As I’m sure you have heard by now, this week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And, as I’m sure you remember, August 29, 2005, was an awfully stormy Monday, a supernatural event that has given rise to more than a few superlatives over the years. From the sounds of things, there will be no lack of handwringing, fingerpointing, and pontificating this go-round.
I’m not sure why we as a people make a fuss over events at five- and 10-year intervals, since my guess is that at any other point, like the third or sixth anniversaries, the emotions are no less acute. Nonetheless, for better or worse, we do. And this week my mind has been occupied by recollections of New Orleans, too.
But, perhaps in reaction to the general overreaction, I’m trying to conjure up memories of an antediluvian world, if you will, a happier, drier version of the Big Easy that I had the pleasure of visiting several times prior to 2005. Escapist? Of course! (Need I remind you of what you are reading?) But as John Ashbery once quipped, “we need all the escapism we can get.” Now more than ever.
So, while woolgathering during the woeful newscasts these past few days, my self-reflections kept returning to the three activities I always indulged in once I reached the Crescent City, no matter how brief or over-programmed my stay: having a native cocktail and an authentic creole meal in the French Quarter, catching at least one set at a jazz club, and nosing through the stacks in a used bookstore. Alas, it doesn’t appear that I will be getting back there any time soon (despite a very tempting invitation to join a group of dear friends heading there to mark a 40th birthday). So, I’ve prepared a to-do list for a staycation to the New Orleans in my mind. I’m posting the following, typically Scribbleskiffian useless bits of info in case you want to come along, too (and I hope that you do).
On my very first trip to NOLA (that’s “New Orleans, Louisiana,” BTW), I met the Sazerac, a beguiling whiskey-based elixir that is reportedly the first cocktail invented in America. I’d had plenty of bourbon drinks at that point, including my fair share of Old Fashioneds, but what made this homegrown concoction so intriguing was that its main ingredients, absinthe (or Pernod, both of which taste like licorice) and rye, were so “flavor-forward,” as the foodies say. I’m sure I’d had rye by then, too — my dad, a loyal Marylander, always had a handle of Pikesville Rye on hand — but I doubt if I had ever noticed its uniquely dry and spicy bite. The Sazerac (and my generous waiter on that fateful night, who was pleased to see my eyebrows rise after the first sip) brought that sensation to my attention. Now, whenever I want a “taste” of New Orleans, I shake out a Sazerac. It’s a little tricky but worth the effort. Here’s one recipe I’ve tried (from drinksmixer.com):
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
1 dash Deva absinthe
2 dashes Peychaud bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 twist lemon peel
Chill an old-fashioned glass by filling with crushed ice. In another glass mix the sugar with the bitters dissolving the sugar. Add some ice, stirring to chill. In the old-fashioned glass remove the ice and pour in the absinthe coating the entire glass. Remove the excess absinthe. Add the rye whiskey and bitters/sugar mixture. Add the lemon twist.
However, if you’re not a fan of whiskey but want to see how rye can influence a malt-based beverage, you’ll be glad to learn that some microbrewers have been experimenting with the grain in their beers to good effect. I recently enjoyed Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye, which as the name suggests featured a balance of hoppy and earthy aromas and flavors, and Honey Rye Ale, from Lake Placid Brewery, which was sweet and slightly astringent. Here’s an interesting article on the rise of rye-based beers, in case you’re getting thirsty.
Now that we’ve filled our glasses, it’s time for a little mood music. A long time ago, I learned the difference between so-called “Dixieland” and New Orleans-style jazz. But don’t ask what that is — as my friend, mentor, and curmudgeonly jazz critic Hayden Carruth would have said, “I know, but I’m tired of telling.” Suffice it to say, like pornography, you’ll know it when you see it. And there’s no better venue to see (and hear) the real thing than the dingy, cramped, stifling, and always “hot” Preservation Hall. The Grand Ole Opry it ain’t, and as tourist traps go, it’s got all the charm of a rotting roadside gin joint. But for $5 or so, you can sit close enough to stuff a dollar in the bell of a trombone during requests and listen to jazz the way it’s been played pretty much since the turn of the last century.
Earlier this year the house band, which occasionally records and tours, put out a new record, Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program. As the rather unwieldy title indicates, the effort is an attempt to raise money for the many local musicians who were displaced (or worse) by the hurricane. But what makes this LP more interesting and valuable than a typical tribute record is that the band invited a variety of artists, from pop to hip-hop and elsewhere, to jam with them. Among my favorites are Jim James from My Morning Jacket soft-singing “St. James Infirmary” (here’s live footage from the recent Newport Folk Festival) and Tom Waits‘s gravelly, off-kilter version of “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing.”
Listen to “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” (mp3):
Not only do these combos prove to be good representations of the native music but they also offer an excellent example of what a delicious gumbo is New Orleans-style jazz — a heady mishmash of traditional and novel styles, based on standard compositions, with lots of improvisation.
Another, more recent contribution to that region’s musical philanthropy is the Gulf Aid AllStars project. Organized by rapper Mos Def, and featuring members of Preservation Hall, as well as Lenny Kravitz, and Trombone Shorty, the group released an original composition (and a video), the jammin’ “It Ain’t My Fault,” available on iTunes, to provide relief from the latest insult on the Delta and its environs. I should also mention Backatown, the new LP from Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (who played “One Night Only” recently on Letterman). It’s a funked-out, brassy answer to the question, who’s making good jazz records these days?
And now that we’ve got the fluids and music flowing, it’s time to settle in with a good book. One of my greatest used bookstore discoveries was Faulkner House Books, off Jackson Square, a boutique-like setting situated in the eponymous writer’s one-time residence. It is a destination spot for any bibliophile seeking trinkets from Southern and other literary luminaries — I once splurged on an autographed copy of A Craving for Swan, a collection of essays by Transylvanian transplant Andrei Codrescu. I really did.
But the writer I have mapped out now is Tennessee Williams, who would turn 100 in 2011. Although “10,” as he often signed his letters, wasn’t born in New Orleans, he moved there in 1939 and called it his home for much of the rest of his life. And, most important, he chose the city as the setting for many of his most absorbing plays, most notably the storm-tossed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (watch the corny 1958 movie trailer) and the sultry A Streetcar Named Desire (check out this serio-comic interpretation by The Simpsons). My favorite, The Glass Menagerie, though set in St. Louis, is a Southern sympathizer for sure and will be reissued early next year by New Directions, with an introduction by playwright Tony Kushner. (You may read an excerpt here.) As a “memory play,” it seems like the most suitable material for perusal as we raise a glass and blow out another candle for New Orleans. Especially since, as Williams observed, “in memory, everything happens to music.”
As always, tell us what you think. What are your favorite memories of New Orleans? Are there other native foods, musical styles, or authors that you think everyone should know about? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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I think Paul Newman got better as an actor or maybe Elizabeth Taylor got him flustered. Do they distill the whiskey on Reisterstown Road?
Thanks for the comments, Scott. Sadly, like Mr. Newman, Pikesville Rye has gone to live with its maker — namely a distillery in Kentucky. Not sure if that’s where Mr. Newman landed, as well, but anything is possible.