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