Griggs: Dateline New Orleans

David H. Griggs standing on the levee at the French Quarter Festival, with a freighter sailing past on the Mississippi. Courtesy photo


Formerly of Los Alamos

A Month In New Orleans

I sat on the levee and watched the broad Mississippi River flow past. I munched on a succulent crawfish pie, and nursed a refreshing WWOZ Mango Freeze.

Behind me on the Accura Stage, Allen Toussaint entertained the French Quarter Festival with such old favorites as Southern Nights, Summertime, Mother-in-Law, Fortune Teller, and A Certain Girl. The deck of the ocean-going freighter towered over us as it sailed past on its way downriver.

What a great place in which to spend a whole month!

When it rains, dance in the mud: two young girls at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Courtesy photo

New Orleans – the nation’s most European city with its reputation for sin and excess, the revelry of Mardi Gras and the typical port city reputation for vice, the city of Anne Rice and vampires, of James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, and Tennessee Williams and his ”Streetcar Named Desire”.

The city has so much music in its blood that on the waterfront the paddle wheeler “Natchez” plays a daily concert with its steam calliope on its top deck that reverberates throughout the French Quarter. And food: this was not going to be the diet tour.

French Quarter Festival

The French Quarter Festival, usually the second weekend in April, features four-days of local music showcased on over twenty stages scattered throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans. It is billed as the largest free music event in the United States.

My dance card this year included Allen Toussaint, The Dixie Cups, the Iguanas, the New Orleans Kletzmer All-Stars, Irma Thomas, Amanda Shaw, Eric Lindell, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Colin Lake, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr. & the Wild Magnolias, David & Roselyn, and Patrice Fisher and Arpa (jazz group with a harp as the lead instrument), Rebirth Brass Band, Panorama Jazz Band.

Tips for the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest:

  • For the French Quarter Festival, you really want to stay in the French Quarter (or really close to it) so that you can walk to all the events. Book your hotel room early: a year or two in advance would be a good idea. Staying in the Quarter is not as important for the Jazz Fest, but still not a bad idea.
  • Bring a collapsible chair with you every day. Seating is not provided. Buy the chair in New Orleans and leave it there when you depart, so you are not hassled with carrying it on the airplane in either direction.
  • Bring a raincoat or poncho and an umbrella.
  • Sunscreen. A hat might not be a bad idea, too.
  • Money. New Orleans does an excellent job of making sure you don’t have to lug it around for very long. There are plenty of ATM machines.
  • If you have to get around in the city: walk or take a bus, streetcar, or taxi. Do not drive a car. You really do not want to waste time trying to locate places to park or to find where they have towed your vehicle.
  • Water: drink lots of it, so that you don’t get dehydrated by the heat and humidity. Remember that water is a key ingredient in ice cubes, beer, wine, Mint Juleps, Mimosas, Ramos Gin Fizzes, Sazeracs, Hurricanes, Absinthe Frappes … as well as café au lait at Café du Monde on Jackson Square. Sign on a streetcar: “Breast Feeding in New Orleans: Eat Local. Anytime. Anywhere.”

Jazz Fest

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) is held on the last weekend of April (Friday-Sunday) and the first weekend of May (Thursday-Sunday) each year at the Fair Grounds Race Course, a horse racing track located in historic Mid-City. Gates open at 11 a.m, and shows are over by 7:30 p.m.

The following are the musical acts that I was able to catch. Remember that there are 11 stages and tents going on all seven days of the festival, so this is just a fraction of what was available: Kumbuka African Dance & Drum Collective, Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band, The Who, Sweet Crude, Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band, Grupo Sensación, The Iguanas, Zulu Gospel Male Ensemble, The Last Straws Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs, Honey Island Swamp Band, Colin Lake, J. Monque ‘D Blues Band, David & Roselyn, Chicago, Mississippi Rail Company, Marcia Ball, Elton John, Brandon Moreau & Cajungrass, Buddy Guy, and my favorite the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra,

On the last Sunday, I wandered into the Gospel Tent to listen to Cynthia Girtley, the New Orleans Gospel Diva, belt out a wonderful set of numbers, including “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on”. Imagine my surprise when I met old friends Jane and Dick Padberg from Dixon, N.M., in the pew behind me! We chatted about old times, their recent trip to Guatemala, their grandson the swashbuckling fencer, and promised to meet again at Happy Hour at Vivác Winery.

My favorite food dish this year was Crawfish Strudel. House-made phyllo dough is stretched and filled with a mixture that includes the Holy Trinity (onions, green bell peppers, and celery), garlic, thyme, green onions, parsley, sour cream, and crawfish. The dough is brushed with butter and olive oil and baked. As they say in Louisiana, “To die for!”

Other delicacies that I consumed with gusto included Jama Jama (sautéed spinach) and Fried Plantains, beignets and iced café au lait, creole stuffed bread, fried soft-shell crab po-boy, crawfish sack, oyster patties, crawfish beignets, boiled crawfish, corn on the cob, crawfish gumbo, boiled shrimp, oysters on the half shell, muffalettas, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

New Orleans and Water

It’s raining so hard, it’s really coming down

Sittin’ by my window, watchin’ the rain fall to the ground

This is the time, I’d love to be holding you tight

I guess I’ll just go crazy tonight.

           –Irma Thomas: “It’s Raining”

New Orleans is located about as far south as you could find land to build a port city, and even at that it took some engineering. Tulane University graduate A. Baldwin Wood invented huge screw pumps in 1913 to drain the swampy land. Some of his pumps have been in continuous use ever since. Wood later consulted on projects around the world, including the reclamation of huge areas of land from the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands.

The original city was built on natural levees along the river. Now, much of the New Orleans is built on land reclaimed from swamps. New Orleans gets dumped with an average annual rainfall of 64 inches, and has the highest relative humidity among big US cities. Draining the swamps was critical to eliminating the periodic human devastation caused by yellow fever, typhoid fever, and cholera.

On the other hand, draining the swamps has resulted in land subsidence issues such as gas line breakage (and explosions) and highway damage. Also, the man-made alterations have not been without problems, as was painfully demonstrated in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina painted a bullseye on the city.

The Mississippi River is the chief river of the largest drainage system on the North American continent. Water comes all the way from the Rockies in the West, Canada in the North, and the Appalachian Mountains in the East. The Port of New Orleans combined with the neighboring Port of South Louisiana just upstream comprise the largest port in the United States and one of the 10 largest in the world. In addition to ocean-going freighters and tankers, the port also handles about 50,000 barges and 700,000 cruise passengers per year, with ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian cruise lines.

Adiós to the Big Easy

It is so easy to relax into life in the Big Easy (another nickname for New Orleans). There is always good music, delicious food, and great people. If nothing else: ride the St. Charles Streetcar to Carrollton Avenue and enjoy a croissant and a café latte at La Madeleine; roam small bookstores like Octavia Books in Uptown; take the ferry from the end of Canal Street across the Mississippi to Algiers Point and back.

Alas, the time came in early May when I had to leave. I boarded the Amtrak train “The Crescent” toward Washington, D.C. I would like to express my thanks to Daniel and James (and their white cat Doofus, who generally ignored me) for their gracious hospitality once again at their home in Metairie.

Editor’s Note: Since retiring from Los Alamos County in September 2013, David Griggs has been traveling the world. He submits columns and photographs of his travels to the Los Alamos Daily Post for publication.

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