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Smackdown 26: New Orleans, mon amour

Daily Gullet Staff

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<img align="left" src="http://egullet.com/imgs/golden_gully.gif" width="185" height="290" hspace="5">The winners of the eGullet Literary Smackdown are back where they belong: above the fold at the Daily Gullet. It’s more cost-effective than self-publishing your stuff: thousands of connoisseurs pull it up with their morning mug of joe, your mailbox will be clogged with offers from agents (if there were any justice in the world!), and you can e-mail it to your tenth grade English teacher, your parents and your entire address book. But there’s more! The First Prize Winner receives a fabulous prize in cookbook form.

This Smackdown topic, New Orleans, Mon Amour, was conceived during the dark days and nights of Hurricane Katrina, and asked for memories of our experiences in the Crescent City -- every trip a honeymoon. To read all the entries click here.

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Third Prize: Pam Claughton

It was almost fifteen years ago that I visited New Orleans. I was 25 at the time, young and excited to be going to Mardi Gras for the first time. I'd met Nicole a few years earlier, when we'd waitressed together at a lobster house on the Cape. She was a Louisiana girl, and when her relationship with a Cape native ended abruptly, she moved home. By the time I visited her, in her home in Crowley, LA, a few hours South of New Orleans, she was 22 and an old married lady with two kids. Everywhere I went with Nicole, people asked me, "where's your husband?" It was assumed that I had one. In Louisiana, to not have one, at age 25 was quite shocking.

Nicole had a grandmother who lived in a tidy area on the outskirts of New Orleans. While her husband babysat, Nicole, her cousin Mary, and I drove into the city, and fell into the magic of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. We had no plans, other than to eventually make our way to Grandma's house to sleep. Fortunately, Grandma was away for the week. She would have been less than enthused to find her house full of people, which it was, by the time we ended up there.

In the meantime, we explored and savored the city. We drank multi-colored tall hurricane drinks, and walked from bar to bar, collecting strings of beads, and laughing at what some people would do to get them. We watched in fascination as people in front of us stopped at one of the many helium vendors, and paid money to essentially do drugs on the street. We ate red beans and rice out of little paper cups, sold from street vendors for a few dollars. We danced, and sang along with the band, and met people, and somehow they ended up following us home to Grandma's.

The next day, when everyone went their separate ways, we returned to the French Quarter, and started anew, energized by rich chicory coffee and sweet beignets from Cafe Du Monde.

Mardi Gras, and New Orleans was a blur that lasted for several days, and etched itself in my mind forever. The music, the food, the comraderie, and the feel and smell of New Orleans is indescribable. I've been saying for the past 15 years that I couldn't wait to go back. But I haven't yet, and that is something that I truly regret. My heart goes out to this city, and I wish them a speedy recovery.

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Second Prize: Carrot Top

A Fabulous Prize. New Orleans as it stood was a Fabulous Prize all in itself.

In running through the city of New Orleans in memory, I see streets. New Orleans. . . more than any other city, is made of streets. Streets that demand attention, streets that co-operate with each other in a secret plan to lead a persons feet onward and onward, round and through the city. Streets with distinct personalities, each one. Wide boulevards link medium size thoroughfares which link cobblestone paths which tie into paths through green places. Streets that either burst at the seams with music, life, smells of food and laughter. . .or streets that are just ready to burst with life should the right moment be found.

<img align="right" src="http://egullet.com/imgs/golden_gully.gif" width="185" height="290" hspace="5">The streets of wealth in New Orleans do not hide their face from the poverty so very near by. . .and the streets of poverty have a richness of their own variety.

What made it so in New Orleans? The music? The bars? The idea of Mardi Gras all year long?

It could be the aromas of the foods alone that made of New Orleans a place that nobody would or could ever help loving. The boulevards, the roads, the paths, the avenues, they all sang with the aromas of food. Rich food, spicy food, food that caressed the soul in the same way that the sultry sweat of the heat on the sidewalks would melt one almost in place while wandering those streets.

You walk slowly in New Orleans, unless you are crazy. There is too much to see, smell, feel, hear. Can you taste the coffee? Can you smell the pastries and breads? I can. I even imagine that I can smell the steamed crawfish, their shiny little heads nodding together in a chiascuro brightness, dumped out rolling out in a rosy gathering of happy jollility on that battered wooden picnic table covered with its generous swath of thick brown paper, the yeasty toast of smell of the pitcher of beer literally making my tastebuds seem to jump right out of my mouth. . . at that small shack alongside the highway out of town.

The place that was New Orleans is still there. It is there in our tastebuds, our minds, our songs. The place that is New Orleans is still there, for it was a sort of magic that made it. It grew from that particular place on earth to be what it was, and what a Fabulous Prize it was, too. And soon, when the land reclaims its own after the floods, when it heals as it does after a field is burned, the seeds that are New Orleans will push up from the blackened soil again. Strong seeds, seeds as vital as they were before if not more so. For how could it be otherwise? For New Orleans has the magic of Singular Place, and it is a place that will always be one magnificent gift, one Fabulous Prize. Just wait and see.

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First Prize: Priscilla

I think about New Orleans often. I think about walking from the streetcar to the Audubon Zoo and being lucky enough to see the white tiger sitting up on his elbows all perfection in Sphinxocity, and then a moment later he was crouched like a cucaracha, convulsively horking up a hairball just like any old kittycat.

<img align="left" src="http://egullet.com/imgs/golden_gully.gif" width="185" height="290" hspace="5">I think about happily slogging through otherworldly humidity, drawn into the Old Absinthe House by the music coming out its open doors -- blind Brian Lee and the Jump Street Five! They were incredible! The nice cocktail waitress hustling to bring vodka gimlet after vodka gimlet and Old Fashioned after Old Fashioned. I learned in New Orleans that if it is humid enough and you keep moving, you can drink vodka gimlet after vodka gimlet. Course I was high in other ways too. We grooved on Brian Lee and Miss Maggie and his incredible musicians a long while but eventually hadda go, and I learned in New Orleans that one can get her last vodka gimlet to go in a plastic cup if she do desired.

I think about getting in on the train and running straight to the Central Grocery for a delicious muffeleta, because of having ripped through Calvin Trillin's food-related books shortly before. I don't know what it's like nowadays, but the guy made our sandwich right before our eyes, plenty of olive salad, and we pulled a Dixie beer outta the machine, and it was all so good. We found we liked Felix's better than Mr. Trillin's beloved Acme for oysters, although nobody's gonna be kicking Acme outta bed for eating crackers neither. We just found it so comfortable to sit at Felix's and accumulate a tippy stack of dented bent aluminum trays, from dozen after dozen after dozen. And maybe a soft-shell crab po' boy in there, too.

Like Chris, I remember the oysters being ridiculously cheap. And also like Chris, I had gone deep into Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen before getting the chance to go to K-Paul's, and, (like Chris) once there, against all expectations, it was the bread basket that blew my mind! I love the jalapeno cheese, but I sat there at the table extra happy, because I knew, I knew, at home in my copy of the book was the recipe for those rolls made from Paul Prudhomme's Mother's White Bread in our bread basket, which were something like the Platonic ideal of white bread rolls. Ineffable.

Sharing our table (all tables were shared, and no reservations accepted, at that time at K-Paul's) was an American girl and her French boyfriend who lived together in Paris, where we had recently visited, and so conversation flowed, even though they insisted on informing us about some pesky self-imposed dietary restrictions I can't remember clearly, but which the Old Man and I did not let rain on our parade. Turns out over there in Paris this girl was also cooking wildly through CPPLK, which was why she brought her boyfriend there this evening. And, our sweet young very-pregnant waitress told us her husband was one of the Neville Brothers. I ate mirlitons with andouille and Cajun béarnaise, and the Old Man feasted on blackened prime rib, a dish we'd seen Chef Paul prepare on PBS sometime earlier and which had sorta seemed like a dream, and was now a dream come true.

One day we had arranged to meet a friend of mine from school who worked for the museum there on Jackson Square, and he emerged wearing a by-God blue seersucker suit, and took us to Mr. B's where I think I had soft-shelled crab and I think it was fabulous.

Before we got back on the Sunset Limited to go home, we bought Zapp's potato chips and the Central Grocery's olive salad and another sandwich for the trip, and garlic-vapored up our small compartment like mad.

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To catch up on New Orleans, visit the Louisiana forum.

To catch up on your reading, follow the link to Smackdowns Past. Pour yourself another cup of coffee. Heck, bring on the bonbons, brik or bacon -- it’s dangerous to read on an empty stomach.

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