Ask anyone who knows me: I am the LAST person who would visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Well, it just goes to show that anything is possible, if it is done in the right spirit of adventure and with a fearless traveling companion who knew how to negotiate her way around a party city. I've been in NOLA for one day of Mardi Gras so far, and I've enjoyed every minute.
Here are some lifetime firsts from my inaugrual trip to New Orleans (because I definitely will come back): Catching a jello shot one handed (with my left hand no less!) as it was tossed from a balcony--to great applause. (Grabbing a few strands of Mardi Gras beads raining down from above was a piece of cake by comparison.) Eating a piping hot beignet at Cafe du Monde. Being stuck in a human traffic jam with body-painted people in various states of undress on Bourbon Street. I could never do that again and be happy--but am equally happy to have done it once. And tasting Miss Loretta's freshly made sugar-coma-inducing rum pralines--best in New Orleans for 35 years. . . and counting!
I have never liked parties, because I have always been that shy teetotaler in the corner who can't imagine what I could possibly have to say to anyone in the room. Since Mardi Gras is one big party, I imagined my usual social anxiety amplified out of control. How wrong I was! Turns out, when everyone has left both their inhibitions and their sobriety at home, you don't have to worry about what to say, because other people take care of it. We had at least four unsolicited offers for personalized tours of the city from a wide range of helpful NOLA citizens, and were greeted by almost everyone we encountered while exploring the city. Every bar door, balcony, and city stoop was filled with revelers or watchers, and everyone had something welcoming to say. From an unexpected high five--just because, to a plethora of "Happy Mardi Gras!" greetings, we felt welcomed with open arms.
The additional bonus of walking through such an architecturally beautiful city to a throbbing soundtrack of joy couldn't help but render even the most cynical human being grateful to be alive. Pre-Civil War houses of handmade bricks whose ornate wrought iron balconies were festooned with Mardi Gras decor brought a smile to my lips, and on every street corner drummers, tuba players, washboard strummers, bluegrass bands filled with air with the invitation to throw my cares and inhibitions to the wind and join in the joy that is Mardi Gras.
And, as if that wasn't enough, the people themselves have been a visual feast. The costumes alone are worth the price of admission--ranging from elegantly sequined masks and elaborate feathered hats to creative yet minimalistic upper body painting, everyone came dressed for excess. Purple and leprechaun green apparently are the colors of Mardi Gras, so most people resembled rather inebriated leprechauns. My personal favorites were just heading out to play as I was heading to sleep--a very futuristic foursome whose handmade costumes looked like they came straight out of a 50's sci-fi B movie set, and whose creativity elicited applause all the way down the street.
I hadn't been in town ten minutes when I heard my mother's voice in my head saying, "Well, if you're going to be at Mardi Gras, the very least you could do is to look the part." And since donning a costume has never been in my adult repertoire, I settled for accumulating an immense assortment of Mardi Gras beads of which I have become duly proud. Wearing them felt like wearing a vast assortment of colorful Hawaiian leis, which I always love when visiting the islands, and the moment I put them on, I was greeted with smiles. It made me wish that all of my party anxiety could be assuaged by the simple wearing of some appropriate festive attire.
But, in truth, Mardi Gras beads shouldn't really be bought. They should be received. And since I was unlikely to perform the chest-baring rituals required to get large quantities of beads thrown at me from balconies, I was thrilled to receive the nicest string of beads of the day from the owner of Galatoire's, when we dined there for a long, civilized, and delicious late lunch.
Located on Bourbon Street right in the midst of the mayhem, Galatoire's proved to be an air-conditioned oasis of culinary calm. At 2PM when we arrived, the dining room was relatively quiet--its dark green wallpaper stenciled with gold fleur de lis conveying a century of elegance in gracious counterpoint to the sheen of the white tile floors and crisp white tablecloths.
We were greeted by Shannon, a vivacious and pretty tuxedoed waitress, whose cheerful and unlined face belied the fact that she had worked there for 20 years. I explained our mission--to revisit the restaurants in my parents' cookbook. "You're Vincent Price's daughter? I was told you were coming. My grandmother went on one date with your father in high school," Shannon exclaimed. "She was very beautiful, but very shy--which made her seem aloof to many people." (I could sympathize.) "She looked like Vivian Leigh. Her name was Marguerite Winkelmeyer."
Can you believe it? Here we were, Marguerite's granddaughter and I, connecting 75 years later! It seemed amazing to us both. (I told her that my father likely had no problem with a shy woman, but that perhaps the fact that Marguerite was his own mother's name might have been the deterrent.)
Shannon had none of her grandmother's supposed reticence. She was charming, funny, engaging, knowledgeable, and attentive. She made our meal an event--expertly guiding us through the menu. I showed her the recipe for Stuffed Eggplant in the cookbook, which she compared to its current incarnation (they now broil not boil the eggplant, and garnish with a bechamel sauce). And she walked us through her suggestions--averring that while she would never deter someone from ordering what they wanted, she might arch an eyebrow if she felt they were ordering badly.
Based on Shannon's expertise, we ordered two appetizers--Crab Maison and Oysters en Brochette. Shannon explained that while Washington state may have the most famous raw oysters, Louisiana has the best cooking oysters. These came wrapped in bacon, breaded and fried, swimming in a meuniere butter sauce. Wow! They truly were excellent. But for my money, the best was the Crabmeat Maison--which was a delectable salad of lump Louisiana crabmeat prepared in a very light caper mustard aioli that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the flavor of the crab. Since crab is right up there in my favorite foods, I was in heaven! I thought that this would be a wonderful dish to make at home, but Shannon pointed out that it just wouldn't be the same without fresh Louisiana crabmeat. I'm afraid she's right.
For our main courses, Cynthia (who was trained at New York City's French Culinary Institute and whose gustatory expertise was invaluable yesterday) and I ordered the Stuffed Eggplant as well as the Trout Amandine and the Crab Sardou. The latter two were strongly recommended by Shannon, who seemed less enthusiastic about the eggplant with which my parents had been so taken. She was right! The trout was a sea trout--something I had never had--white speckled sea trout, which is a fluffy light fish with a perfect flavor. Breaded and served in butter sauce swimming with sliced almonds, it might be almost the perfect fish. But for my money, the Crab Sardou was the winner! Sitting on a bed of lightly creamed spinach, the lump crabmeat was piled atop two perfectly cooked artichoke hearts and then topped with an absolutely amazing Hollandaise--light yet rich and lemony. The eggplant, which Shannon described as "comfort food" was just that. A huge serving of breaded eggplant mixed with Parmesan, crab, and shrimp, and topped with a rich Bechamel. I could feel the calories settling on my hips just looking at it.
Since this was to be our only meal in a day of walking (while carrying two copies of the cookbook through crowds in the already steamy New Orleans heat), we ate with gusto. At the end of the meal, the two gentlemen who had been dining at the table next to us came over and asked whether we were food critics. "You were freaking INTO that meal," one of them said. "Yes, we were!", we replied enthusiastically. Which felt wonderful to say! I truly did enjoy every minute of it.
During the course of the meal, we were introduced to Mr Gooch, whose great-uncle had opened Galatoire's in 1907. A gracious gentleman, he gave me my prize possession of the day, some gold Mardi Gras beads with a large plastic pendant in the shape of the Galatoire's facade. We were also introduced to Blue, who had cooked our meal, and who has been a chef at Galatoire's for 25 years. Anyone who can make Hollandaise like that certainly has job security.
One of my fears about heading out on the road to revisit the past was that the restaurants would have become corporate and uncaring. Whatever may happen over the next two weeks, this certainly was not the case at Galatoire's. We were welcomed like family, and left feeling as though we could return any time to open arms and a perfect dining experience.
As we headed out into the body-pounding fracas of Bourbon Street, I felt grateful to have chosen Galatoire's as my first stop on this road trip--exemplifying Old World grace, a tradition of excellence, the kind of heartfelt welcome that can only happen in the South, and food to, well, live for! Happy Mardi Gras everyone!
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