This is the second of two posts on our trip to New Orleans (you can find the first one here). This one is about food, Mardi Gras, and cemeteries.
After five days in New Orleans, I came to the conclusion that the city subsists on a diet of sugar, alcohol, and seafood. Which is not so great if you’re a vegetarian and trying not to pack on the pounds. For an omnivore like the Spouse, however, it was a food paradise. Our only problem was figuring out which of the many restaurants recommended by locals we would go to, and which of the foods on offer in the French Market we wanted to try.
A ‘po boy’ is a type of sandwich served on French-baguette style bread, always with some form of meat and lots of toppings. The name comes from ‘poor boy’; this was portable food for working people. One local story says that it was created in the 1920s to feed striking streetcar workers; others say the sandwich has much older origins and was designed for dock workers, assembled in the morning so that the juices of the meats or seafood gradually soaked into the hard slab of bread making it a tasty meal by midday.
Oyster bars are everywhere in New Orleans, and barbequed oysters are apparently a local specialty. Spouse sampled these at Red River Grill and pronounced them delicious.
For some reason, he was less enthusiastic about Gator on a Stick. Can’t image why.
Pralines are everywhere in New Orleans, made from a mixture of pecans, butter, sugar, and cream. They’re actually pretty tasty and apparently are one of the oldest ‘street foods’ in America, adapted from the almond-based recipes of Europe. According to this post, they evolved thanks to the “culinary genius of African-American women … a means for emancipated black women to make a living during a time when civil rights weren’t even in the picture.” These days they’re sold by the ton in every store and tourist outlet in the city.
My vegetarian options were limited, but the nicer restaurants we tried each had one vegetarian dish that turned out to be way tastier than “vegetable platter” or “vegetable curry” implied—very fresh veg, perfectly cooked and spiced. But the highlight for (non-sugar) food for me was a place called Dat Dog in the Garden District—not so much hot dogs as fabulous sausage concoctions, including three vegan choices. Mine was delicious. Spouse’s dog is somewhere under all these toppings.
I also discovered the Hurricane, a cocktail made from a mixture of rum, fruit juice, and syrup. Delicious.
But no trip to New Orleans is complete without beignet (pronounced ben-yay by the locals). It’s basically a square of fried dough, smothered in powdered sugar. The ones at Café du Monde are an institution, served hot and crispy, with a cup of café au lait—coffee with chicory and hot milk.
Which takes us to the next fun thing about New Orleans, Mardi Gras! I didn’t realize this before we went, but Mardi Gras is not just one or two days of parades and parties before lent starts—it’s an entire season of parades and parties starting in the new year and slowly building up to the major parades just before Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday as it’s called in the U.K.).
There are numerous krewes who hold parades and events throughout the season, and we were lucky enough to catch one while we were in town: The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. Basically, it’s the parade for sci-fi nerds (my people!) with an emphasis on homemade costumes and low-tech geekery, with the motto, “Saving the Galaxy one drunken nerd at a time.” Here’s their website: https://chewbacchus.org
I must have taken a hundred pictures, most of which are pretty blurry (those costumes and lightsabers moved fast with all the dancing and music) but here’s a few to give you an idea of the fun energy of this parade.
There were lots of Star Wars-references, including a whole troop of dancing Princess Leias and some baby stormtroopers.
I cheered for the Browncoats; anyone else remember Firefly?
There was a spoof on Trumps’ Space Force idea, and some pole dancers (because even sci-fi nerds like to pole dance).
There were even space vikings and space bananas (no, I have no idea either).
And because this is New Orleans, one group of guys dressed in glorious drag costumes for “queer eye for the sci-fi.”
But after the party comes … the cemeteries! Among the most iconic images of New Orleans are its above-ground tombs. This is a shot of Cemetery Number 3, dating from 1854.
Some of the tombs are quite small; others are massive and elaborate; this one holds the remains of many generations of priests.
This one in Lafayette cemetery was apparently used by Anne Rice as the model for Lestat’s tomb in her vampire novels.
Everyone assumes the above-ground burials are because of the water table, making it impossible to dig down very far to bury a coffin. But apparently, it’s more a function of saving space along with influences from parts of the Mediterranean where above-ground tombs are common. You can see many names on the outside of these tombs, which hold multiple generations of one family; how do they all fit? Well, when someone dies the front slab on the tomb is unscrewed, revealing the brick interior, like this:
See the shelf halfway up the tomb? The bricks are removed, the coffin is slid into the top half of the tomb, and then it’s re-bricked and the front put back on. After a year-and-a-day (or longer), the tomb is opened up again—and all that is left of the coffin and its occupant is a pile of ash. Researchers from Tulane University confirmed that the interior temperature of a New Orleans tomb runs between 164 and 217 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, basically acting as a slow cremation. The remains are either swept through a hole in the shelf into the lower half of the tomb; or are collected, put in a bag (used to be hessian, now something cheaper but still biodegradable) and placed into the bottom half of the tomb along with the ashes of the previous ‘burials.’
If more than one family member dies at the same time, or if the person had no big family tomb, the coffin can be put in one of the wall units that surround the cemetery (although most of these are no longer used).
A tour guide told us that these days, any metal inserts (like replacement hip joints) are collected and sold for scrap when the tomb is reopened, but things like breast implants also break down: “So, Kim Kardashian is fully biodegradable!” When I described this process to Oldest Son he said, “Oh, so those tombs are all slow-cookers and the cemetery is a giant kitchen?!”
Unless the tombs are well-maintained, cracks appear and seeds germinate (well, there is plenty of fertilizer in there). The tombs sit on a concrete slab, so they can be picked up and moved. And, finding a tomb for your family can be a major undertaking—people hire realtors to help them find a good location. You can’t buy an old tomb (because they contain human remains which cannot be bought and sold), but you can “adopt” one and take over its maintenance.
The names on the various tombs reflect the history of the city—French, German, Irish, Italian—and we spotted inscriptions as old as the 1700s and as recent as 2017. All of the large family vaults included the names of some children, a reflection of the toll taken on the city’s youngest inhabitants by the waves of yellow fever that used to sweep through the city in the 18thand 19th centuries.
I usually don’t like cemeteries at all, but the ones of New Orleans are different—surprisingly peaceful and so full of beauty that it doesn’t feel ghoulish to stroll amongst the dead.