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Memories of New Orleans

Thomas Wolfe titled his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, and my question was, “Can I go home to New Orleans without Lev?” No doubt I missed New Orleans, and I had gone back with close friends on his birthday in 2010, 11 months after his death. When he was still living, I went back alone at least twice; but while I am fine by myself in London, other cities in the U.S., even Hong Kong, New Orleans is not a place for the lonely and the alone.

When the first announcement of a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation trip to New Orleans came, I ignored it. I’m not a tourist in New Orleans. But I didn’t forget it. During the summer I changed my mind. I would go back.

Wolfe asked, “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town…was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”

CW group at Ursuline Convent

It was time for me to go home again. Surrounded by people I had shared so many trips with, I would see New Orleans through different lens.

Though my Tory ancestors stopped in New Orleans in 1776 en route from Massachusetts to Natchez, my great-great-grandmother moved there in 1860 and my great-grandmother returned as a widow with four young children around 1882, my family moved away on my sixth birthday. I grew up 400 miles northwest. But Texarkana was never home, always a temporary stop, a place I eagerly left without a backward glance.

New Orleans was home—home to my grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins, great-aunts and -uncles. Soul’s home to Mama and me, probably to Daddy and my older brother as well. I started riding the train alone to spend the summers there when I was only 10. I cried every time I had to leave. Christmases in Texarkana were sad, lonely affairs. Those rare Christmases when we rode the train all night on Christmas Eve and back again the next night were my true Christmases.

I introduced Lev to New Orleans and my large extended family shortly after our marriage, and we returned almost every year, usually on his birthday. Gradually, family members died or moved away. Today only a few cousins live in the suburbs. But we quickly established our routine, centered around New Orleans food and music.

We flew in on Thursday morning in time for a taxi to deliver us to the Bon Ton Café for a lunch of crawfish and other Cajun dishes, ending with the world’s best bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Our dinner choices were usually Brigtsen’s, Upperline and Restaurant August.

We always spent one day walking Magazine Street, ending at Casamento’s (as long as the month had an “r” in it) for oysters on the half-shell washed down with Dixie beer and fried oyster loaves. On the edge of the French Quarter, we enjoyed oysters again at Felix’s and then combed Royal Street for French country antiques.

Henry Stern was our teacher. He had opened his antiques store after World War I, and he spent hours showing us his stuff—not just the first floor, visible to all the tourists—but up the freight elevator to two more floors of exquisite furniture and over to Chartres Street, where he had a three-story warehouse. After he died in his 90s, we started buying from the Shapiros at Royal Antiques. They’re part of the Keil family, still in business 110 years after founding. The antiques in my house are my souvenirs, my memories, my stories of more than 40 years of going home.

Commander's Palace

Our trips always ended with a stop at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District for a Sunday jazz brunch, before we headed back to the airport for the trip home.

During our early trips we stayed in small French Quarter hotels converted from 19th c. townhouses, but maintenance and service were inconsistent, so we switched to the Royal Orleans (now Omni) because of its superior location in the Quarter. We checked out the Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street when it opened but were not comfortable after dark with the walk down Iberville Street to the Quarter.

Finally, we settled in at the Windsor Court on the edge of the business district near the Mississippi—a long walk or short cab ride from the Quarter. Before Katrina it was the best hotel in the city, and though it has faded somewhat since, its service, food and public spaces are still remarkable.

That’s when we discovered chef John Besh and his Restaurant August across the street. We walked around the corner to Mother’s for roast beef poor-boys and further down to the Bon Ton for lunch—no more leaving our suitcases in the bar. The hotel is also convenient to trendy new chef-owned restaurants and the World War II Museum in the Warehouse District. We started staying an extra day, relying on the concierge’s recommendations for new restaurants to try.

Could I Return Home Alone?

Like so many other firsts in my years as a widow, I did not know what to expect on this trip. I did not know how I would react. This was so very different. Like a child, I was—at least emotionally—on the edge of my seat on every excursion, anticipating what I was about to see. Were my memories accurate? Were the landmarks still there? How much had changed? The river. The streetcars on St. Charles. The oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The first glimpse of St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square.

The soft, distinctive New Orleans accents more like Brooklyn and Boston than the rest of the South—no two speakers exactly alike, varying by ethnic background, neighborhood and class—were comforting music to me, awakening more memories than I could have guessed.

Lucullus Antiques

Royal Street is more touristy, crowded, noisy now—with souvenir shops, galleries, bars and street musicians—but a few familiar antique stores are still in business, and I went in to say hello to old acquaintances at the premier French Antique Shop and the Keil businesses—Royal, Keil and Moss. Antiques de Provence has expanded, and M.S. Rau has upgraded, a museum with price tags. Lucullus, owned by Corpus Christi native Peter Dunne and famed for its culinary antiques, is still in business one street over, on Chartres.

The Value of Group Travel

I have written here on the value of traveling with nonprofit groups. An institution like Colonial Williamsburg can open doors that are tightly closed to individuals. Curators and directors personally showed us their museums, homes and collections; and Ph.D. faculty from Tulane University served as our guides. I know my family history, but family history is micro-. As a tourist in my hometown, my understanding was greatly enriched by the macro-history provided by the scholars and experts. CW interpreters and re-enactors Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, in costume, brought history to life…and stopped pedestrian traffic during walks through the French Quarter. Watching other diners’ reactions when we entered the Napoleon House with Napoleon was one of the funniest experiences of the entire trip.

Pitot House

I loved making new discoveries as we retraced familiar paths—the River Road and the loop along Bayou St. John to City Park and then Carrollton through my neighborhood and St. Charles to the Garden District and lunch at Commander’s Palace. Nothing was boring repetition.

Highlights among my discoveries: Evergreen and Whitney, twin plantations along the German Coast on the west side of the Mississippi; Houmas House and Destrehan on the east side; Pitot House, an 18th c. Creole house on Bayou St. John; a gorgeously restored Greek Revival mansion in the Garden District; Ursuline Convent, the oldest European structure in the Mississippi Valley; the National Park site of the battlefield where Andrew Jackson defeated the English in the final battle of the War of 1812; and the new professionalism at the vastly improved New Orleans Museum of Art.

Even with all that and more, there was so much more I would have liked to have seen again. The city is thriving, and the Quarter felt like Mardi Gras or the Sugar Bowl. We had excellent food in a variety of new and old French Quarter restaurants. Classic restaurants Antoine and Brennan’s both served admirable dinners, along with Muriel’s, new to me, catty-corner from Jackson Square.

Lunch choices were a nice surprise—Tableau, a beautifully restored restaurant owned by Dickie Brennan, catty-corner from Jackson Square at the opposite end; and Napoleon House, in an elegant private dining room above the famous old bar with its peeling plaster, owned now by Ralph Brennan. (The Brennans have split into multiple factions, with Ella [Commander’s], Dickie and Ralph all owning restaurants in the city. It’s hard to keep them straight.)

Sure. I missed ordering my favorite New Orleans dishes from the menus at my favorite New Orleans restaurants. I missed my favorite hotel, a quiet escape from the noise and crowds in the Quarter these days. I missed wandering at will through the Louisiana State Museum sites at Jackson Square. On my own, I check to see if my gggrandmother still hangs in the Cabildo and if her daughters still hang in the 1850 House. I didn’t get to say hello on this trip. Perhaps I need to muster the courage to go back on my own—or talk someone into making a foodie trip back. Any takers?

If You Plan a Trip

Hotels and restaurants change over time, and many new ones have opened in New Orleans in the last few years. Please do not take my list of old favorites as recommendations. Do your own research.

Here is the new Condé Nast Traveler Gold List of hotels. In addition, check out the newly reopened Ponchartrain Hotel, once a distinguished hotel on St. Charles near the Garden District.

While there are many lists for “best restaurants,” I disagree with most of them. When I am in New Orleans, I want New Orleans food—Creole, Cajun, Gulf seafood. Here is the best list I found. Another reliable way to find good restaurants is by the top chefs, most of whom own several restaurants. And finally, as I mentioned earlier, there are all the Brennan restaurants, always reliable though a bit too market-driven for my taste. I much prefer Commander’s Palace, a classic with possibly the best ambiance in the city, to Brennan’s for weekend brunch.

With Napoleon

Photos, from top to bottom: The iconic view across Jackson Square to St. Louis Cathedral, flanked by the Cabildo and Presbytere, from the Mississippi River levee; Colonial Williamsburg travelers at the Ursuline Convent; Commander’s Palace, famed Garden District restaurant; culinary antiques at Lucullus on Chartres Street; Bayou St. John from the 18th c. Pitot House balcony; with Napoleon (Mark Schneider) on Canal Street.