New Orleans, LA – Wednesday 7th September
There are roadworks on the street which houses our Air Bnb though there is no one actually working. It’s early evening and the traffic from the airport has been thick and slow. I’ve enjoyed peering out the windows watching kids messing about at baseball practice, people stopping off at the grocery store on the way home to pick up something for dinner. We meet the girlfriend of the owner in a pizza joint on the corner of Decatur and Governor Nicholls streets. It is the only time we step inside the place during our visit to New Orleans. We didn’t come to New Orleans to eat pizza. Dragging our suitcases along the sand covered footpath, we try to dodge the rubbish spilling from ripped open plastic bags. Flies hover around the decaying food, dog excrement and other detritus. The girlfriend, meanwhile, nimbly hops over the piles and skips ahead.
Key in hand she opens the first door. ‘So you need to make sure this door is locked every time you come and go. Otherwise, we end up with all sorts of drunkards relieving themselves inside. And nobody wants to step in that.’
Half a dozen steps up, a short landing and then another few steps, unequal in risers and challenging to ascend with heavy luggage. Another different key unlocks the next door which brings us into some sort of laundry and storage area, stacks of timber and tools taking up the space between wall joists.
It is another thirds key that unlocks the tall, narrow double doors that lead to our apartment. Artist’s loft is how it was advertised on Air Bnb. I’m not sure if it comes with an easel and half-finished painting or if it has been the residence of some faintly noteworthy artist at some point in time. What it is when the doors are finally negotiated is a wonderfully cool, dark refuge.
‘Jo and I have the apartment next door so if you have any problems just send me a message and I can pop over.’
‘Ok. Thanks.’ I just want her to leave so I can peel off my sweaty clothes and throw myself on the bed.
Leaning against the kitchen sink she continues, ‘There’s milk in the fridge, tea and coffee right here. Cups, bowls, plates -everything you need really.’
Steve stands by the table and unloads his pockets. Wallet, phone, handkerchief.
‘So as I said, if you need anything, just holler and I’ll be right over. Jo works nights and I’m off til the weekend.’
He can’t help himself and asks, ‘Oh and what do you do?’
‘Me? I’m a burlesque dancer.’
‘Lovely,’ he responds automatically.
‘But I’m thinking of going back to study. Nursing perhaps.’
I can’t wait this out so I excuse myself and shut myself in the bathroom. Small and airless, it is the wrong move.
‘Oh, should probably leave you guys to it then,’ I hear her say through the door.
‘Thanks so much.’ I hear the doors close and lock. I wait a minute and let myself out.
‘Sorry. Couldn’t do any more small talk,’ I apologise and look to him for a sign of understanding.
His back is turned and he continues to unpack his carry on bag. Crumpled receipts, sugar sachets, a plastic stirrer from his mid-flight coffee. The artfully splayed maps and magazines have been pushed to one side by my handbag and his backpack. Next to the table is a brown leather corner sofa. Saggy bottom seat cushions and shiny leather attest to its years of use. Behind that hangs a series of glass and timber doors, with brightly painted glass panels. Dividing the bed off from the rest of the studio apartment, I’m smitten with its simple yet elegant solution.
Bare brick walls expose the additions and subtractions that the building has seen over its many years. The floor slopes towards the balcony and I unlatch the slim French doors. They fall open onto the tiny private balcony which also lacks a true level floor. I avoid the temptation to step onto it, unsure that it will take any more weight than the pot plants and hanging baskets that adorn the fancy filigreed ironwork.
I hear the street below. Not so much cars but raised voices, laughter and music. This is the call of the hedonist – a common species found in New Orleans.
One foot on the balcony is all I can allow myself as I try to peer forward.
Opposite is a three-storey building, with a wide balcony complete with ornate lacework, large patriotic flags and pot plants. Below that is a bar as it appears most shopfronts are in this section of the French Quarter. I’m glad we purchased a multi-pack of heavy duty earplugs at Walgreens earlier on the trip.
‘Getting peckish my love?’ I enquire, stepping back onto more solid ground.
‘Always, you know me.’
‘Any thoughts on where?’ I persist.
‘I have ideas but I want a shower first.’
I strip my clothes one by one and lay them on the suitcase. Climbing up onto the tall bed, the linen feels cool against my skin. It’s nice not to be moving for a few moments. An armoire placed opposite the end of the bed partially covers an in-filled doorway. I begin to wonder at the things this room has seen. A bordello perhaps to entertain the itinerants that ports attract. A smugglers residence with a view across to the river to watch the ships’ arrivals. Eyes close, shower running, water in drains and before long – ‘Are you going to get ready or what?’
My eyes flash open. The daylight has started to fade. ‘Huh? Yeah. Sure.’
On my feet, I grab a dress from my suitcase and slip on the first pair of shoes I find.
After negotiating the plethora of keys and locks on the way out, we turn the corner onto Decatur St.
‘Let’s stay in the French Quarter for dinner?’ I half-ask half-state. Steve nods.
‘So just up here on the right is a place called Coop’s. Haven’t been there before myself but it is supposed to be a pretty cool joint. Authentic Cajun food.’
‘Sounds good,’ I respond before he offers up any other suggestions.
He picks up my left arm, threads it through his and we weave through the bar patrons who have spilled out onto the footpath. The sun may have started to set but the buildings are holding the day’s heat. It is only a few minutes stroll and we arrive at our intended dinner spot. A menu displayed by the front door has people gathered around it. Above them hangs the restaurant’s sign featuring an alligator wearing a bib with a wineglass in hand. We sidestep them, push open the narrow twin doors and are lucky to nab a last table.
‘Welcome to Coop’s place. How y’all doin’ this evening?’ we hear as our server appears in cut-off denim shorts, logo t-shirt with a tiny pocket apron.
‘Be better soon,’ Steve responds. ‘Can we get a couple of Abitas please? The Purple Haze and the Turbo Dog.’
‘Sure thing, sir.’
Fans furiously spin overhead. Paint is peeling from the walls. Posters of local musicians abut neon beer signs. Condiment bottles jostle for position on the table – mayonnaise, yellow mustard, sriracha, local hot sauces, vinegar, salt, pepper. Customers enter only to be turned away to queue outside along the front wall. A large chalkboard on the walls opposite spruiks this evening’s menu.
‘The real deal Creole seafood gumbo, eh?’ I read off the menu behind Steve. ‘We’ve got to order some of that.’
‘What else is on there?’ The seating is tight and he can’t twist around far enough to read the menu.
I continue, ‘Bayou Appetizer – fried crawfish, oysters, shrimp and crab claws. Sounds like our kind of thing. Rabbit and sausage jambalaya? Absolutely. Lamb ribs, smoked duck quesadilla – no thanks.’
‘Any red beans and rice? Gotta have red beans and rice,’ he asks, twisting again in an effort to have some agency over our evening’s meal.
‘What about a side of fried chicken? Comes with coleslaw so there’s the salad bit covered.’
I’m rarely not in the mood for crispy, salty, chickeny goodness. I do usually have to order multiple pieces though. The first piece is always too hot and I’m not known for my patience. Subsequently, I’ve discovered it’s best to peel the fried layer off with your fingers and therefore exposing the flesh to the cooler outside air. Crunchy seasoned skin is the perfect amuse-bouche or palate teaser. In fact, surely someone has figured out this would be an ideal bar snack – crispy fried seasoned chicken skin to stimulate drink ordering. Chicken skin is always the first thing to disappear from a roasted chicken. My youngest daughter would have subsisted on this alone if I’d let her. To this day, she can devour an entire plate of chicken wings without blinking an eye.
When the gumbo turns up I’m glad the lighting is subdued as it is not a dish you order for the Instgramming opportunities. It’s murky brown depths hide all manner of things. It is the long slow cooking of the roux (browning off flour in pork fat) that lends the finished dish its colour. Near constant stirring in a wide shallow dish is needed to achieve the not burnt but well-seasoned base of gumbo. After this, chopped onion, celery and capsicums are stirred in and simmered. Broth then the chosen protein is added to the whole lot cooked gently then served over rice.
It has been said that gumbo is an apt metaphor for Louisiana and its population. It is the result of a mix of cultures and the culinary traditions they brought with them. The French provided the roux. Slave ships from Africa brought rice and the vegetable okra which has a very distinctive slimy characteristic. Spanish immigrants, especially those from the Canary Islands, contributed seafood and cayenne. German immigrants brought their sausage making knowledge and skills with them to the New World. Local inhabitants introduced filé powder from the sassafras tree as a thickening agent and the corn grits the dish was originally served with.
The rabbit and pork sausage jambalaya is a wet rice dish similar in consistency to a risotto though not as cohesive. It is packed with diced onion, tomatoes, capsicum, shredded rabbit meat (though honestly with all the spices it may as well be chicken) and small slices of smoked pork sausage. It’s tasty without being too hot and spicy and would make a meal on its own. Like gumbo, I can see this dish could vary with seasonality and availability of ingredients.
Next up is a dish that is as unassuming as it is indispensable – red beans and rice. Dried red kidney beans are soaked overnight then added to the holy trinity of the south – onion, green capsicums, or bell peppers as they are known in America, and celery – and simmered away with stock or water for many hours until they are creamy and the liquid gelatinous. Add some prepared spice mix such as Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning or Slap-Yo-Mama seasoning to give it all the kick you need. Though that doesn’t stop Steve adding some hot sauce at the table.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the rice is an afterthought though. Rice is important in the cuisines of the south. For hundreds of years, rice was a common crop of small-scale farmers in the area with seeds saved from the most desirable crops and replanted season upon season. There is a movement to revive heirloom varieties of grains and legumes across the region. Traditionally a Monday night dish, this simple hearty meal fitted in with the domestic rhythms of housekeeping duties. Cooking slowly during the day, red beans and rice made a wholesome dish to nourish the body and soul after a long day at work.