Sunday, April 28, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 3: Voodoo Houses, Cities of the Dead, and Lemongrass Lust

I would be lying through my bicuspids if I didn't admit that New Orleans didn't hold a fascination for me beyond the musical and the culinary.  I am more than a little intrigued by NOLA's spiritual and ghostly history on various levels.  I didn't have a lot of time to delve deeply, but I did dabble here and about through a few of the Crescent City's more mystical hangs.

Eerie is a word that actually short-sells New Orlean's famous cemeteries.  For me, they were stately and creepy and utterly mesmerizing all at once.  Cemeteries in New Orleans were forced to have above-ground graves for the deceased due to the high water table, but goodness, did that grant NOLA an opportunity to create some of the most creatively elaborate and gob-smacking graveyards ever.  One writer said of NOLA: you can tell a lot about a city by the way they honor their dead and without meeting a resident, one can certainly learn a lot about New Orleans by visiting their cemeteries.  Indeed, between the graveyards and the jazz funeral parades, the story is indeed told and entertainingly so. In the historic Garden District, we visited Lafayette Cemetery No.1 which originated in 1833 and was originally a plantation site. The crypts and
tombs are stunningly intricate and include the burial sites of many a famous Louisiana resident as well as the site for a few fictional ones..this was the cemetery where Anne Rice's vampire characters, including Lestat, had tombs as well.  We strolled the gorgeous Garden district and enjoyed seeing those breathtaking plantation homes (including those belonging to celebs like Sandra Bullock, John Goodman and Ms. Rice herself), but for me, the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 was the district highlight.  It was not, however, my favorite cemetery....that title belongs to St. Louis cemetery which borders the historic Treme neighborhood. The oldest cemetery in NOLA, it includes the famed oven wall vaults and the gravesite of Marie Laveau where many a visitor leave something behind as some sort of tribute or spell.  Unsurprisingly, the piece of tribute most notable to me was a small jar of cayenne pepper.  This cemetery dates back to 1789 and some its oldest tombs are magnificent reflections of a rich NOLA melting pot of French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian societies.  The movie Easy Rider filmed here and sugar pioneer Etienne De Bore is buried in this cemetery.  This cemetery again, held me in thrall and gave me shivers but I left feeling strangely uplifted by the unique ways these cemeteries honored their dead.  You can contribute to the preservation of these astounding historical sites here.

I was disappointed at first when I saw a few of the voodoo "shops" around town....they were clearly commercial and featured voodoo dolls more reminiscent of  twisted Beanie Babies than hand-crafted supposed sources of protection or curse.  I finally found my way to Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo and despite the occasional touristy flourish, this felt much more like it should and well should it: this is the main house of voodoo, inspired by the the infamous Creole voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.  Its a suitably dark, smallish joint where photos are prohibited, multiple candles flicker at an altar, dusty shelves are filled with books, psychic and past life readings are offered, and creepy voodoo dolls hang in every nook while mojo and gris-gris bags fill every cranny.  Gris-gris bags are considered voodoo amulets; small cloth bags
containing various items and verses combined to wear on the person to ward off evil.  Mojo bags are created to bring you that which you desire, such as prosperity or luck and can often include oils and herbs.  Herbs hold boundless intrigue for me as they have such a wide array of uses and are practically revered in so many cultures, including voodoo.  Marie Laveau's had a wide array of herbs for sale and, here, like everywhere, I love to see what the suggestions are for use.  Now, lemongrass is one of my favorite herbs and I've seen it used many a a steaming cup of hot tea, as a salt scrub at the spa at my place of business, the Elms Hotel and Spa, or even in a craft cocktail like the lemongrass gin concoction at Manifesto in Kansas City.  At HEX Old World Witchery, a "witchcraft shop" in Salem, Massachusetts that I visited on Halloween years ago, lemongrass was sold with instructions to place in a red wine bag and carry with the goal of inciting lust.  The suggested purpose for lemongrass at Marie Laveau's is to break bad habits, solve intellectual puzzles, bring focus and clarity and dissolve confusion...which means I should be mainlining this stuff before every work day.  My favorite use of lemongrass, though, involved a singular bowl of Vietnamese pho I had at a tiny joint in Arlington, Va with my friend Noelle.  I remember the lemongrass and jalapenos and feeling so amazing after eating it.  No wonder lemongrass is thought to have healing properties...that pho filled me with the spirit, for sure.

NOLA contains a plethora of haunts with intriguing spiritual histories.  Undeniably, though, I was mostly filled with the spirit when sampling the Big Easy's spellbinding stew of delicious music and food. Next post will feature my search for some of the Big Easy's well-known dishes...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 2: Magically Delicious and Musically Delirious

I woke up on a high; my mind still reeling and senses still tingling from the first night in New Orleans.  Keith officially started his conference this morning, and I was left to my own devices.  The morning was thrown by a hardcore deluge of a rainstorm, so I met Keith and his Mainstreet cohorts at the Roux Bistro at the Sheraton New Orleans where Keith's conference was taking place.  Despite the balmy temps outside, the restaurant's temp was set on bone-chilling deep freeze, so I went for some Cajun spice to warm me up: a blackened redfish Caesar salad with a cup of hot gumbo.  Both were pretty tasty and the spice opened  up my senses to once again hit the streets to catch what was left of the French Quarter Festival. Heading into the Quarter, the city's spell was starting to weave once again.  Music flowed from not only multiple stages but every open door; every street corner, every balcony.  I would stumble upon musicians that would stop me in my tracks frequently and I would find myself adrift in musical genius time and again.  It's easy to get dizzy from the Big Easy with its undulating, ever-changing maelstrom of live music and fabulous food.  So dizzy in fact that I needed to kick back to take it all in and so I found a courtyard seat at the Gazebo Cafe.  The sun's rays were warming me up as were the Boudin Balls I ordered.  I sat listening to the Cafe's live jazz combo while nibbling on these deep-fried, spicy Andouille sausage and rice concoctions and sipping on an Abita Purple Haze.  I was utterly and completely relaxed and it has been a long time since I had been able to truly feel that way.
I strolled the streets again and stopped when I felt like it, snapping pics of store windows and signs like the one over Channing Tatum's bar Saints and Sinners.  There was no guidebook involved on this particular day, so I went where the warm wind took me. Highlights of the walk, and there were many, included an inspired stop at way-cool vintage record store Peaches Records and a drink at the gorgeous Carousel Bar (that actually revolves) at the Hotel Monteleone.  The kicker that left me in love with the day was seeing the killer string band Yes Ma'am light up the middle of Bourbon Street (my video of them at the bottom of this post.

Later that night, Keith and I met his fellow Mainstreeters again and this time for dinner at seafood restaurant  Ralph and Kacoo's. While my dinner companions were in session all day, I selfishly regaled them with my Tales of the City.  Finally, I was wallowing in a perfectly satisfying end to my day: a chilled glass of local wheat brew Canebrake by the Parish Brewing Company paired with oysters on the half shell dabbed with Crysal Hot Sauce.  My entree was the Crab Trap; combining soft-shell crab and some of the best crab cakes I've ever had.  By the time I worked my way through my fresh seafood dinner, I was really glad I had walked so much in the course of the day to help offset these fresh crab-laden calories.

I slept like a baby that night and the soundtrack of my dreams had a decidedly Zydeco feel.  More to come, but please check out my brief snippet of Yes Ma'am and click here to learn more about the band and how to purchase their hot tunes.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles, Part 1: French Quarter Fest

Several years ago, Keith and I were soaking in a sublime vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico when we started seeing reports of Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans.  We watched the dire weather predictions warily, thinking surely it couldn't be as horrific as they were predicting, could it?  As we were all soon to discover, Katrina proved catastrophic to New Orleans. Now here we were, many years later, reveling in a truly delicious week in NOLA itself while we watched the tense events unfold in Boston.  My mind was alive with lovely memories of Boston, another beloved city to me, while devastating images of the Boston Marathon tragedy flickered on the hotel flatscreen. The great city of Boston would prove far stronger than its challenges as the Big Easy itself did. The comparison of the two challenges is far from exacting, a devastating Act of God vs. an act of terrorism, even if it was done in the name of God. Both cities, however, would stand against unimaginable odds, and Boston will go on as the Big Easy has.

Boston has already shown its mettle and is getting back to normal but how does a city recover
from the absolute devastation and loss wrought by Hurricane Katrina? Maybe that's why I felt such a soul-deep connection with New Orleans on this visit.  I was here on a brief party weekend many a pre-Katrina moon ago and while there was plenty of over-the-top celebrating going on, I didn't truly immerse myself in the culture of this amazing city then. That said, I had an almost visceral reaction to watching the news reports of the Katrina was not unusual to be empathetic in times of great tragedy like this, but I couldn't shake the vivid Katrina images and stories and yet I could not stop watching, when typically I would abandon such wall-to-wall coverage from being overcome by the bleak reports but where Katrina was concerned, I couldn't shake it.  I felt compelled to go volunteer to help and yet I never did fro various reasons.  Many volunteers did go help though, including friends of mine, and NOLA while forever changed, inched toward recovery.  Since Katrina, I have closely followed various reports of New Orleans coming back, but I wondered how different it would be post-Katrina. I later found myself so caught up in the David Simon HBO series Treme and its riveting depiction of the city's music and food culture, that my appetite was whetted in every way to return.  Return I would, and soon I would soon learn the Big Easy was better then ever, and that its rebirth has made NOLA that much sweeter, in my opinion. 

The opportunity to return came when Keith's national Mainstreet conference was taking
place in New Orleans this year.  We arrived on a Saturday night and once off the plane, the spell was already beginning to weave, in the cab of all places, with the windows rolled down and feeling the already sultry breezes as we sped toward downtown. The feeling became overwhelming as we found ourselves in traffic that even the cab driver seemed stunned by. We finally got to the Ambassador Hotel where we would stay.  The Ambassador is a historic and recently renovated little charmer of a hotel in the thriving Arts District of New Orleans; all exposed brick and ceiling fans. We headed off toward the French
Quarter and the overwhelming feeling was creeping back as the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival was happening and the streets were crazy crowded.  As Jazz Fest has become so huge with its roster of national headliners, the French Quarter Festival has become center stage for the plethora of local music New Orleans is known for.  Now, I've attended many an overcrowded event over the years,  but this was different, though; it FELT different in a good way and it ain't easy to summarize why it feels different in New Orleans, but here goes....the crowds may feel intimidating at first, but soon you are wrapped in the amazing food aromas emanating from various sources and soon, you hear the music that stops you in your tracks and spins you right 'round until you are dancing with complete strangers in the middle of the street and finally, you are indeed spellbound by it all.

After wading for some time through the raucous crowd, we discovered a lull in the action as we walked into Jackson Square.  The Square was thick with festival-goers but many were still and mesmerized by the Opera at Dusk performance from the third floor balcony of a corner building overlooking the Square.  The male singer's strong tenor transfixed the crowd in the shadow of the stately St. Louis Cathedral and despite the myriad distractions of some of the Fest's more eccentric characters, we were all taken by this singular soaring voice.  Newly zen from the opera performance, we entered Jackson Square Park just in
time to score some fine local Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House grub: two Po' Boys, one a finger-lickingly spicy Bourbon BBQ Shrimp, the other a Roast Beef Debris with thick roast beef slathered in gravy.  Also armed an ice-cold Abita Amber Ale, I found a spot of wall to lean against down the street and we dug into that crusty, flaky bread laden with flavors. Our favorite was the BBQ Shrimp with its spicy bourbon and rosemary BBQ sauce and meaty shrimp but the Debris was no slouch.  The spot by the wall we found was also near

the Chevron live music stage for the French Quarter Fest.  Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience were on and indeed and while there wasn't much room to dance where I was, I still found myself boogieing in place to this way-fun show.  Not a wise move dancing with a messy Debris Po'Boy for sure, but there I was, bouncin' to that groovy zydeco wearing a big, dumb grin with gravy on my chin.  Blissed out, indeed.

We sauntered our way back to the hotel where we decided to enjoy one last drink at the sidewalk cafe while soaking in the warm, breezy evening and prime people watching before retiring for the evening.  What a marvelous first night in N'awlins.  The week was only beginning, though...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Snack Attacks From Smithville to Liberty

Had to make a couple of quick mentions for some local snack attack solutions that we found out and about with some random Posse crew members...

 ....first up, new local Liberty hangout Conrad's Restaurant and Alehouse for some pre-show grub.  We were soon to headin' south to the Music Hall to catch a our last show of the theater season; Mary Poppins and stopped at this new Northland hotspot to check it out.  Conrad's is an interesting mix of atmospheres: one part dark-wood cozy clubhouse and one part lively sports bar.  Crackling flames dance in fireplaces while various bros are

challenging each other at golf simulators.  Over a chilled glass of my beloved Boulevard Tank 7, I indulged in their creamy buffalo dip with housemade chips.  The menu is fairly extensive and has loads of stuff I'd like to try.  Love the use of quotes also, including:

"Beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"
and by George Bernard Shaw:
"There is no love sincerer than the love of food."

On another night, we returned to a favorite spot in Smithville among many of we Posse folk by the name of Justus Drugstore.  I've written about this little spot many a time for many a reason, not least of which is ubertalented owner and chef Jonathan Justus.  Jonathan grew up in Smithville and returned to breathe new life into his hometown by setting up a fabulous restaurant at his family's drugstore.  I've long been gobsmacked by the service and locavore food this place serves up.  This time, we went for the simpler fare because we were ready to break in the patio for the season.  It was a tad chilly as there were thunderstorms on the horizon, but we settled in and ordered some of those freshly-made, creative cocktails.  I went with the suggested Flying Tree, a light and lively concoction of Sauza Silverequila, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and fresh orange and lime with a salt and hickory nut rim. Carl tried out the Elixir of the Day which included among its exotic ingredients a baklava-infused rum of all things.  The table sampled a little bit of everything from the scaled-back patio menu.  Among them were kicked-up versions of bar food staples like jalapeno poppers, pork rinds with a killer spicy sauce and a mouth-watering brisket sandwich.

Conrad's was fun for a first visit, but we love us some Justus.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring's Done Sprung: Potatoes and Pawtini

Ah, that lighter feeling to the air, the buds popping up; the windows there anything better than the arrival of Spring?  Spring kicked off with one last snowstorm a week ago, but the last of that has slowly melted away. My head's devotion is somewhat divided in its devotion to this season: the creeping onslaught of allergy season has me on alert, but my mind warms with the temperatures, and with every step into a sunnier climate, Spring looks brighter every day. Speaking of said steps, we have enjoyed several lately.  The K-Man woke the grill up for the first run and we so dug that first grilled fresh salmon seasoned with Dizzy Pig's Raging River Rub that we picked up from beloved hometown store The Greenhouse. This rub is made with maple-sugar, peppercorns, lemon and orange and it makes for
seriously killer salmon. Served up with grilled asparagus dusted with lemon pepper, it made for a light and tasty welcome to the season.
Yesterday was another windy but warm Spring day and a thoroughly packed day to boot.  After a night of local theater at Paradise Playhouse where we sipped libations (Grey Goose for me; something called Big Bamboo Love for Keith...yikes), nibbled on crab salad and watched a very funny play seemingly written for me called "Bathroom Humor". We spent the night at Kiko's home in the country.  We got up the following day and helped Kiko plant the first seeds for Nature's soon-to-be-bounty.  Kiko's home is an idyllic setting where her love of animals is on abundant display throughout, including the 9 dogs running wild around the yard. A century-old barn is the stately centerpiece of the farm and the field behind the barn is where Kiko's gorgeous three horses graze.  Keith tilled the vegetable garden and I prepped some potatoes for planting including some that I called the Confounded Cook's Mutant Red Potatoes.  Yes indeed, these were the X-Men of potatoes.  Be careful spending time with could be choke on mere geekiness.  We later had  some righteous hash browns at classic Ray's diner, we hit up beloved local popcorn haven Bobkorn to check out their latest flavors.  We were first thrown by the "Umbrella Corporation" vehicle in front of Bobkorn that Kiko recognized from "Resident Evil" movies and she had that confirmed by the vehicle's driver, a new Bobcorn employee who clearly is a Resident Evil fan.  Of course, the good folks at Bobkorn, didn't disappoint with their excellent new tastes like Dill Pickle and Cherry Limeade.  They are even working on a partnership with Boulevard, and have created a wow of a new popcorn taste utilizing Boulevard's Dark Truth Stout.  There really is no stopping Bobkorn these days.

Finally, that night, it was out of the grubs and into the suit and tie for Pawtini, a benefit night out raising moolah for the Great Plains SPCA, an animal-welfare organization our friend Charlotte is part of.  The event was held at Sporting Park, home of KC's soccer team.  The Posse ladies all looked gorgeous; dressed to the nines.The theme was Vegas Vacation and there was live music and pole dancing (I'll chalk this up to the Vegas theme) and lovely young ladies resembling a cross between showgirls and roosters (crowgirls? I'll chalk that one up to the animal theme).We nibbled on offerings from various food stations meant to represent Vegas casinos such as lobster empanadas, veggie samosas and hummus, Thai noodle salad and the Elvis-inspired kickers, mini peanut butter and banana sandwiches and fried pickles.  The dessert table offered up chocolate-covered strawberries and interesting cotton candy mousse.  There was a silent and live auction where lots of money was raised as folks bid on marvelous items like farm
and field dinners with Jonathan Justus or Michael Smith and bottles of the highly-touted beverage marriage Coffee Ale, by Boulevard and the Roasterie. It was a lovely dinner made even better that the weather was so balmy we could stroll outside under the starlit sky.

Welcome back, Spring.  I have missed you so.