With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
This is the day my bride has been waiting for. And not just because today is her birthday. Today we go out to Vacherie, LA to see two plantations and enjoy much-ballyhooed Louisiana mint juleps. But first we have to get out of New Orleans.
Our driver, Lamone, picks us up along with five couples from other hotels, and takes us through the city. Nursing a cold he tells us the brief story of what happened ten years ago and what still hasn’t changed. Katrina. We take South Claiborne Rd (underneath I-10, how we came from the airport) and immediately notice Tent City. Located at the underpass, a cluster of families have tents and lean-tos set up. Kids are running along the concrete slab carving out the two-way traffic. This is how people are living just a few blocks from the St. Louis Cemetery. “Lots o’ folks haven’t returned since Katrina. Twenny, thirty percent.”
As we travel along the expressway I-10, our raconteur tells us more, in between coughs and sniffles. “Now, a lotta Nawlins is jus’ fo’ show. I admit, they make it look good. But they is places in Lakeland and Lower Ninth that look like it did ten years ago.”
We pass by a large grassy area ten miles away, worn down by traffic, office buildings and motels behind it. “Now this place, this was where people went to escape the waters. Like a main triage receivin’ area, people waited here for days to get water and food. Some people waited 45 days to get food and water.”
When he says this it reminds me of something Blaze said yesterday. She had done a walking tour and a first-responder doctor was present. He told her they ran out of body bags after 5,000. She then told us she didn’t want to make this political but less people died on 9/11/2001 and people in New Orleans are still waiting for national attention and assistance.
Something else I noticed when we first arrived and notice now are the pick-up trucks on the expressway. Weaving in and out of lanes at high speeds without a directional. Shooting across two lanes at a time making other cars swerve violently. Though no angry horns, as if this is just accepted. And hardly any SUVs. A lot of pick-up trucks, probably due to the flooding and economic transportation.
Vacherie is about an hour away. We go past green swampy marshes piquing passengers’ interests they might see alligators. Lamone tells them maybe deeper in the swamp but not so close to the highway.
When we get off the expressway, onto a country road, on both sides are miles and miles of sugar cane fields. Lamone once again educates us when someone asks if this is cotton. He says that up north they can grow cotton because of the drier climate but around here it’s sugar cane and rice. Too wet for anything else.
On we go, passing miles of fields with pockets of ranch house and trailer communities, roads leveled with dirt, when suddenly we pass several plantations.
Our first destination is the eponymous Oak Alley. The sight of those live oaks guiding a path to the mansion is truly magnificent. We get out and boy, is it hot! I’m wearing a t-shirt, polo shirt, baseball cap (which I remove when I enter a building because I’m not a disrespectful asshole) and shorts. My back immediately begins to heat up. Mint juleps sound pretty good right now.
We go into the barn and get a “How y’all doin’? This Southern hospitality is a breath of fresh air. She fixes us two juleps and damn if they aren’t real tasty. And refreshing on such a hot day. We walk around the plantation with our souvenir cups, feeling free and on vacation. My bride is already feeling something else but the gin concoction muddled to perfection is too good and she’s waited too long to let a little headiness get in her way. This is her birthday vacation so full steam ahead!
After only a few years into creating and assuming control of Oak Alley, Jacques Roman, the master of house, died suddenly in 1863 the at age 38 of tuberculosis leaving his 22 year old Creole wife, Selina in charge. Selina was accustomed to the lavish lifestyle and ignoring any fiscal responsibility post-Civil War, the plantation very quickly fell into arrears, disrepair and finally bankruptcy. The original pieces in the mansion were sold off and ever since even as recently as last month, Oak Alley is still slowly reclaiming these lost pieces. Given the 600 year life-span of a live oak, the first oak may die before all the artifacts and trinkets are successfully back in their proper home.
Creole superstition was taken seriously especially in death. They believed the deceased remained in spirit for a few weeks, occupying the room in which they died. To guarantee a safe delivery to the other side, the mirrors were covered with black lace lest the spirit see their reflection and get trapped in purgatory forever.
The next plantation was called Laura, named for one of the three Creole who successfully ran the plantation for 150 years. The plantation is one of the last examples of Creole plantation architecture with the house facing the river, bright Bahaman colors on brick blocks or terra cotta replicated in the French Quarter-style. The brick blocks were dug six feet into the ground to stabilize the home and built up to prevent flooding.
The home itself was only for the planting and cultivating season. Come late fall until after Mardi Gras the families lived in New Orleans. The French Quarter was all about weekly balls and parties-
The shrewdest of the three Creole women was Elizabeth. She even had the men wrapped around her finger. Before agreeing to marriage to Monsieur LeCouel she had him transfer his family’s wine collection from their Bordeaux vineyard to Louisiana. Soon, she had the largest wine collection in Louisiana.
Shortly after her husband’s death (yes, another TB case) in 1840 she took hold of the plantation and the usage of slave labor. You can only hear so much before the literally back-breaking work of their slaves breaks your soul. Her ruthlessness towards the slaves exemplified her business approach. She would sell a strong, healthy mother to an owner but keeping her children, in some cases forcing the owner to pay more money for slaves he had no current use for. In one occasion her son, Amil, (Laura’s father) bought back a slave woman’s children with his own money.
Elizabeth was fond of branding her slaves, like cattle. The punishment for running away was an iron brand of her initials on the forehead, all but ensuring the slave would never be safe. She bought fifteen adolescent girls so that fifteen years later she would have a new crop of slaves for free.
By the time of the Civil War there were 200 slaves on the Laura plantation. Elizabeth’s practical business sense often worked in the slaves’ favor. Sort of. During the busy season in the summer when the sugar cane was chopped and harvested, slaves could earn actual money for working hard to meet the deadline. In August the cane stalks can grow from 6 to 14 feet and cutting them down was particularly grueling work.
After the war, many freed slaves stayed on the plantation to do sharecropping or tenant farming. For another century, tenant farming was one of most useful trades in the South. In 1894, a writer named Alcee Fortier interviewed former slaves from the Laura plantation when compiling his book of Louisiana folktales eventually titled Compair Lapin and Piti Bonhomme Godron (The Tar Baby).
Our tour guide of the plantation told us that although hurricanes Katrina and Rita were not physically impactful, they devastated tourism and only now were these plantations climbing back into the black, enough to do necessary renovations on buildings several hundred years old.
And fittingly, as she spoke the words, the sky darkened and the thunder rumbled. We headed back to New Orleans in a torrential downpour. As if the sky were dumping actual buckets of water on the area, everywhere we looked was flooded in less than an hour.
“Now you see how quickly this area goes underwater, doncha?” Lamone said.
He stopped briefly to show us Evergreen plantation, featured in the film Django Unchained. Unmistakable as Big Daddy’s house, the gravel pathway leads to the double spiral staircase mansion.
Due to the rain, Lamone took us on a detour to avoid major roads. The result was fortuitous as my bride and I saw parts of New Orleans we wouldn’t normally have seen. Audubon Park and Zoo. The trendy business district along Julia Drive replete with Bikram yoga, ritzy restaurants and tree-lined brownstones.
I was struck by a strange but colorful sculpture on the adjacent corner of the infamous Convention Center. The rain made it hard to see but it looked like a tree stump-shaped hand raising a home aloft. That has to be Katrina-related I thought, determined to find out more. It’s called Scrap House, made entirely out of Katrina debris.
We got back to our hotel a little after 6pm, thanking Lamone profusely for a memorable day. Probably still buzzing from the day’s information and rainstorm drama we didn’t want to go back to our rooms to crash. I suggested drinks at the hotel bar.
May Baily’s. Located near the notorious Storyville section of New Orleans, this bar used to be a brothel. Some of the girls’ spirits are said to lurk about, sometimes moving glasses or furniture. Despite this well-traveled declaration we considered it safe and ordered a Pimm’s Cup. Delicious refreshment though prepared a little differently than at Antoine’s. Our waitress placed a basket of freshly-popped corn in front of us. It felt good to relax, and to anticipate our evening: my bride’s birthday dinner at Brennan’s.
An hour later we are out in the Quarter once more, in a light rain, walking to the restaurant, dodging inebriated revelers, clad in clear ponchos, clutching plastic glasses of wine, fresh from the day’s wine and cheese festival along Royal Street.
Inside Brennan’s, the crowd from outside has brought their ebullience indoors. Out of the six restaurants the Brennan family owns in New Orleans, this is the original and newest due to a bankruptcy in 2013 closing the restaurant only to re-open last year. This is where my bride wanted to go for her birthday and she even said she didn’t mind if I make a big deal of it.
I tell the hostess it’s her birthday. We get seated near the courtyard. The appearance of the restaurant is elegant yet relaxed, with a playful modern look.
Our waiter, Christopher, wishes my bride a happy birthday asking if she’d like a celebratory glass of champagne. Alcohol is the last thing she wants, already flushing red on her face and neck, so she declines, but then reconsiders, as it is her birthday after all, and gets a sparkling strawberry wine. I order their Pimm’s Cup (easily my favorite drink this trip so far) tinged with Hibiscus.
For appetizers we order Grilled Octopus and Seafood Gumbo. Jesus. What perfection. The gumbo is like a black bean soup without beans, instead filled with shrimp, crab and oysters. I try to avoid hyperbole if I can help it but this is the best gumbo I’ve ever tasted. My bride equally enjoys her octopus with chaurice sausage. Both are smartly light, making plenty of room for the main course.
Duck and tuna. I am leery of ordering the tuna at the recommended medium temperature. Christopher assures me this is the temperature best served. I relent, also going with his wine recommendation for the tuna; GL Collet Chablis. A dry wine with a hint of grapefruit.
The duck is so tender, so succulent, so filling, but undaunted, my bride wants dessert. She wants Bananas Foster. This is the signature dish at Brennan’s and she will have Bananas Foster even if she has to throw up the rest of her food to make room, dammit!
Christopher sees she is about to speak and gently tries to offer another option. He says he knows Bananas Foster is well-known but the better dessert, to his palate, is the Strawberry Crepes Fitzgerald, only available when they are in season. We listen patiently to the well-fed and professional Christopher but I can see she’s just waiting for him to stop talking. And she really likes strawberries!
He witnesses no converts at our table. Resigned, he moves onto the rehearsed spiel about the dessert’s origin, about the sudden preponderance of bananas due the 1951 embargo and a favorite customer of Brennan’s named Richard Foster. Christopher thrills the pan with fire while my bride shutterbugs away.
Of course it’s delicious. And for anyone ordering, though it’s made for two, this gooey, sweet hot banana mash is enough for one person. Just sayin’.
Other than the initial offer of champagne, despite my making the rounds to any employee who will listen about my bride’s birthday (I believe I even tell the man who timely filled and refreshed water just like at Antoine’s) there is no fanfare. Halfway through the meal, the captain of our station visits our table inquiring about the meal. “Oh, it’s excellent. We’re having such a wonderful time and it’s so great especially since it’s her (gesturing) birthday.” He nods and smiles. Nothing. My bride pats my arm. “I know you tried, bebehhh.”
I am willing to pay for excellent food and service. Brennan’s delivers, with a first-rate meal and classy, attentive service. Clearing plates right away, refreshing glasses, giving suggestions, reading the mood of the table… it is a charming evening.
After handing the check over, Christopher comes over and shakes my hand. “How did I do?” he asks. “Did she like it?” I beam and say she loved the dinner. He beams back and before leaving, wishes her a happy birthday one last time.
Brennan’s comes in at a solid second for restaurants this week, so far, but like Arnaud’s, the bar has been set high and other experiences may have to settle for the bronze.