Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Big Easy, Part I

I arrived sometime yesterday afternoon after two swift flights with a layover in D. C. Our hotel boasts a few short blocks to the French Quarter and I intended to take some advantage of this. A had arrived earlier and was waking up from a cat nap. She had been for a walk and already bought a beautiful pink carnival mask. For $15? Yes please! Saturday's sessions were winding down and I didn't have to present until Sunday night, so we hit the Quarter with Other A and the PI.

The first thing that surprised me was that everyone was walking around holding open drinks, state fair-style. The other thing that surprised me was the ever-present perfume of urine... though maybe slightly less surprising considering the first observation. Since this weekend is also the Jazz Festival, the streets were well-populated and both music and visual artists alike formed little colonies on every block. A wanted gumbo and the PI wanted jambalaya. I wanted to be close to the center of the quarter so we went to the Gumbo Shop. Other A and I both ordered an Abita Turbodog ("Very heavy, very full-bodied," the server warned) and the Creole Combination Platter with Crawfish Étouffée. A got the vegetable gumbo soup and the PI got the Jambalaya. Less than five minutes after we ordered, the food arrived.

L to R: crawfish gumbo, jambalaya, creole shrimp
Vegetable gumbo
The damage done.
Although the food arrived on normal-sized plates, they were deceptively filling portions. Everything came with a "French baguette" which broke light as an Italian roll. Other A and the PI mopped up the rest of my plate with some of that bread. We split two ice cream scoop-sized bread puddings with butter rum sauce for dessert. The pudding was lightly spiced and had both raisins and pineapple in it, which I liked.

After dinner, we walked towards the French market, eyeing the art and the street performers along the way. I had a very specific destination: Cafe du Monde. Naturally, it was packed.

The arts. Winning.
Cafe du Monde.
We had just eaten, so I stood in the long takeout line to get my mixes and an order of beignets to go. The beignet mix was, of course, available practically everywhere else in any gift shop, but I couldn't pass up fresh beignets from the source. The beignets were burning hot and oily, and came three in a bag with a heaping cup of powdered sugar. Three beignets split between the four of us was the perfect size.

The takeout line.
Making beignets...
stacking beignets...
...and dumping them in a bath of cottonseed oil.
Bag of powdered sugar. There's a beignet in there somewhere.
After the cafe, we wandered around the market for awhile to walk off our singularly Creole-filled bellies. We unavoidably wound up at a praline store. Things I have noticed are in abundance in this quarter: Mardi Gras stores, places to buy and consume alcohol and praline shops. I am not a praline fan, but I did notice they sold pecan logs. And, once I saw one, I had to buy one.

The pecan coat, the nougat center.
My particular fascination with pecan logs stems from a twisted childhood experience. I read a lot in elementary school and, after exhausting all the staple series like the Little House books, the Chronicles and Anne of Green Gables, I backpedaled to the American Girl series. In one of those books (I think in the Samantha series), there is mention of this elusive confection (brought to her by her favorite uncle, I believe) alone with a thumb-sized illustration. I stopped and studied the illustration intently. It looked beautiful. It looked delicious. I had to try it. I begged my parents to buy one, but they were nowhere to be found in our corner of Pennsylvania. But I didn't give up. A few years later, my mother was preparing to embark on a trip to New Orleans for her own conference. She asked if we wanted any souvenirs and I was adamant about the log. After hearing about it for months on end, she was happy to oblige. In retrospect it was pretty impressive that I continued to pursue the log since so many of my pursuits at age 5 or 6 were forgotten in days if not hours. She brought one back and I cut a generous piece for myself, finally able to try this foreign thing that had been so ostentatiously toted in a popular children's book.

It tasted awful. I don't remember the specifics, but I started crying in disappointment. My mom was beside herself. She tried a bite and to her it tasted fine. My dad tried it. A little sweet, he said, but not bad. But my dreams were crushed. It was nothing like what I imagined it to be. I promptly forgot about it until around high school or early college, where a new thought occurred to me. Maybe, now that I am older and more of my taste buts are dead, maybe I would enjoy the pecan log now. It happened with malted things. Or maybe it wasn't the right log. Maybe I needed to diversify my log search. Either way, my interest was renewed. And now, finally in New Orleans, I find myself surrounded by them. I bought the one in the picture. It could be the same brand as the one I tried so many years earlier. I'd better buy some more just in case.

Our masks.


  1. Oh didn't know you made a trip to New Orleans! I'm going down next weekend for my sister's graduation from Tulane and was planning on getting you something and bringing it up with me later this month when I see you. Might have to come up with something else now.

  2. Didn't know you were going to Nola either. My sister is in art school at Delgato there. I could have had tell you about some restaurants to check out.