Here is a little secret Sweetheart hipped me to: when it is chilly and grey and perhaps may snow and the sky looks like the underside of a steel mixing bowl, and you wish you could be magically transported from your cold old desk to a land of tropical breezes, louche afternoons, and honeysuckle-bougainvillea twilights, then just put on WWOZ, live streaming radio out of New Orleans. It is truly awesome, and these ceaseless winter days we need all the help we can get. Get thee there.
The last time that we were in New Orleans, we split our time between two sets of friends, the fabulous doctors-in-love completing their residencies and living in a gorgeous walk-up in the Garden District, and an amazing boho restauranteur couple who were savvy enough to snag a double shotgun in the Bywater ten years ago. As most hosts would do, they both gave us recommendations of their favorite places, seedy-wonderful dives and juke joints, po’boy shacks and wine bars, fancy oyster houses and music halls. Occasionally, the lists overlapped, and we saw (perhaps in a head-slapping-obvious moment) that whenever both sets of friends, very different and divine in their differences, both recommended the same thing that that thing was undeniably the best. We’ve followed this mandate ever since, and it’s taken us to Luke’s for 50 cent oysters, Robert’s and Jeni’s in Nashville, Cole’s in LA, Edo’s Squid in Richmond, the Tomales Bay Oyster Pound, Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, the farmstand in Bolinas, The Tip Top in Bed Stuy… if two people recommend that you do something in their fair city, go out of your way to do it. Simple, brilliant.
Move over plastic pumpkins, decorative gourds, and automated motion sensor witches that say things like “Witch goul are you!?” when you walk by (seen/vaguely startled by this yesterday at Lowe’s while trying to buy rake hands). Those kind of cheap-o made-in-China disposable decorations? Pshaw. This house, a low-slung shotgun in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, has it nailed. So simple, so awesome, I’d keep this crazy driftwood-spanish-moss-raven tableaux up all year. Thanks to Miss McKay for adventures in spanish moss and for the top picture.
After our joyous whirlwind in New Orleans, Sweetheart headed back north to the big City and I headed back up the Natchez Trace with Miss McKay into the deep wilds of Mississippi where she makes her home. The plan was to revel in the southern spring, luxuriating in the three hundred mile latitudinal difference between flourishing banks of azaleas (there) and tiny nodding crocuses who blew it by showing up a little too early and then it snowed again (here). The plan was also for me to tag along on McKay’s first full beehive inspection of the season. She comes from a long lineage of beekeepers, and I used to visit her Brooklyn rooftop hives with her a few years ago when we were all gathering nectar in that sweet borough. She writes about her adventures in honey here. Unfortunately, Mississippi’s spring hasn’t sprung any more than Virginia’s, and it was just too cold to open up the hive. So, instead, I just inspected the honey super McKay’s planning on adding to her hive to give them space to grow in the next month, happy to have some up close and personal time with the frames and the drawn comb, with its Fibonacci beauty and funny beautiful irregularities.
Then we went to the canal, down through the Bywater to what is not technically a public park (you have to skirt barbed wire and cross railroad tracks to get there), but which is full of young couples and their dogs and gutterpunks zooming around on their fixed-gear bikes in a perfect facsimile of a public park. The great green earthworks are beautiful, covered in clover, soaring 30 feet up from the lowlands of the upper 9th ward. Arriving at the top, come-heres like us can only stare at the huge brown muddy Missippi lapping at the rocks on the other side of the levee and wonder aghast what it must have been like for it to breach these walls.
A note on this amazing flotsam river robot: Here he is at the very edge of the river (I, typical to form, clambered down there to see him up close and search for treasures). That night there was a gentle rain, the river rose a few feet, and when I went back here with Miss McKay, he was gone.
After a few too many days (or far too few, depending on your point of view) of beer battering and deep frying ourselves, Sweetheart and I lit out of New Orleans headed for the swamp. Listening to WWOZ 90.7 (which just might actually be the “greatest radio station in the known world”, as they say. I recommend judging for yourself here). The great vast and secret network of swamp trails and lagoons that spreads over south Louisiana like a heavy green petticoat has been a place of utter romance and adventure for me since I was little. Daddy used to tell me tales of a one-eyed alligator who wore a beret and an eyepatch and cruised the bayous making merry and trying to stay out of trouble and the sights of hapless poachers named Bubba and Ernest (one time he caught a train to Galveston by rolling off an aqueduct onto a bed of coal-car sugarcane, but that’s another story), followed quickly by Nancy Drew’s bayou adventures, the smoke hazed tales of mooncussers and rum runners using the natural canals for piracy under dead moons, and, of course, the song “The Battle of New Orleans”, which, I believe, is an entirely factually accurate account of said battle (including the part where they use an alligator as a cannon when theirs melts). So. Let’s just say I have a bayou kinship. Our destination: The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve on the very land where the Battle of New Orleans happened (! in 1814 !), and hiked the four mile bayou trail. We saw two gators (neither in beret or eyepatch, which is just because my gator is too smart to hang out by the trail), a scarlet ibis, and miles and miles of lacy mire, loud with cicadas, and (our luck) full of strange cool breezes. You’d better hope that the next time I see you, I’ll have outgrown the pretty bad cajun accent I acquired walking around these swamps, but it’s not looking good dere, cher.
And in case you forgot, some good gator advice.
That’s what the ancient woman in the white dress said: “In New Orleans, you’re never hungry and you’re never lonely”. A motto for the luscious crescent city where I’ve spent the last woozy week, certainly, but crystallized there could be my own personal motto. Never Hungry, Never Lonely. My heart vibrates on that powdered-sugar dusted string. On that resonating note, our incredible hosts told us that if you love New Orleans she’ll love you back, and I think that’s absolutely true. The wet-hot afternoons and perfect spring-chill evenings, the orange blossoms, azaleas, and bougainvillea, the endless strains of music, the big dusky river wind in your hair, the endless flavor and constant cocktail, the ease of it all, never hungry, never lonely. I have a lot to share, so I’ll just start now with some greatest hits:
From top: The incredible beignet choux rolling machine hiding secretly around the back corner at Cafe du Monde, the actually-better-than-Cafe-du-Monde beignet at Cafe Beignet (don’t be fooled into thinking that I had a single morning without a chicory-coffee-and-beignet breakfast at several different locales), Preservation Hall, a tray of 50 cent oysters that we devoured with Sazeracs like good tourists/brilliant geniuses, One of infinite glorious balconies in the French Quarter. That’s some hits, tomorrow, the adventures.