Defining the Soul of New Orleans

April, 2017
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Every major city in the world is defined by the era and the people who lived there. Many people go to major cities to start over again, redefine themselves or to seek their fortune or fame. In any case, it’s the people who descend upon these cities that make-up the cultural identity of these concrete jungles. Some people stay, some people move-on but in any case the city is a beating pulse waiting for us to discover its treasures.

However, New Orleans is uniquely different than any other city in the world. The city that Care Forgot; The Crescent City; The Big Easy or NOLA are some of the nicknames coined to this  American city that changed hands between France and Spain, until it was purchased by the United States government in 1803 - The Louisiana Purchase (the biggest land grab in history). Given its erstwhile European dominion, New Orleans is not really an American city at all - it has more in common with European and Caribbean sensibilities than that of America. The music, food, libations and the people are not like any place that you will find in the world.

Many people have tried to describe New Orleans and many have failed miserably promoting stereotypes and falsehoods about the city. You can read it in books and see it in the celluloid images displayed in media big and small.  If you want to know about the true essence, there were three authors that captured the embodiment of the city (even to this today). The quintessential books that clearly display the soul of New Orleans is ‘Inventing New Orleans’ & ‘La Cuisine Creole’ by Lafcadifo Hearn; ‘Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Em’ by Stanley Clisby Arthur and ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ by J.K. Toole. These authors capture the fabric of New Orleans, namely its food, its cocktail culture and its people.

The Food

Oysters St Charles

Oysters St Charles

Lafcadio Hearn was a journalist who wrote in Cincinnati, covering the seedy part of the city. It appears he became fed up with the hypocrisy from local leaders and citizens at large. So, after ten years in Cincinnati, Mr. Hearn quit his job and for some reason made his way down to New Orleans.  Upon arrival, this was his first impression of the city :

“It is not an easy thing to describe one’s first impression of New Orleans; for while it actually resembles no other city upon the face of the earth, yet it recalls vague memories of a hundred cities. It owns suggestion of towns in Italy, and in Spain, of cities in England and in Germany, of seaports in the Mediterranean, and of seaports in the tropics.  Canal street, with its grand breadth and imposing facades, gives one recollections of London and Oxford street and Regent street; there are memories of Havre and Marseilles to be obtained from the Old French Quarter; there are buildings in Jackson Square which remind one of Spanish-American travel.  I fancy that the power of fascination which New Orleans exercises upon foreigners is due no less to this peculiar characteristic than to the tropical beauty of the city itself. Whencesoever  the traveler may come, he may find in the Crescent City some memory of his home-some recollection of his Fatherland- some remembrance of something he loves…” (Inventing New Orleans, 7)

Mr. Hearn was so captivated by the charm of New Orleans that he decided to stay a while and became the ultimate ‘Outsider to Insider’. His book ‘Inventing New Orleans’ told the story of Creole culture and all that it entailed. However, it was Mr. Hearn’s painstaking task in chronicling the recipes that made New Orleans such a culinary destination. His book, ‘La Cuisine Creole’ (1885) pays homage to Creole cooking which features how to serve sauces to soups and everything dealing with Creole culinary etiquette and preparation.This book is the bible for chefs who want to delve into the heart of real Creole recipes from food to libations.

Cocktail Culture

Absinthe Frappe

In the midst of this current worldwide cocktail revolution, we can point to one man who provided undisputed proof that New Orleans is the birthplace of the cocktail. Every cocktail aficionado is aware that Stanley Clisby Arthur’s book ‘Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Em’  is the prototypical manual if one takes their cocktail proficiency seriously. This California transplant who adopted Louisiana as his home, was a well respected Author, Historian and Naturalist. In his book, Mr. Arthur gives firsthand accounts and anecdotes about the origin of each cocktail.  The personal touch that he gave each story gives you a sense that you are right there with him, investigating and discovering the back stories to these classic libation recipes. In one excerpt, Mr Arthur said,

“The quality of mixed drinks as served in New Orleans has always appealed to the sophisticated taste, but the drinks and their histories are forever linked with the past of this pleasure-loving city out of which has come so much that is beautiful and gay, and so much that is worth preserving.” (Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Em,7)

With the first printing in 1937, Mr. Arthur provided a template and historical documentation of the birth of what is now call the ‘Cocktail’ (credited to A.A. Peychaud). He forever put to rest claims made by other cities and countries that the origin of the cocktail belonged to them.  As Mr. Arthur said in his book, ‘With a desire to acquaint the world-or that part of the world that may be interested- with the art of mixing a drink as it is done in New Orleans, the author of this book has cajoled from old and new experts the recipes handed down through succeeding generations and presents them herein for your delectation with a smile and a Sante’!” (Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Em,7)

The People

Ignatius Riley Plaque

Ignatius Reilly Statue - Canal St, New Orleans

Many who live or visit the Crescent City know that the people who reside and work here are the most polite and hospitable on the face of the earth. However, there are a few peculiar characters that dot the city’s landscape. If you live here, every neighborhood seems to have a person living on the fringe with an eccentric persona. The author that best captures this truly New Orleanian spirit is J.K. Toole in his masterpiece ‘Confederacy of Dunces’.  In the Foreword of this novel, Walker Percy describes the essence of what Toole is trying to capture:

“By no means a lesser virtue of Toole’s novel is his rendering of the particularities of New Orleans, its back streets, its out-of-the -way neighborhoods, it's odd speech, its ethnic whites - and one black in whom Toole has achieved the near-impossible, a superb comic character of immense wit and resourcefulness without the least trace of Rastus minstrelsy.” (Confederacy of Dunces, Forward)

The main character is Ignatius Reilly, he is a slob of the highest order who is at odds with everything and declares a one man war against the norms of society and the modern world. Walter Percy said it best when he wrote, “He at any rate Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of-slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Handy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”(Confederacy of Dunces, Forward)

The premise of the story is that our main character is a misanthrope, whose mother thinks he needs to work and he does reluctantly, in a series of jobs that is ripe with mishaps and humorous situations. All the while, dating this woman from the Bronx (Myrna Minkoff) who thinks Ignatius is badly in need of sex. Along this journey, you will read how Ignatius uses his Don Quixote logic to justify his behavior.

Set mostly in Uptown and the French Quarter, this novel gives you a glimpse into the characters and their interconnectedness.  This 6 degrees of separation is the underlying theme and lends a sense of community while retaining its cosmopolitan nature. The character Ignatius Reilly sums it up best, when he proclaims, "New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive.”

And there you have it, 3 authors with three different perspectives, living in three different eras; giving their audience a unique insight into the ‘the city that care forgot’. Two of the authors were outsiders and the third was born and raised in New Orleans. Together, they preserved the history of the food, the cocktails and the people who embody and inhabit this one of a kind city.

 

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