Our previous knowledge of the French Quarter in New Orleans consisted of a few restaurants, Jackson Square, and the honky-tonk joints on Bourbon Street. So imagine our delight last week when we came across a chalkboard sign near St. Louis Cathedral announcing guided visits to "the other side" of the historic area given twice a day by the Louisiana State Museum.
Our guide Ed started out by comparing creole gumbo to the city itself. Like its iconic soup, New Orleans has been a melting pot of cultures since the earliest days of its creation. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century European explorers such as Spaniard Hernando de Soto and later Frenchman Robert de La Salle traveled around the Mississippi River basin. Then in 1718 a French colonizer with the aristocratic name of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded the city, naming it for the Duc d’Orléans, the regent governing France at the time. Bienville, as he is called, also implemented Louis XIV’s strict Code Noir to govern slaves in the colony. The historic French Quarter was the original settlement site and is at times still referred to by its French name: the Vieux Carré (or “Old Square”). Next January the city will celebrate an important historic milestone: the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans during the so-called War of 1812, which marks the last armed engagement between our country and Great Britain.
Building on the swampy land proved a challenge for the early settlers and a gumbo of constructions sprang up. Many long-standing structures were made of wood (tempting termites even today), but others were constructed of river brick or the more sturdy lake brick. An important nineteenth century developer of this central area was Micaela Almonester Pontalba, wealthy daughter of a Spanish father and French mother, who designed apartment buildings lining Jackson Square to look like Place des Vosges in Paris. Her initials, AP, can be seen in the wrought iron work of the balconies on the square. Cast iron galleries seen throughout the Quarter often have supports going all the way to the sidewalks. Other edifices have a series of iron girdles called “end caps” which traverse them horizontally and add stability on the shifting soil. The guide also pointed out smaller “creole cottages” where white men used to house their common law wives, free women of color known as placées.
While in New Orleans, our guide insisted that visitors sample the “five food groups.” The aforementioned gumbo, served simply or extravagantly depending on the type of eatery, has several variations mainly with seafood or andouille sausage and chicken. Fried fritters called beignets are found just about everywhere, but were made famous by the Café du Monde on Decatur Street. A Sicilian treat from a section of town called “little Palermo” is the muffuletta sandwich; imagine a round bread loaded with cold cuts and a tangy olive salad. The final two foods he suggested are a crayfish boil (which locals pronounce like “ball”) and pralines (pronounced “prah-leens”), a fudge-like brown sugar candy with toasted pecans. Whether you are up for tasting the “food groups” or not, New Orleans is a gastronomic paradise for just about everyone.
One of my favorite American cities, New Orleans never disappoints. Having the opportunity to see it from a resident’s perspective by way of this walking tour made it even more attractive.