three days at a conference and take up two full days with field trips. A highly recommended strategy.

The two presentations I attended only confirmed that I'd done the right thing; the Q&A portions were way more interesting than the presentations, I'm sorry to say. Does every panel participant spend most of the time plugging his or her own accomplishments? Or did I just draw the short straws? If I heard "When I was a Fulbright scholar in China . . ." or "My book, which is coming out next year from Whatever Press, contains a chapter about that . . ." one more time, I just might have screamed.

Out in the city, I learned they really do call you "Baby" and "Sweetie" as a matter of course, just as the truly Southern among us tend to use "Honey" or (in Orlando, where there are many Puerto Ricans) "Mami." I like it.

They also have a shrewd sense of humor. As just one example, when everyone piled into the airport shuttle, we had 8 riders and only 7 tickets. The driver had to call out the person who was obviously hoping to blend in and get a free ride (and these were law professors, for goodness' sake!). After the second time the driver repeated that there were 8 riders but only 7 tickets, one of the riders finally piped up, "Oh, right, I need to pay" and produced his wallet. After he took the guy's money, the driver said with a smile, "Thank you very much, Mr. Cash." Whereupon, 7 of the 8 riders turned their heads to hide a smile. I can only hope the 8th rider was embarrassed.

We went on a walk in the Jean Laffit National Park and learned about the unique ecosystems of Louisiana and how the wetlands that used to surround the city could have largely protected against the hurricane surge that initiated the Katrina disaster. It was too cold and gloomy for gators to be out and about, but we saw a very sluggish snake, various wading birds, a marsh hawk, and a couple of vultures.

(photo from the National Park Service)

Followed by gumbo, shrimp etouffe, and gator sausage at the Bayou Barn. Unfortunately, there was no Cajun dancing while we were there.

(photo from

During the afternoon we toured the Ninth Ward, which remains a tenacious, badly damaged neighborhood alternating modest homes (in various states of repair), boarded-up, clearly abandoned homes, and vacant lots where only the foundations, or sometimes only the front steps, remain. I'm used to hurricane devastation, but in my personal experience that's meant no electricity for a few weeks, blue tarps on roofs, and lots of tree debris. This is far broader than that. And of course the levees loom over it all.

In a cold, drizzly rain, we walked through a few green building projects there, most notably the houses constructed by Brad Pitt's foundation, Make It Right. Mr. Pitt was not on hand to speak to us, but this gentleman came onto the bus and told us about his experiences since the flooding. I was so impressed with his positive attitude, after the horror of what he has been through. It really came home to me when he said, "When you go through that light way down there, that's where my house floated to."

The next day we were the guests of the Army Corps of Engineers and received a boat tour of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier construction project. Nothing like a boat tour in 20-degree weather to separate the men from the boys! I'm one of the men, mostly, in case you're wondering. Every time I retreated to the inside cabin, where there was some semblance of heat and no wind chill, they would start talking about the project on deck and curiosity would draw me back out again.

I was so impressed with the members of the Corps who guided us. They rode on the bus with us, so we had plenty of time to ask questions. And they are so dedicated. One actually got a little choked up when he talked about how the Corps recognizes that it gets blamed for the Katrina flooding and how thoroughly they understand their failures, with an earnest sense of personal responsibility. Many factors went into those circumstances, and they are determined to overcome the mistakes of the past.

Last but not least, I learned that it is possible to conduct a gumbo taste-off and be practically unable to choose a winner. We had a lovely Creole dinner at Olivier's, where who makes the best gumbo is a long-standing family feud. The sampler includes a roux-based Creole gumbo, a file gumbo, and an okra gumbo. It was incredibly difficult to choose the best one: my favorite was whichever one I'd tasted most recently! I don't even like okra, but the gumbo version was delicious. I finally settled on the file as my favorite; it's not the most popular choice, but there was something about it. We had a fabulously dramatic waiter who took great care of us, pecan-crusted fried oysters (another food I usually don't like), peach cobbler to die for, and a delightful finish to a wonderful trip. In the French Quarter, you don't have to eat at a t.v.-chef's restaurant to have a fabulous meal.

(image from

As if that wasn't enough, I also learned that you can get good red beans and rice with a side of sausage at the airport, just in case you decide to travel on a full stomach. No word on whether that sausage was gator, though. At that point, I'd already been so adventurous in my travel eating, my policy was Don't Ask, Don't Tell.


  1. What a great trip! I am impressed by the Make it Right group! They didn't have Pitt's name everywhere, and they had links to media responses that were not all happy.

    Fascinating to read an 'on the ground' report of New Orleans after all this time. Glad it is recovering, however slowly.

  2. I'm glad you had a good time in my home state! We do call everyone "baby" down here, and I miss it when I go to other places. Whenever I am flying back home after being on a trip, I get teary when I reach the New Orleans airport and the customs people or whatever call me "baby".

    Alligator is pretty good, by the way - it sounds weird but fried alligator with tartar sauce is one of my favorite appetizers. :) If you ever get a chance, come back during crawfish season. Crawfish boils are all by themselves a good reason to live in Louisiana.


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