Why I Appreciate New Orleans after Being Away for a Full Month
My family just completed an epic road trip: we drove 4,400 miles through 13 states over 30 days. During our travels, we visited family, friends, beaches, mountains, 2 amusement parks, museums, shopping malls, and a few cities. While we savored the cooler temps and the restorative nature of “time away,” we also really missed our home: New Orleans. While our trip gave us the opportunity to explore new places and reconnect with loved ones, it also gave us a fresh perspective on what makes New Orleans so undeniably special.
Reminders of New Orleans cuisine popped up in random places during our trip. “French Quarter Confections” greeted us right inside the gates at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. Mardi Gras-colored flags hang from the faux French facade, which also proudly proclaims “funnel cakes, elephant ears, beignets, and ice cream” are sold inside (as far as I know, only one of these items is actually from New Orleans). In Nashville, Tennessee, in the high-end, trendy Gulch neighborhood, we found the Gumbo Bros. shop (a chain started by two LSU alums in 2014). The motto outside read: “Legit Cajun, po boys, good vibes free of charge.” Our kids begged us to eat there, while I insisted we weren’t visiting Nashville to eat what we could get any time at home.
While influences of New Orleans food were found all over, spice and seasoning were mostly absent. In Upstate New York, we were warned about the intense spice level of a fra diavolo shrimp special. My husband and I decided to take a risk and order it. While the dish was delicious, the spiciness didn’t even register. The waitress even stopped to check on us, to see if we had enough water. I kept waiting for it to “kick in.” It didn’t.
New Orleans definitely isn’t the only American city with delicious food: during our trip, we enjoyed delicious seafood on the Jersey shore, hot chicken in Nashville, and delectable pizza and bagels in New York. The fact that there is evidence of our city’s influence all over, and the distinct lack of its characteristic spice and flavor in others, made our stomachs keenly aware of why New Orleans cuisine is so special. (Next road trip, I will be sure to pack a container of “Slap Ya Mama” in my purse.)
People are nice in other places, just not New Orleans nice. In New Orleans, there’s a “we’re in this together” vibe — even strangers are friends. When I first moved here, 17 years ago, random greetings by unknown people used to startle me — that definitely didn’t happen in New York, where people actively avoid eye contact as if it were a sport. On our trip, I found myself missing these chance interactions.
Two days after returning from our trip, a family exited the parking garage elevators at Canal Place downtown and asked us: “How y’all doin’?” I was so thrilled to be greeted by strangers that I probably responded too enthusiastically: “We’re melting, but making the best of it!” After all, New Orleanians are friendly, but also honest. It’s okay to say “I’m not fine” or “I’ve been better” when responding to these genuine salutations. In our case, the man and his family laughed and nodded, “Yes, indeed.”
New Orleanians are always ready to celebrate — the other night we heard fireworks at my house because LSU baseball won the championship (again) — NOT because it’s almost Independence Day. Here we celebrate pretty much anything, 120% — sports teams, music, king cakes, parade krewes, po-boys, and even potholes (by decorating them, filling them with beads, or even giving them Instagram pages). Actual holidays in New Orleans often seem tame when compared to celebratory events like Muses Thursday, Essence Festival Weekend, the Bayou Classic, and Jazz Fest.
On our road trip, we noticed how quiet it is in most places, how early stores close, and how soon busy streets become empty. Everything seems so … serious. One exception was Nashville — where the cacophony of live music and party wagons rivals Bourbon Street and Frenchmen — but even there, the “fun” seemed staged, and not a part of the city’s soul.
During one stop on our trip, we visited the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, NY. There, my daughter and I signed up for a glass jewelry workshop. To make a glass pendant, we were first asked to choose 3 colors. At first, I was stumped, but soon the choice seemed obvious: gold, green, and purple of, course. When my ten-year-old daughter explained to the glass artisan that we were from New Orleans, and these were Mardi Gras colors, she looked at her and said, “Oh, well, you’re too young to worry about that.” I attempted to explain that in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is life — the tourist-fueled, flesh-flashing Bourbon St. stereotype is a tiny part of it. The colors of gold (power), green (faith), and purple (justice) symbolize the city and its resilient history. The parades themselves, and the laissez les bon temps rouler attitude itself, are much older than many American cities. She smiled politely, but I could tell she didn’t understand.
New Orleans is an authentic, one-of-a-kind city. It’s also really old (born on May 6, 1718).
Throughout our travels, our kids admired the smooth roads, the clean streets, the lack of graffiti, and the vacant buildings in most other cities. Like many great cities, New Orleans is gritty and bruised, but deeply sentimental, full of stories, dreams, and traumas. She is an elderly grandmother with no filter, one who still chain smokes cigarettes, curses like a sailor, dances to her own rhythm, gives all-encompassing, smothering hugs, and loves you for who you are, no matter what. You often marvel at how she manages to still live and thrive, despite her age and hardships. She is always unapologetically herself.
To that end, New Orleans definitely has more in common with the much larger (dirtier, older) cities of Philadelphia and New York, much less with cities of comparable size like (newer, cleaner) Louisville, Nashville, and Cleveland. As we drove through all of these cities, we missed the skyline of the Big Easy, with its Crescent City Bridge, Superdome, and tall buildings cluttered onto our near-island, wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. We even missed the river itself — while the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers are all cleaner and possibly more picturesque, none had the crescent-shaped bends, entertaining river traffic (cruise ships, steamboats, and barges), and history that the Mississippi boasts.
At Lake George, in the Southern Adirondacks of Upstate New York, there are two steamboat ferries that offer daily cruises of the 30-mile-long lake. I pointed this out to my daughter, as we ate dinner in our hooded sweatshirts and jeans in refreshingly crisp 58 degree weather. “They copied us,” she said matter-of-factly.
That Big Easy Approach to Life
The food, friendliness, fun, and authenticity are all part of the “Big Easy Approach to Life.” I saw evidence of this approach on the local evening news this week, as a reporter asked a local man how he is coping with the latest heat wave, burdening our area with feels-like temperatures soaring as high as 115F.
“All you gotta do is just slow down and take it easy, that’s all,” he said and shrugged.
New Orleanians don’t take themselves too seriously. We also don’t let life’s many challenges keep us down. We take time to make jokes about the endless construction sites and potholes; we put up with frequent power outages and boil-water advisories; we prepare for hurricane season with many cans of red beans and adult beverages, on the ready. We are a city where injury lawyers and mayors dance with local musicians; where police officers do “The Wobble” with local civilians at Mardi Gras; where a parade float will back up traffic for many blocks, but no one honks.
New Orleanians are aware that we are living on borrowed time. Life is desperately short. You best relax, laugh, and celebrate before it’s too late. This is what the local man’s response to the heat wave said to me. Just slow down, take it easy, that’s all.
Heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, crime, poverty, and lack of quality educational opportunities regularly challenge our city. You can easily argue that our “laissez” or “hands off” approach to life is why these problems persist. And maybe that’s true.
No matter how you feel about the city’s woes, you can’t deny that there’s something undeniably special about the Big Easy, a feeling you can’t find anywhere else. To me, New Orleans possesses a persistent glow that is absent in other places, a consistent shimmer you can see or feel if you look close enough: dancing in and around its live oaks, historic buildings, battered streets, windy rivers, thick bayous, and diverse people. She is a city who is comfortable in her own skin, rockin’ to her own rhythm, and she doesn’t care if you don’t approve. This intangible confidence is what we missed while we were away, what welcomed us back with open arms and humidity thicker than a gumbo roux. Our road trip was one we’ll never forget, and we will definitely travel from New Orleans more in the future, but we’ll always gladly need to return home.