An Essential Guide to New Orleans
The food and drink issue is it? Well, that is good. Let’s turn our attention to twelve miles outside of New Orleans, in a dozy suburb of the pleasingly named Westwego, to the Bayou Segnette. Where I would face all but certain death and gain a little weight in the process.
I had been in New Orleans for around a week by the time I’d first come to the Bayou and I’d crossed a lot off of a very long list: I’d downed Absinthe Frappés in the Old Absinthe House and chatted to the bartender about her love of my Irish accent (I didn’t have the heart to tell her); chewed through exactly half of a Brandy Milk Punch before the idea of drinking double cream in the stifling Louisiana heat caught up with me; recoiled at the Hurricanes in Pat O'Brien's, where the floors were as sticky as the drinks. I’d drank, in no particular order: Vieux Carres; Sazeracs; successive Ramos Gin Fizzes; one Brandy Crusta (in retrospect I wish I’d had more); Café Brulot Diabolique and plenty of ponies of Miller High Life. Of course, I’d had a Grasshopper as well as one too many Frozen Irish Coffees at the Erin Rose.
I’d eaten even better. Shrimp Po Boys as big as an infant; Oyster Loaf at Casamentos on Magazine Street; a Mufeletta nearly as impressive as the queues at mythological Central Grocery; anything that was within forking distance at Willy Mae’s Scotch House (a meal so thoroughly and wholly satisfying it will no doubt show up on my personal highlight real as I pass into the next life); alligator nuggets; gumbo; crawfish; hotdogs. I drank chicory coffee from Cafe Du Monde and fed leftover beignet to birds in Jackson square.
When I wasn’t filling my face I was never too far away from the action. I burnt off my newly acquired gut pottering around the Southern Food and Drink museum, which is the perfect mixture of education, genuine fun, and - most importantly - is also air-conditioned. At a low point, I found myself scrutinising the last meals of famous convicts and killers on death row in the sanguinely named Death Museum. It’s there that I found out that the serial killer John Wayne Gacy requested 12 fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe KFC, french fries, and a pound of strawberries. Which, for reasons I don’t particularly want to explore, chilled me to my marrow.
At some point in the week, I heard someone, somewhere say that 'New Orleans is heaven for sinners'. While I can't recall the specifics of who, what, where, and when, I do remember that I dutifully swore I would steal the sentiment for my own literary use. Never has a generalisation been so true. Case in point: there’s a beautiful piece of legislation (how often, if ever, do you get to say that?) called the 'Municipal Code Sec. 54–404'. It’s the famous 'Open Container Law'. Put simply, it means that the physical boundaries of any two given establishments exist solely as something to bump into as the party 24/7 continues outside. Where the black-magic sounds of jazz are as thick in the air as the irrepressible humidity.
It was my second to last day and I’d woken up on the floor of a friend’s hotel room to a text to the effect of - 'We’re going on a swamp tour. Be Outside Monteleone. 45 minutes'. I scraped myself up and with a cursory sniff at my armpits hopped into a scalding shower. Squeaky clean, I poured myself into borrowed clothes and a few hours later, I was cartwheeling around the swamp on six-hundred pounds of humming metal. Airboats are faster than you think. Eventually, we came to stop. Splattered with every kind of brown. We took a collective breath in. The swamp was as primordially beautiful as it is rancid. Alligators paddled at the sides of the boat, as Scott, our guide and self-confessed hillbilly, greeted each one personally. He tossed them marshmallows. Everyone in Nawlins is well catered for and that, I suppose, was as close as I’d ever get to see an alligator smile. They all had names of course and Scott assured us, Big Maude, Frankie and Fat Al were no man-eaters. He handed me a machete and told us, if we liked, we could swim in the murky waters. I cracked open a beer with the blade. Unnecessary? Yes. But under the circumstances absolutely the done thing. Swatting away a mosquito I asked; 'Are you sure?'
After our swim, we made our way back to land and I noticed that Scott was missing a small section of his left index finger. Over the racket of the engine, I asked about it. Afraid I already knew the answer. 'It was Big Maude', he told me, the largest of the gators that we had met. I sat back, retrospectively registering the danger I had just placed myself in. Muted by the idea of disappearing forever in a ferocious cloud of blood and bubbles I savoured the food and drink I’d been lucky enough to have over the week. In a display of consolation, Scott produced a hip flask. Mouthing that he had made the contents himself. I considered the flask, wondering how thirsty I would have to be to taste the toilet-wine of a man who enjoys a conversational relationship with a prehistoric lizard that has a taste for his flesh. Scott flashed me a toothless smile. For the first time in New Orleans, I declined a drink.
Originally published by Essential Journal