Searched For new orleans

This didn’t deserve its own post: New Orleans

 

When I take a trip somewhere, if I don’t do a day-by-day recounting, there’s usually a bunch of tidbits left over that I either couldn’t write more than a few sentences about or don’t have any photos for or would drag out the series far beyond what any human could be expected to tolerate or that would involve telling more personal stories about people who haven’t necessarily agreed to have their lives permanently archived on my blog just because we’re friends. All combined, however, they make for something a little more substantial, so here’s yet another one, this time about New Orleans.

tom cruise movie set

street decorations

I arrived in New Orleans after sunset and ravenous. I immediately headed out to get dinner at Muriel’s, and since I had a little time to kill before my reservation, I wandered around the area and saw that the next street over was closed off for filming. A crew member told me they were working on a new Tom Cruise film with a Halloween parade, and while that he personally was not allowed to take pictures, I could be as nosy as I wanted to be as long as I didn’t cross the street barriers.  The next day, I noted that entire area was decked out for Halloween, so I’m glad I was a little nosy and asked questions otherwise I would have been wondering what was up with all of the cobwebs, pumpkins, and skeletons in mid-December.

view of jackson square from artillery park

st louis cathedral

bird bath

mississippi sunset

Every list of New Orleans must-dos includes a visit to Cafe du Monde for beignets and chicory coffee. I’m nearly convinced that all of these publishers must be getting kickbacks from Cafe du Monde as neither thing is all that great…and that’s being charitable. It’s an overly powdered sugared sorta soggy doughnut with mediocre coffee from a shop where the service blows ass and you can either battle people at the shop for a powdered sugar covered seat or you can do like we did and find a bench along the Mississippi and be hassled by people who would like nothing better than an opportunity to tell you where you got dem shoes because your powdered sugar covered face points you out as an easy target. I think some tourist things become staples for a reason and that no one should be ashamed of doing touristy stuff on their trips, but I also think you could safely cross this one off your list and find a better beignet within easy walking distance. The sweet potato beignets at SoBou, for instance, which have a chicory glaze and are to-die for, which you can pair with a twenty five cent martini at lunch and live like a drunken lunch king.

You can also pass on the flea market down the street, which is essentially tables and tables full of the same stuff over and over again. One person near the entrance was working us hard on a stone tea set, saying how rare it was and that we’d never again see its like…so it must have just been intense deja vu when we saw the exact same set at the other end of the market. Everywhere there are signs insisting you don’t take photos, and I have to assume it’s because they don’t want people to see how crappy their wares are and just how much of it you could find on alibaba if you were motivated.

muffuletta

For a great non-drunken lunch, I really enjoyed the central grocery muffuletta. It’s a little different (and spelled differently) from the muffo-lotta sandwich of the italian deli of my youth, but still rich, meaty, and delicious, with the world’s best sandwich bread. And sizable at that, we split a half sandwich between three people and were good until dinner. I’m not typically an olive lover, but this sandwich is an exception.

battle of new orleans photo op

I wasn’t as taken with the Cabildo museum as I was the Presbytere. I think mainly I just wasn’t in the mood for it–a combination of being hot and tired and full and wanting a nap which didn’t play well with enthusiasm for learning. They did have one of Andrew Jackson’s coats on display which was pretty cool, and a video about the various presentations of The Buccaneer and how it contrasted with the real Jean Lafitte. I’m also glad they didn’t shy away from the history of slavery in the state–it would have been so easy to just conveniently ignore how the state and the wealth in it was actually built. History can be so ugly and cruel and it’s important that we acknowledge it.

After I went to the Cabildo, I went into some antique shops along Royal Street, which are absolutely nothing like any antique store I’ve ever been in anywhere else in my life. All of the antique shops I’d been to prior to this were like upscale Goodwills–in exchange for being pretty sure you wouldn’t find poop crusted on anything, you’re charged a higher price for the same items you could probably find at a regular Goodwill if you weren’t all that concerned about maybe running into a rogue poo. I’m not actually certain I could afford anything in any of the antique shops on Royal Street. Following the adage of “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”, I didn’t bother to inquire. What I did ask, however, was to see the secret room at M.S. Rau Antiques. Everything in the store was already so elaborate and magnificent–furniture owned by flipping kings, jewelry owned by popes–that I  wondered what they would even bother to put in a secret room…the dregs, surely, and then somehow things got even more amazing and beautiful and rare. Marble sculpture. Alabaster sculpture–I’m not sure I’d ever even seen alabaster before that day. Multiple Monets. Their secret room is actually three floors of multimillion dollar art and furniture, like a museum you can buy and then have in your house and look at and touch whenever you want to. I wanted to touch everything. I’m sure I looked like a drooling yokel, but at least I managed to keep my arms pinned to my sides and not put my greasy powdered sugar monkey mitts on anything, though some paintings I did look at very closely. I’m so glad they did take me back there, as they could certainly tell by looking at me and my clothes that there was no way I was going to pull out a black card and tell them I’d take the lot.

sun and moon tray

I did consider pulling out the credit card for this sun and moon tray from Venice, but figure I’ll save that purchase for when I’m actually, you know, in Venice. Also it doesn’t go with anything in my house, but that’s a problem for post-Venice. A more New Orleans-based souvenir I did splash out for, however, was an old cast iron horse head hitching post topper that I found in the sort of antique shop I’m more accustomed to in the garden district. I didn’t find its match in the french quarter (the horses are different from street to street or even on the same block–some of them aren’t even metal anymore) and I can’t be sure it was ever out on a New Orleans street, but it reminds me of the lovely time I had there, and if it came down to brass tacks, I could probably kill a man with it if I had to, which can’t be said of most souvenirs.

wanted yelping butthead

Also in the garden district: H. Rault Locksmith, full of awesome hardware for the home, some new, some restored vintage, and a really cool unique selection of locking jewelry. The owner also has a very public dispute with some douchebag on Yelp, which I personally found delightful because I have some issues with Yelp myself. If I had more bag space or a clear idea of exactly how much hardware I needed, I would have totally invested in some cool vintage hardware for my house…I just may make a list before the next time I go to New Orleans and make this love affair official.

sucre desserts

Also ALSO in the garden district is Sucre, which I read has possibly the best macarons in the United States. I wouldn’t go that far, I actually prefer the ones at Mon Amie, but what was thrilling and kind of shocking was that I asked what flavor a macaron was as it wasn’t labeled, and they not only told me, but popped one over the counter for me to try. Seriously, free macaron, which probably cost them two cents in materials but it made my damn day. By the way, it was absinthe flavored and it was delicious. They had a number of really beautiful treats in their cases but I was already full and kind of on sugar overload from my earlier visit to District.  I ended up buying a variety pack of their NOLA inspired macaron flavors: bananas foster, chicory, pecan, and salted caramel and ate them all in the hotel bed, because I am a little piggy.

Speaking of the hotel, I stayed at the Hampton Inn New Orleans. The room was fine, the free wifi was a nice touch, I appreciated that the fridge was there for my use instead of crammed full of things to purchase, and my only complaint was something that I mocked as being ridiculous when I was searching for hotels to book. “Look at this guy, he’s complaining about the water pressure in the shower, what a manbaby.”  No, the babyman was correct, the water pressure in the shower was beyond terrible. It was like standing under a giant’s mouth, waiting for him to slowly dribble lukewarm spit on your head. I felt dirty the entire week. I probably stank. Sorry everyone. Sorry for judging you, babyman. Sorry for still calling you babyman even though you were completely correct, it’s the only name I know you by.

wino bar

At W.I.N.O., where you pay for wine by the ounce, we learned that Jason has a knack for picking out the least mouth pleasing wine at any given price point. My favorite wine of the evening was one that they said tasted like an Italian grandma’s hug. An expensive Italian grandma’s hug. Only cashmere for this granny, watch your saucy mouth before she goes in for a hug.

giant jenga

If you’ve been to a game bar, you basically know what Barcadia is like–I appreciated that they’re less slickly corporate than a Dave & Busters or Gameworks so you can have fun without feeling a vampiric drain on your wallet and you don’t need to load a card to play. It’s all quarters, like it should be.  I had so much fun hanging out with Carrie there, playing giant connect 4 and jenga, putting down a couple of deceptively delicious not-your-father’s root beers, getting ripped off on skee ball, and learning that we can both kick over our heads but that Carrie, being taller, could straight kick me in the face if she wanted to so I’d better watch my mouth. So I guess we’re still a little rock ‘n’ roll.

carousel bar  

A bar at which I sincerely hoped I would have fun but did not is the Carousel bar in the hotel Monteleone. I don’t know what fricking hour of what fricking day you need to go in order to get a seat at the actual rotating portion of the bar, but I can tell you it’s not worth the effort. I tried on at least three separate occasions, finally got a seat in the bar if not at the bar, got a mediocre sazerac which I paid out the wazoo for, and it was so loud inside that you couldn’t really have a conversation even if you wanted to. Blech. It was hyped as one of the top twenty bars in the world, which I guess means I’m not all that interested in checking out the other nineteen if this is the standard. You know where the best bar is–it’s the place that makes those drinks you like in comfortable surroundings with people whose company you enjoy. Before she ran away and joined the office and got promoted sixty times, the best bar for me was Pegasus because Carrie was there, mixing up grey. Now, the best bar is wherever we can hang out and be ourselves. Carousel is not that place.

bacon sundae       

Hidden down an alleyway in the French Quarter is Green Goddess. Unless you knew it was there, you could easily walk right past it. You shouldn’t, though. The dinner I had there was superb, but the best part was the bacon sundae. Oh my. Praise the lord and pass the caramel sauce.

lol

I laughed until I almost peed a little when I saw this sign at the Audubon Aquarium. The gulf of mexico, sponsored by the corporations who are actively destroying it! How about a healthy living exhibit, brought to you by Cheetos? This cancer ward sponsored by: lead paint! The last remaining ice floe, also brought to you by Exxon! This abomination against language, brought to you by me!

Ahh, New Orleans. The Big Cheezy. Sweet Lady Gumbo. Old….Swampy.

the big cheezy

I love a good pun. And bad ones, too. So when I spotted The Big Cheezy on Google Maps as I was plotting out places that I wanted to visit on my trip, it immediately got added to the list. What’s not to love about grilled cheese sandwiches?

It was actually a bit of a struggle to get to the shop–I intended to take the streetcar the majority of the way there and walk the remaining few blocks, but literally two blocks into my ride, a truck tried to make a left turn in front of it, the streetcar couldn’t stop in time, and t-boned the truck pretty badly, really crunching the rear quarter. The driver of the truck just drove away, she didn’t even look back. Even though everyone seemed fine and the streetcar itself had very little damage, we had to wait for the transportation authorities to arrive, and then fill out paperwork, and everyone was deboarded as that car had to be put out of commission for the investigation. The distance between me and lunch never felt longer.  I eventually called for an uber driver to pick us up and take us the rest of the way as the next car was jam packed and I was starting to get hangry.

red streetcar

grilled cheezes here

big cheezy menu

The grilled cheeses were completely worth every second of hassle, however. We went splitsies on two sandwiches–The Juice (cheddar & pepper jack on sourdough, roast beef w/ debris gravy and grilled green peppers) and Crawgator (cheddar, pepper jack on sourdough w/alligator and crawfish sausages, caramelized onions and grilled green peppers)–so basically, the difference between them was some onions and the type of meat. My standout favorite was the Crawgator. The Juice was good, but a bit wet, and the beef gravy tended to overpower the cheese. The crawgator sausage added heat and complexity without overwhelming the cheese–because after all, a grilled cheese is first and foremost a cheese sandwich.

crawgator

 

the juice

The streetcars were still borked from earlier. I should’ve grabbed a third sandwich for the long walk back.

New Orleans! Home of pirates, drunks, and whores! New Orleans! Tacky overpriced souvenir stores!

When I was in my early twenties, I would have loved Bourbon Street. I would have definitely reveled in the seediness with a Huge Ass Beer(tm) in each hand, a poboy strapped between my boobs, and I would have offered bites of the sandwich to anyone in exchange for strings of tacky plastic beads, plus I probably would have come home with at least six new t-shirts with slogans ranging from mildly suggestive to banned in three states. Now that I’m older, saggier, significantly less rock ‘n’ roll, and way more possessive of my sandwiches, Bourbon Street doesn’t really do it for me. Every morning, the streets are literally hosed off from the previous night’s debauchery, and the smell that arises from said hosing can only be described as the scent of bad decision making.

  horse hitching post

napoleons itch

wrought iron veranda

 

buggy outside lafittes

It could be solely that I am older and more cynical, but especially during daylight hours, it feels like every tagline on Bourbon could be followed by “…you assholes!” “Pizza by the slice…you assholes!” “Huge Ass Beers…you assholes!” “Barely Legal Club…you assholes!” “Put some spice in your life…you assholes!”  “Balcony upstairs party party party…you assholes!” “Home of the hand grenade…you assholes!” Even the stuff that’s sold as sincere is kind of bullshitty. Take Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, for one. It’s advertised as the oldest bar in the United States, a pirate bar, and it is a pretty old bar, but not the oldest–it wasn’t a bar at the same time it was an actual blacksmith shop. They also claim that the Lafitte brothers (the pirates in question) used the place as a base for their smuggling operations between 1772 and 1791. However, the elder Lafitte didn’t even come to Louisiana until 1803. And then there’s the faux aging on the outside of the building, which makes it look less authentically old and more like a pirate bar as built by Disney. The only thing I would buy as being authentically old in the building is the bathroom, which will sincerely make you regret breaking the seal on your bladder with the aforementioned Huge Ass Beer…you asshole.

lafittes blacksmith shop exterior

lafittes blacksmith shop

beer at lafittes

nola poboys

Which isn’t to say that dreams don’t come true on Bourbon Street or that nothing good happens there. I was meeting up with friends to take a tour nearby, so we decided to grab lunch at NOLA Poboys on Bourbon beforehand. They actually didn’t have a permit for their deep fryer at the time (waiting on a visit from the fire department) so anything that would normally be fried on their menu was unavailable–which I was totally fine with because I do occasionally eat things that haven’t been deep fried.

I ordered a hot ham and beef sandwich, and while the sandwich itself was delicious, the truly wonderful thing happened in the wake of the sandwich, when I went to wash off the gravy that had dripped down to my elbows. You see, ever since I first encountered one of those super powerful hand dryers that flap the skin on the backs of your hands around like it’s trying to push it aside and dry you at the mitochondrial level, I have wanted to stick my stomach under one and see what happens. The problem is, these dryers are always right out in the open, so you never really get a level of privacy that’s particularly conducive to this type of scientific experiment. However, the bathroom at NOLA Poboys was an all-in-one unit, complete with super hand dryer, and thus, science could happen.

blubber

…As my gut whipped around like the Blob caught in a freak tornado, I may have shed a tear composed of 90% joy, 10% shame. Bourbon Street is truly a magical place.

 

Bugging out at the Audobon Insectarium In New Orleans

venus flytrap light fixture

People have an almost primal reaction to insects. After all, they are the most alien-looking creatures we encounter on a regular basis. As Jeffrey Lockwood puts it at Popsci, “You could think of our fear and disgust of insects of being as a conspiracy of evolution and culture.” I myself feel a combination of fascination and disgust with insects, which is dependent on the type of insect I’m encountering and the context of said encounter. After all, it’s one thing to obsessively hunt insects in Animal Crossing, and another to have your mother scream while braiding your hair that your head is covered with bugs, prompting a call to the principal who came over and picked both bugs and eggs out of your hair at the kitchen table which then prompted an announcement over the school loudspeaker about there being an outbreak of lice and that no one in the second grade should be sharing coats or hats or brushes and everyone knows it’s you. Hypothetically speaking, of course.  One thing to have a butterfly flit around you in the garden and another to have a horde of spiders flooding out of a cardboard box in your direction. I think that the Audobon Insectarium in New Orleans enjoys playing with this juxtaposition of fascination and repulsion, placing enormous scaled-up insect nightmares next to smaller, cuter real life versions with tiny presents and holiday trees in their enclosures.

audubon insectarium

biodiversity pyramid

beetle

beetles

underground

The Insectarium must also enjoy getting a good shriek out of  people. In the Richard C. Colton, Jr. Underground area, you walk into a very dimly lit room, where something promptly bursts out of the wall in your direction, which caused Jason to squeal like a little girl and brought vivid flashbacks of Tremors screaming to the forefront of my mind. The entire rest of the underground area, I was on edge, waiting for something else to move or jump or slither past…so of course, nothing did.

creepy underground bug

ant battle

worm rider

However, all of that anxiety really works up an appetite, so thankfully, I was right on time for the opening of The Bug Buffet, where chefs whip up various dishes containing insects to teach you about the environmental benefits of eating insect protein, and you get to try any and all of them that your little heart desires. I decided I was going to try and set aside everything I’d been taught about the grossness of bug eating and take it on its own merits (or lack therof, depending on how things turned out.) After all, I’ve almost certainly unknowingly eaten any number of insect parts or rat hairs or any number of things that would make me heave if I thought about them too closely, so it probably wasn’t going to kill me*.

bugonthat

the bug buffet

bug buffet

chocolate chirp cookies

insect dips

On the menu for that day:

  • fried waxworms with cinnamon and sugar
  • cajun crickets
  • fried waxworms with taco seasoning and chili powder
  • chocolate “chirp” cookies with roasted crickets
  • cream cheese and onion cricket dip
  • mango chutney with poached waxworms
  • tomato salsa with crab-boiled mealworms

The only thing I didn’t try was the salsa, and that was out of a greater objection to the cilantro in the salsa than the mealworms themselves. If you can get out of the “oh gross, bugs” mindset, they taste kind of like nothing. Maybe the crickets had a slightly nutty flavor, maybe. Mostly, they just take on the flavor of whatever is around them, which is good in the case of apple pie waxworms and maybe not so great in the case of devil-weed mealworm salsa. While I daintily picked out a solitary waxworm and apple combo to place on a wheat thin (the preferred cracker of insect-eaters everywhere), I realized I had the chefs to myself so I could annoy them with my particular brand of hard-hitting questions. I learned that all of their insect supply is farmed and shipped to them, which I found relieving as I was envisioning them just sweeping the dead and sick and just plain unsociable ones out of the bottom of the cages–you know, waste not, want not and all that. I also learned that, no, neither of them have witnessed someone take a bite of something and start dry-heaving right there in line, setting off a vomit chain reaction that led back to the entrance of the Insectarium and right up Canal Street all the way to Bourbon. They were also more than happy to provide me with information about their supplier in case I was interested in hosting some lavish insect eating affair in my own home.

giant deep fried waterbugs

Along the walls in the Bug Buffet, they also had some photos of insect cuisine that I think I would find a lot more, ahem, challenging to consume. Things that would take more than one bite to eat and which I’m imagining would sort of ooze into one’s mouth like a fruit gusher…which aren’t even that pleasing as a fruit-based product, and would be even less palatable as bug goo. Look, I said I was working to set aside those prejudices, not that I was wholly successful and one step closer to being an all-around perfect human being.

And then, next to the door of the tiny termite cafe, they had this diorama that nearly made me lose my snacks. They can call it a roach’s christmas, but I feel a more apt title is “Christmas is ruined and for baby jesus’ sake, clean the kitchen” which I suppose is just a matter of semantics. 

roach christmas

cockroach tea

….and another hard no. Please and thank you, I would rather have lockjaw than drink whatever flakes off of a cockroach when it’s been boiled. If it works, though, a lifetime supply of tetanus remedy is really economical–you can step on rusty nails left and right and just keep using the same cockroach as those hardy little fuckers will survive the apocalypse and surely think nothing of a little boiling water, shaking it off and nonchalantly strolling away to go make a nest in your sandwich.

my god its full of stars

red crayfish

crawfisharmor 2

armor

stag beetle

put your hand in here if you dare

In the room dedicated to insect defenses, there was a box labeled “put your hand in here if you dare,” to teach you a lesson about how quickly a spider can strike. Both remembering the incident in the underground area, Jason passed, and I hovered in front of the box like the world’s largest and most afraid baby, moving my hand closer and then yanking it away. A kid witnessed this dilemma of adult babydom and rushed right over to cram his hand inside, screaming when the harmless puff of air went off and making everyone in the room collapse with laughter. Good thing it was him and not me, I may have thought. But never you worry, I got my comeuppance less than ten minutes later at their interactive video insect show, where the chair unexpectedly punches you in the back to simulate an insect sting and I shrieked like the devil himself had popped out of the ground in front of me and wanted to have a serious discussion about my potty mouth. So, if you’re counting, that’s no fewer than three screams in one museum, which is damn impressive for a museum. Maybe more on a crowded day at the bug buffet.

 

black butterfly

black yellow red butterfly

butterfly

butterfly damaged wing

yellow butterfly

After all of that screaming, I was definitely ready for a more chill time in the Insectarium’s butterfly garden. Unfortunately, the butterfly garden was where every shrieking kid in the greater New Orleans area decided to hang out, grabbing butterflies out of the air and bellowing at the top of their lungs, while the employees fruitlessly tried to tell people to look with their eyes and not their hands. I wonder if the same thing would be an issue in a roach room, or if everyone would still be screaming and touching, but for different reasons.

*The same cannot be said of those who have shellfish allergies–you may also be allergic to insects so eat with caution if you’re dead set on doing so.

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Mardi Gras World in New Orleans

 

mardi gras world entrance

“Sounded like some sort of…party going on in the background. Are any parties today, Skinner?”

“Nah. It’s not really a party town. Though if I remember correctly, they occasionally hold a function called Mardis…something.”

So last week on the blog, I talked a little about the various Mardi Gras functions–the krewes, the parades, and the balls. Today, I’m going to go a little more in-depth about the parades and what it takes to get one from concept to reality. To learn about that myself, I took a trip to Mardi Gras World, a working warehouse on the New Orleans waterfront.

touring mardi gras world

First, our group was led into a back room, fed a slice of king cake (any tour that starts off with cake is a good tour), and shown a video about the history of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Afterward, we were given free rein with a rack of costumes and the props scattered around the room. People didn’t seem as stoked about it as I was, but got into the spirit after I immediately popped out of my seat and slapped on a costume. As their once and future king, it was only right and natural that I set an example for the rest of the room to follow. Heavy is the head that wears the polyester crown.

dressed for mardi gras

dress up

serious king

Once we’d had our fun, we were led into the workshop, where Mardi Gras is made. Building Mardi Gras parade floats and props is a year round job. The floats themselves are owned and used exclusively by each krewe–they used to be drawn by teams of horses or mules, but are now essentially giant rolling tractor tanks. The naked floats cost around $80,000 apiece, and you need 14 floats minimum to have a Mardi Gras parade. Decorations on each can easily run upwards of another $10,000, so you’re looking at over 1.13 million dollars for a krewe’s first parade, and that’s excluding costumes and parade throws. This is not a cheap enterprise.  Now consider that there are around 70 krewes, and they each run their one parade one time over the course of the festival. One and done. There is a huge amount of money invested for a few miles of parading.

To help bring costs down, the props on the floats are rented rather than bought outright. When a krewe has decided on the theme for their parade and a general outline of what they want, they’ll call the prop warehouse and let them know, because it’s entirely possible that they’ll have something onsite that can be slightly reworked and reused, and that’s significantly cheaper than building a new prop from scratch. It also means that the krewe doesn’t have to store enormous props from year to year that they themselves might not be able to or want to reuse in a future parade. Some krewes, to save money, will also decorate their own floats, make their own costumes, and build their own props. Those who don’t rely on workshops like this one to make their ideas materialize.

floats

What’s involved in making a prop? First, a prop is sculpted in miniature in clay as a maquette. This can then be sliced to show the artists how to replicate it in a much larger scale. Many large props start as humble sheets of foam, which are glued together with expanding foam into a large stack. This resulting stack is light, carveable, and sandable. Once the final shape is achieved, the foam is then covered with paper mache, primed, and painted. Before it’s painted, it’s my understanding that it can also be used as a mold to create fiberglass replicas, so if they need multiples of the same prop, it’s much faster and easier to crack out a second fiberglass version than to create a second identical one from scratch.

carving foam

smoothing foam

reaper

not a closet

too much caffeine

making mardi gras float flowers

terminator

adorable bat

prop shop

float props in progress

styrofoam dust

ambassador of zululand

king

knight

spooky tree

Once the official tour had finished, we were given the opportunity to wander around the warehouse at our leisure, taking photos, observing the artists at work, and trying to take everything in (there’s so much stuff in the warehouse that it’s hard to see everything, much like House on the Rock). I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed with the feeling that this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life–helping create one of the biggest, artsiest parties in the world every year. That is, of course, if I had any artistic talent other than stringing together lots of curse words, which unfortunately doesn’t cause my inbox to be overflowing with cool job offers. But now that I know how it’s done, maybe I can try to put together some foam props for future Halloweens, ignoring the fact that the last time I used a can of expanding foam, I made such a mess and it enraged me so greatly that I wanted to throw the can into the sun. But you know, other than that, I’m good to go.

(There are lots of photos of amazing finished props under the cut, including King Kong, Cerberus, dragons, and gold leafed-everything. This post was getting photo-heavy as it was.)

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Cochon and Cochon Butcher in New Orleans, LA

Sometimes when you’re making a trip, you have to make some hard choices. Such as: it’s lunchtime in the lower Garden District of New Orleans and you’re standing on the corner in front of Cochon, where the ribs are reportedly so delicious they made a friend of a friend cry, and the equally-praised Cochon Butcher, where devotees swear by their perfect sandwiches. How does one choose?

porquenolosdos

We started at Cochon, where we ordered the aforementioned ribs, boudin balls, and fried alligator bites, plus a cold microbrew to wash it all down. You know, health food.

cochon hot sauce

The ribs were in fact excellent, a little sweet, a lot spicy, and so tender they practically leaped off the bone and down your throat. The watermelon pickle they were served with was an interesting complement, sharp and vinegary which helped temper a bit of the heat from the sauce. The boudin balls were exactly what one might expect from deep fried sausage–comforting and utterly decadent. The surprise standout was the alligator. I’ve tried it before at some roadside cafe in the Everglades (apparently I was so nonplussed I didn’t even blog about it–there wasn’t much to say at the time save for the fact that they were chewy, greasy, gross, and I was cool with stopping after eating one.) The alligator bites at Cochon were good. GREAT. Not overly chewy, not sodden with grease, but surprisingly light tasting, and the chili garlic mayo made them sing. I stopped after a few, but not because I wanted to, but because room had to be saved for our trip next door.

butcher sign

santa chewie  le pig mac at butcher

Cochon Butcher is the lower-key cool Portland cousin of Cochon, the one that doesn’t need reservations and has a wookiee hanging out in the dining room. Although a number of items on their menu looked incredibly tempting, we elected to split only one (because, frankly, a few more bites each were all we could handle): le pig mac. Two house-made pork sausage patties, cheese, special sauce, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Look at that stunner. The toasted, glossy bun that you’d only see on a fast food big mac in a commercial. The perfectly gooey cheese, the special sauce oozing out just so. That side of house-made pickles. You know those late night burger runs in your twenties, where you’ve been drinking and smoking and screaming with your friends in some dingy loud bar for the better part of the night, and you’re so desperately hungry that the crappiest burger tastes like food from the gods? This tastes like that, only sober, in the daytime. And when you take big ravenous bites like a starving wild dog right out on the street, the people next to you will be too busy doing the same to judge you.

Sometimes the best choice between two options is choosing both.

The Presbytere Museum in New Orleans

 

 

bottles from the ceiling

The Presbytere Museum is a study in contrasts, from the height of revelry to utter devastation, showcasing gobs of money being thrown around for fun and how the poorest suffered during one of the bleakest periods in New Orleans history. You see, the upper floor is dedicated to the krewes and history of Mardi Gras balls and parades, while the lower floor is dedicated to the destruction and horrors of Hurricane Katrina.

From the moment I stepped into the first room, I was overcome with emotion. Watching the news, reading about it online, I still had no concept of just how powerful the storm was. I still don’t, not really. But I do understand it better than I used to. When you’re exhausted from hearing something on the news, you can just turn it off and walk away. There is no turning this off. It’s staring you in the face. It’s a garage door that was spraypainted with a message about a dead dog–a beloved pet that the owner would find a way to return and bury. It’s a teddy bear that was so  coated in mud and silt that you wonder how it could have ever been soft, a child’s cherished possession. Your decision to walk away here is more meaningful, deliberate. Can you close off the sound of the wind whipping in the next room, ignore the 1600 bottles hanging from the ceiling representing the people who died in the floods and the hands of the first responders reaching out to help?

Ten years later, New Orleans is still struggling to recover from Katrina. I know, you got tired of hearing about it. There’s always more tragedy somewhere. A new worthy cause. There’s too much pain in the world for us to try and bear, much less comprehend it all. But if you can, spare a thought today for the people who didn’t make it out. For the people who did and lost everything and had no home and no family to come back to. For the people who tried to start anew somewhere else and were treated like second-class citizens because of their ‘refugee’ status, in their own country. For the people who came back and who are working hard to rebuild their homes and their lives. And help them if you can.

katrina fema garage door

destroyed teddy bear

One of the ways New Orleans is recovering from Katrina is via tourism, and there’s no greater draw for tourists to their city than Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, a French Catholic tradition, was first (simply) observed in the New Orleans area in 1699 (though obviously celebrated elsewhere before that time, it did not originate in New Orleans). The first recorded Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was held in 1837, and the celebration has grown significantly in scope since then, with more than 40 parades running through the city over the course of the event, each headed by a different krewe.

What is a krewe? It’s an association of people who pay membership dues in order to put on these grand events, and membership is determined by the krewes themselves–some limiting their members to relatives of previous members, and some are open to all who can afford to pay. Membership fees also vary wildly, depending on how sizeable and elaborate their parties and parade are. Each krewe hosts their own parade, decides their own theme, pays for everything associated with having a parade, from floats to costumes to throws. It’s my understanding that the only way to be in a Mardi Gras parade is to be a member of a krewe. Me? I want to roll with the Krewe of Barkus, mainly to be part of a dog gang and have a solid excuse to think about puppy costumes all day long.

krewe of barkus

butterfly float

hobgoblins of fearFrom the Mistick Krewe of Comus parade bulletin of 1891–their parade theme was Demonology and all their floats were badass, with badass names. Hobgoblins of Fear, Vampires of War, and the one my friends and I would’ve ridden on, the Harpies of Remorse.

mardi gras queen

zulu 2000

zulu king

astounding headdress

mardi gras costumeA mardi gras costume design sketch. I think a bunch of these would make a rad coloring book.

creepy wizard

 

seahorse costume

parade throwsThe average amount of parade throws for one person on one float.

 

Mardi Gras parades are the public celebrations for all to enjoy. Mardi Gras balls are highly exclusive social events, with elaborate invitations, fancy favors bestowed at the end of each dance by krewe members (some of which are so large and ungainly that they’re later mailed to the recipient’s home), a king and queen complete with crowns, wands, and jewelry so bedazzled they’d make Miss America weep with envy, and a strictly formal dress code. Such a thing would never fly in Seattle, where utilikilts are considered semi-formal. What I’m saying is, I am both super bummed that I have never been invited to a party like this and at the same time, I completely understand why no one with taste would ever invite me to a party like this.

 

mardi gras invitationIf you give me a piece of gilded china as an invitation to your party, you can be guaranteed of my attendance. I could be having dinner with the President that day and I’d be like “sorry, bro, can we reschedule? I’ve got a truly baller party to attend.” Once I told him about the china invitation, he’d understand.

crown and sceptre

 

the gifts of satanLiterally no reason to post this other than the name “The Gifts of Satan” makes me laugh every time I read it.

mardi gras carnival party favorThank you for the pleasure of this dance, here is an elaborate jeweled pin as a lovely parting gift.

           public restrooms    Also no reason to post these bathrooms other than they made me laugh.

 

New Orleans is a city that has known adversity and finds a way to party anyway, to celebrate life in a big way, to see a period of fasting ahead and say “fuck it, we’re going to eat and drink and party until we can hold no more”, a city that rolls with the punches and comes back bigger, stronger, and more vibrant. They’re still coming back from this last punch. But they are coming back.

Celebration in the Oaks in New Orleans

celebration in the oaks

December in New Orleans is delightful. Sunny and warm during the day, the evenings are made even more delightful with twinkling lights strung everywhere, music wafting down the streets, and the utter decadence of the Reveillon dinners served throughout the city. Although I was in the city to celebrate a friend’s birthday (and her birthday has been overshadowed her entire life by the, uh, more well-known birthday a few weeks later), I felt it wouldn’t be untoward of me to enjoy some New Orleans specific holiday events prior to her arrival, namely, Christmas in the Oaks.

Christmas in the Oaks is an annual event in New Orleans’ enormous City Park, an easy streetcar ride away from the French Quarter/Central Business District. Thousands of lights are strung on their oak trees over a twenty-five acre area, many with a unique New Orleans twist–the Saints’ “Who Dat?” tree, a Mr Bingle* parade float, and an animated light telling of The Cajun Night Before Christmas.

rocking horse closeup

rocking horse

jack in the box

lighted walkway

snowman float

friendly possum

dragon slide

gator

space shuttle

astronauts

spiders

under the sea

unicorn

giant reindeer

bees

dripping moss

For an additional five bucks, you can take a ride on a tiny train through other light displays. I (of course) don’t advocate doing anything that would get you arrested, but some people I ran into on the street strongly suggested that smoking a little Colorado air freshener on the train is a life-altering experience. The ride starts off slow but takes you through light displays that are otherwise inaccessible to visitors. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go back and revisit some of the areas that the train passed through–their dinosaur display was really impressive (complete with an erupting volcano and running raptors) as were their giant pirate ship battles and their flying santa with a team of gator reindeer, and I definitely would have liked to see them all closer  and in better detail as the train goes by pretty fast. Also, the ride gets a bit chilly, so if you go, learn from my mistakes and maybe bundle up in more than a thin hoodie.

trex

gator deer

gator reindeerI tried cramming my head into this gator’s mouth for yet another immature photo op, but sadly couldn’t make it work.

gatorclausI also couldn’t get up on Santa’s lap. Curse this lack of upper body strength! I was going to ask for a pony.

gator claus

*As further evidence that I can’t read, when I first saw the map of the park that included a Mr. Bingle zone, I said “Mr. Bungle’s here?!” No and no. Mr. Bingle is a snowman assistant to Santa Claus, a former mascot of the Maison Blanche department store, not the experimental band.

Highgate Cemetery

It took until our uphill walk from the tube station for it to strike me: people in London don’t put bumper stickers on their cars. It feels like a curious absence, as in the States, it seems as though every third car has a sticker proclaiming the size of their family, their belief in Jesus, and their even more fervent belief that their toddler could kick your toddler’s ass in karate. No truck seems complete without one or two giant American flags just in case its owner might otherwise forget in which country they reside, between arduous tasks like walking from a big box store to their parking spot, diagonally across three reserved spaces at the front of the lot. Once I noticed this difference, I kept a weather eye open for any form of bumper-based cling and spied nary a one for the rest of the trip. How was I supposed to know if a stranger was my ideological enemy without these physical labels? Thankfully, to calm my American sensibilities, I was headed to a place where nearly everyone was going to be wearing a label: the cemetery.

Despite writing an impassioned letter in high school to the editor of my hometown newspaper in defense of goths (this was long enough ago that reporters believed that if you wore all black to school, you were an incipient murderer of other, normal children), I’ve never been fully committed to the goth lifestyle. I enjoy the literature and the music, black clothes are my jam, I am inordinately fond of velvet, and I do belong to the members-only goth club in town (even if I never go anymore). But hanging out in cemeteries and dancing in the rain have always felt outside of my wheelhouse, potentially owing to their involvement of both the outdoors and physical activity, especially if that outdoor physical activity involves the dampening of my velvet frock. Just thinking about moist velvet makes my skin crawl. This was a very long-winded way of saying I don’t often visit cemeteries. St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans was an exception. Highgate would be another. 

Nearly ten years ago, I saw Neil Gaiman on his tour to promote The Graveyard Book. In the ensuing decade, I have forgotten the book nigh-entirely, save for the fact that its setting was inspired by Highgate Cemetery. Luckily, it’s a fast, breezy read compared to the dense twelve hundred page tomes I’ve been reading lately, and thus I was able to reacquaint myself easily enough. This is when I discovered that the book references Highgate Cemetery west, and I’d visited Highgate Cemetery east, the western side being open only to guided tours booked in advance on weekdays. Doh! Nevertheless, “a sludge of fallen leaves, a tangle of ivy…and fallen angels stared up blindly” (231) could just as easily describe the eastern side, at least when you move beyond the very manicured main walkway.

Entrance to the west side

I know that those marks are IHS with the letters overlaid as a religious signifier, but in my heart, it’s a special dollar sign that only the really rich can use.

look I’m not saying I’m just saying

This angel legit looks like she’s trying to decide which toppings she wants on her sandwich

If there’s a dog I will find him

I told you I would find the dog

The wilder Highgate got, the more I liked it, plants exploding in a riot of life in this place of the dead, plunging their roots into the heart of our remains and springing forth as something new. Not gone, just changed; even as time, decay, and plant matter work to obscure and reclaim the stones themselves, removing the identities and labels people clung to in life, so that in death they may finally rest in peace with their neighbors.  

Our route to and from Highgate also took us through Waterlow park, which has several lovely ponds and was donated to the city by Sir Sydney Waterlow as “a garden for the gardenless”. These gardens also featured some benches for the benchless, of which we availed ourselves while watching some waterfowl paddle around. Sitting on a bench to watch ducks, I’m already vacationing as if I were in my twilight years. This must be very compelling content. 

A common coot, I’m not certain at which point in its life cycle it officially becomes an old coot. Hit me up, ornithologists. 

The voodoo that you do

le grande zombie

a gris gris for love

black cat juju

gator man

horse skull

human skulls

 

 

masks

papa la bas altar

rougarou

statue with mardi gras beads

statue with offerings

voodoo doll instructions

voodoo mask

voodoo museum

voodoo wishing stump

zombie whip

The Voodoo Museum was my consolation prize on my last day in New Orleans. I’d first and foremost planned to visit the Musee Conti Wax Museum before it permanently closed at the end of December, but the timing simply did not work out–we were either doing something else or there wasn’t enough time left in the day for a proper visit. So here it was, the last day of my trip, my very last opportunity, the museum was supposed to be open, and I waited outside. And waited. And waited. And tried to call. And waited. Eventually, someone came to the door and said that the museum probably wouldn’t be opening that day as they were having problems with their electricity. So I suppose it just wasn’t meant to be, although I can’t help but be a bit disappointed about it.

Instead, I set my sights on the Voodoo Museum, a three room museum packed to the gills with altars, gris gris, and just enough information about each thing to pique your curiosity. For $5, we had the run of the place, learning about the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo (in essence quite similar with some differences–the former led by a voodoo queen and associated with the catholic church, the latter led by a spiritualist bishop in a separate church). That’s right–you read Catholic church. Voodoo as a spiritual practice is often associated with paganism and witchcraft especially as contrasted with white christianity, but Marie Laveau herself was a devout Catholic, ministering to the sick and dying of yellow fever, which plagued the city over the course of her lifetime.

As with all of these niche museums, it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s bunk. For instance, in one section, they claimed that voodoo was a dancing religion, the purpose of which is to become possessed by the spirits via the transforming ecstasy of dancing, and that the musical rhythms call the spirits down which cause the dancers to eat, drink, sing, dance, smoke, and engage in sexual relations, and that a West African word for sex, jass, is the etymology behind “jazz”, which doesn’t actually seem to be true. So does that make the whole thing about voodoo being the “do it if it feels good, the spirits made me do it” religion suspect, or just the last bit? And that thing about Voodoo being Catholic and Hoodoo not…is that applicable to voodoo in general or just Louisiana voodoo or just Louisiana voodoo post Marie Laveau? Based on my limited internet research, it would seem that it was Marie Laveau who intermingled Catholicism and Voodoo and that people have carried on in her stead since, keeping and discarding the aspects that they personally believe properly align with the faith, which would make my previous statement about the difference between Hoodoo and Voodoo also suspect. I would have to do a lot more in-depth reading to make any definitive claims one way or another about the veracity of any information in the museum. The important thing is that now I know where to buy a zombie whip and how to make a proper voodoo doll.