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Posts Tagged ‘Cajun’


Although we had already spent four nights in Louisiana, the road trip only began in earnest on Saturday morning as we queued up for our booked hire car at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I say “queued” because that is what we had invariably been obliged to do on most occasions in the past.

But not this morning.

The most extraordinary thing about the rapid transaction was that we weren’t offered an upgrade from our standard SUV (which we were more than happy with anyway).

We were on the I-10 heading towards our halfway pit stop in Baton Rouge within minutes under a leaden sky.

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And yes, we were Texans for the next two weeks!

After the customary familiarisation with the car’s controls, it was time for the all important search for the Grateful Dead Channel on Sirius XM. It took a while, but once we had safely negotiated our way through all the Hip Hop, Sports and Christian channels, not to mention right wing”shock jocks, we were able to “settle down easy” with our favourite station.

We had not had breakfast, so planned on finding a roadside eatery between New Orleans and Louisiana. That was easier said than done. We left the road at at La Place and Gramercy Lutcher to follow the signs to the “services”, but on both occasions found ourselves driving several miles with no Subway or McDonald’s in sight!

We did, however, pop into the Gatorville Cajun Village which boasted several exhibits and stores dedicated to……well, you guessed it, Cajun culture. There was an attractive looking restaurant which offered breakfast, but the line to even sign up, let alone get in, was too long.

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Eventually, at Donaldsville, we pulled outside McDonald’s.

Now, this is where I insert rule number one about taking a road trip. You are only allowed to eat cheap, “rubbish” food. No more of them fancy oyster things, or crawfish, or even jambalaya, but proper “rubbish” food.

Egg McMuffins and coffee were the order of the day, and although they were smaller, disappearing in a couple of bites, than i recall from when I last had one in the previous century, they “filled a hole”.

And, boy, was it cheap. Whereas, with tip, we had spent $80 on breakfast in Brennan’s in new Orleans the previous morning, We had been impressed too with the standalone digital ordering screens that greeted us. Our meal was, however, deliver by a member of the human race, and a pleasant one at that.

We arrived in Baton Rouge, the state capital, at lunchtime and were astonished to find so few people about the streets. Of those that were wandering aimlessly about, most were wearing either Ole Miss Rebels or LSU Tigers football colours. They were due to take up arms against each other that evening (they had a long wait). For the record, the home team, LSU, won convincingly 45-16, so perhaps Baton Rouge came alive then.

But it was clearly an important city as it had not one, but two, state capital buildings. The Old State Capital below was certainly the more architecturally appealing.

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The absence of traffic as well as people made it all the easier for us to take a stroll around the riverfront and downtown areas. Janet did, however, come across a couple of old timers who willingly posed for a photo with her and their pride and joy.

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Baking heat and unforgiving pavements made the amble around the Spanish Town more arduous than it might have been, but there were some beautiful homes to drool over.

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With Halloween at the end of the month, we were increasingly coming across houses decorated for the occasion.

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We left tranquil Baton Rouge for Lafayette in western Louisiana, arriving half an hour before the scheduled check in of 3pm.

We had selected Lafayette over Baton Rouge as our first overnight stop because the town is regarded as the place of pilgrimage for lovers of Cajun and Zydeco music, a raucous fusion of blues, rhythm and blues and African-derived styles which makes much use of fiddle and accordion.

And remember, this whole trip was about the music.

In particular, the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House, a few hundred yards from our hotel, is renowned throughout the world as the best venue to witness live music in this style. It is also a youth hostel, described by its owners as “a home-grown honky-tonk where all kinds and sizes are welcome”.

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With tonight’s gig at the Blue Moon not scheduled to start until 9pm, we were not planning to eat until around 7.30pm. So, as Pooh would have so eloquently put it, it was “time for a little something”.

One southern “delicacy” that we had still not sampled was a Po’ boy, a traditional sandwich from Louisiana. Given their size, it would have been uncharacteristically greedy had we consumed a full one, so I plumped for a half-sized version of the Crawfish Boil Sausage Po’ boy.

Delicious.

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We ate at the Sainte Marie restaurant, where we shared another popular dish of the region, fried green tomatoes (with shrimps), which, needless to say, we’re scrumptious. I followed up with crawfish étouffée, a thick soup-like dish with rice. Not only was the food outstanding, but our young server, Taylor, kept us enthralled with her energy and attentiveness,

And now to the reason why we were in Lafayette – the music at the Blue Moon.

After paying our $10 cover charge, we took up our seats on a back bench (the place is essentially a shack), and ordered our drinks. Everyone there was drinking out of plastic glasses, but for some reason, the barman, rather conspiratorially, explained to me that I could have a real glass for Janet’s gin and tonic, provided she “looked after it all evening and didn’t break it”. A whiff of that voodoo atmosphere we encountered in New Orleans returned to haunt me.

The music was great, though the second band did not come on stage until nearly midnight. And the evening wasn’t wholly satisfactory.

It appeared that the event was being used as an excuse for a school or college reunion, as a large group of twenty somethings appeared more interested in catching up with each other, and doing a lot of hugging, than engaging with the music.

And I could write another piece on the personal and sexual politics that were being played out before our eyes while we tried to peer over their heads to see the bands!

But it was an experience.

 

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Day two of three in the Big Easy was going to involve a lot of water. Firstly, we had booked a four hour swamp and bayou sightseeing tour.  And in the evening, we had made a reservation on the three hour dinner jazz cruise on the Creole Queen paddlewheel steamboat, a staple on the Mississippi since 1983.

Although we were unlikely to get wet during either event, the weather gods had lived up to the previous evening’s predictions by unleashing torrential rain upon us as we embarked upon the ten minute walk from the hotel. With characteristic British stiff upper lip we had made a conscious (and doubtful) decision not to purchase an umbrella, relying on our waterproof jackets.

With near ninety degree temperatures dictating that the rest of our attire need not consist of more than t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it was inevitable that we would still get drenched, standing for nearly half an hour waiting for the feeder bus under the wholly inadequate cover afforded by the ticket booth.

The Cajun Pride launch point from where we were to take our boat was a thirty five minute ride away. By the time we pulled in alongside the lush Manchac Swamp in Laplace among the South Louisiana bayous for our 12.45am start, the rain had abated and was to stop altogether once we were on the water.

As we stepped onto our boat we were greeted by one of the locals with some timely advice.

Within minutes the senior residents of the swamp introduced themselves. These were American Alligators, whom it transpired, were particularly partial to marshmallows.

Or not.

I think it might just be a droll way to entertain the gullible tourists.

The moment our boat captain, Danny, rustled in his bag of marshmallows and hurled them overboard, the alligators tucked in.

“Captain Danny” proved the most knowledgable, amusing and skilled tour guide imaginable. His deadpan southern drawl only added to the appeal. And he never drew breath throughout the tour, except to answer questions.

 

The most fascinating story involved the legendary voodoo queen, Julia Brown, who would sit by the bayou frightening anyone who passed. On the day of her funeral in 1915, she could be heard wailing over and over again “One day, I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me”.

Shortly afterwards, a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc in the area, completely destroying three villages and killing hundreds of people. There were reminders of the event on the swamp.

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Whilst the alligators were the stars of the show, we saw other wildlife, notably a colony of raccoons, who wandered down to the bayou’s edge as we passed. Soft shelled turtles, egrets and squirrels also made periodic appearances.

But the highlight of the ride was the opportunity to handle Bruce, a baby alligator whom Danny plucked from a large cool box towards the end of the tour. Although Bruce was still young and remarkably well behaved, his gnashers were still sufficiently sharp to inflict damage on a human, hence the muzzle.

The tour was one of our most enjoyable, informative and entertaining. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

But light rain had returned by the time we were required to check in on the Creole Queen at 6pm for our dinner jazz cruise, scheduled to commence an hour later. However, probably because of the inclement weather, we were welcomed on to the boat and into the elegant dining room early. We were already demolishing the first plate of our Creole buffet when the majority of diners were ushered in.

Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood pasta, meats and cornbread all featured on the menu. I cannot report what the dessert might have been as we never got past the main course. On reflection, it was the least satisfying of the four evening meals we consumed in New Orleans, but that is not intended as a criticism. Whilst I can’t claim I lose my appetite at buffets, I do wish I was able to take more advantage of the unlimited food available and get full value for money.

The boat moved away from the dock promptly as dusk, unveiling fine views of the Mississippi riverfront.

As the dining room filled up, and we became surrounded on all sides, we retired to the upper deck with our wine to enjoy the local Dixieland jazz band in the balmy evening air. Every song you would associate with the city was played, and the drummer and lead singer was also an engaging raconteur.

As we approached the dock at the end of the cruise we went in search of our server as we hadn’t yet paid for our food and drink! Moreover, once we had tracked him down, he seemed unconcerned, even surprised that we had sought him out after everybody else was a-pushin’ and a-shovin’ to disembark.

It had been a long day surrounded by water – from above and below – but a satisfying taste of Louisiana history and culture. With another busy day planned for tomorrow, we returned to our hotel for a gin and tonic at the bar.

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We arrived in New Orleans in mid-afternoon after a smooth internal flight on United Airlines from Newark, New Jersey.

On crossing the threshold of the Cambria Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street in the increasingly upmarket Warehouse District, I was thrilled to discover in the entrance corridor a series of fifteen wooden slatted artworks celebrating many of the great bluesmen and jazz musicians of the Delta and beyond. I will confine the photographs to three of my particular favourites.

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They are the work of Connie Kittok, a Louisiana contemporary folk artist inspired by her Southern roots. Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, the entire collection is entitled Road Tripping: a journey to discover the heart of the blues. The thirteen year wait between our original plan to take this trip and actually making it suddenly seemed worth it.

An incredible collage of immaculately polished jazz instruments also adorned another wall adjacent to reception.

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We decided to unpack and get dressed to ignore the rain and have dinner early.

We were staying less than fifteen minutes walk from the French Quarter, and wanted to experience Bourbon Street at first hand. After forgetting momentarily that I was not in San Francisco when I bought a Grateful Dead bandanna at the Hippie Gypsy store on Canal Street, and then elegantly dodging a streetcar after looking the wrong way, we ventured into the fabled thoroughfare.

Even though it was still early in the evening, there was a boozy and boisterous buzz about the street.

We walked as much as possible beneath the balconies, from which there was a distinct lack of falling bead necklaces (Mardi Gras was, of course, still months away). There was a considerable amount of noisy and unsightly construction underway. At regular intervals, young children were sitting on the kerb drumming on upturned buckets with astonishing rhythm and dexterity. We were confronted on several occasions by drunks attempting to foist beads on us before demanding money, but we managed to deflect their tiresome attentions.

As this was our first visit to the Big Easy, we were determined to try as many of the  essential NOLA dining experiences as possible. Given that we were in the heart of the French Quarter, it was incumbent upon us to begin our exploration with a Hurricane cocktail (rum, passion fruit syrup and lime juice with an orange slice and cherry garnish) at its original home, Pat O’Brien’s.

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We had drunk many in the past at various Margaritaville and Hard Rock locations, but this was where it was first served. It was no less powerful than what we had become accustomed to, even though we declined the signature glass option. We sat at the bar and chatted with the big bearded barman before stepping out to select our dinner venue.

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We had already been struck from the outside by the appearance and enticing menu of the award winning Red Fish Grill, and decided to eat there. We were not disappointed. A handsome and attractive dining room and pleasant staff complemented superb seafood. My Cajun Jambalaya Risotto in particular was divine.

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The persistent drizzle failed to dampen the spirits of the early evening revellers. Live music spilled out of most of the bars – a cacophony of jazz, blues, hard rock and even country as an inevitable accompaniment to bull riding. With an abundance of choice available, we plumped for the Famous Door, a legendary live music venue where the excellent band ran the gamut of seventies and eighties American rock music – from Jackson Browne and Carole King to Foreigner and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

By this time the potency of the Hurricane, upon which by now we had piled cocktails and double gin and tonics, was beginning to take its advertised and insidious effect. I am convinced, however, that the periodic movement, as if across a ouija board, of our (plastic) glasses was not solely attributable to our mushrooming inebriation. After all, we were in the home of voodoo with many haunted locations close by, so it should be no real surprise that glasses should be sashaying around the table. In an even spookier twist, they stopped abruptly at the table’s edge, thankfully, saving us from having to order another, ultimately lethal, round.

Two flights, of eight and three hours duration respectively in the space of twenty four hours, combined with the alcohol, were beginning to take their toll and we returned, a little unsteadily, to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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