Beignets, Battles, Bourbon: Why NOLA Stole My Heart

Do you remember your first crush?

He fascinated you, everything about him. The food he ate, the clothes he wore, the things he said.

You gathered up every piece of his life you knew, and filled in the gaps. You wanted to know his past. You longed to discover his future.

When you fell, you fell hard.

Boy oh boy, I fell for New Orleans.

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It’s the kaleidoscope of colors – turquoise and green doorways, the burnt orange apartments of the French Quarter.

French Quarter, New Orleans

It’s the food. Take one bite of gumbo and you love life again. Inhale a beignet (and a half cup of powdered sugar) and watch the pigeons gather at your feet at the open air Cafe du Monde. Magic – and it’s only 10 am.

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It’s the Saints fans at the local sports bar. You eat fish tacos and watch them as they whoop and holler. Someone comments that you need another drink! You are a mild-mannered Northerner – they are a wild species. You continue to observe quietly.

It’s the memory of Katrina. The day the levee broke. Locals can point out how high the water came downtown. You walk by the Superdome. You think about the desperate people waiting three days for food and water, those from the Lower Ninth Ward with homes in shambles. The nightmare of it all.

It’s Bourbon Street. Daiquiris, bouncers, pounding music coming from the nightclubs (even on a Sunday afternoon), the smell of sewage. Wide-eyed, you take it all in. Bourbon Street is historic, even if now it’s just a B-grade Times Square, like a knockoff Disney – a place tourists come to gawk.

Bourbon Street

It’s the live music. The vet playing the saxophone on the corner. Young guys who drag upright pianos into the middle of Royal Street. Somewhere, you remember people still go to work. This is the French Quarter. Life feels slower, faster, different here.

It’s the history. Some say the Battle of New Orleans was won because the nuns of the Ursuline Convent prayed for three days. They tended the soldiers here – even the enemy, the British soldiers – with so much care the Brits cried when it was time to go home. That’s love, you think. That’s love.

Ursuline Convent in NOLA

It’s the graves in St. Louis Cemetery 1, the oldest in the city, where the dead are above ground with the living.

St Louis Cemetery 1 grave

It’s the swamp. People live here. Alligator hunting season – yeah, that’s a thing. What is this place?

haunted swamp new orleans

It’s the plantations along the Mississippi: stately, ornate, haunting.

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How to explain it? Have you been? NOLA’s the last stop the Mississippi River makes before it hits the ocean.

I’m home now, 2,000 miles north at the mouth of the Mississippi. All I want to do is wear my silver streetcar necklace. Eat jambalaya. Read this book. Make Joy the Baker’s apple buttermilk beignets.

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I’m still full of questions. How can this culture feel so familiar and yet so far away? What keeps these proud people living on swampy land? Why corrupt government, bad schools? Why Katrina?

How can a place feel so marvelously alive and devastatingly broken at the same time?

All I know is that I want another ride on the streetcar, another cup of gumbo, another bite of beignet.

And I love everything that makes New Orleans such a heartthrob.

*P.S. If you’re going to NOLA, I’m not an expert, but here’s what I liked:

historic St. Charles streetcar line ($1.25 to ride)

Cafe du Monde (just coffee and doughnuts. Open 24 hours a day)

District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew (mmm more doughnuts)

Commander’s Palace (priciest meal you’ll ever have, but they treat you like royalty. It’s been around since the 1800’s.)

the National WWII museum (did you know there was more than one D-Day?)

the Garden District (where celebrities live and the Manning brothers grew up)

New Orleans City Park (larger than Central Park)

Plantation/swamp tours (lots of companies offer them. Do it.)

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3 thoughts on “Beignets, Battles, Bourbon: Why NOLA Stole My Heart

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