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What the storm couldn't kill

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gallery_29805_1195_9092.jpgby Brooks Hamaker

I woke early, as I always do on that particular Sunday, and made a quick breakfast of juices, homemade pancakes and local strawberries. My boys and their friends crawled out of their beds, dressed, and ate like trenchermen -- all the while discussing last night’s valuable trinket acquisitions and opportunities for the same over the next twelve hours.

Once everyone was fed and the dishes were sort of done, we headed out the door towards St. Charles Ave, a block and a half away from my house. The Sunday before Mardi Gras on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans has, for a very long time, been pretty much the same. Families gather at nearby houses for early meals and relaxing early morning libations. Aromas of gumbo, grilling meats, red beans, chicken sauce piquant and other delicacies, easily transportable and even more easily fed to large number of revelers, fill the air up and down the seven or so miles of the parade route. Groups magically fill the Avenue in the early morning hours, staking out their spots and setting up for a very long day of fun and food. (Yesterday the first parades began at eleven and ended well after eleven, delayed by the inconvenient relationship between giant man-made floats and even larger, God-made, live oak trees.)

The scene when we arrived was pretty amazing. A block of St. Chuck that just seven hours before had been strewn with debris from the previous evening’s parades had been tidied up by magic cleaning gnomes and repopulated by families in the full swing of BBQ, Bloody Marys and the day’s first cool ones. Children of all ages threw foam footballs in the streets, generally acting like kids with a day off and only moderately attentive supervision. Groups of self-important and seriously preening teen girls roamed St. Charles in search of cute guys, who were making sure to ignore them until the microsecond that the girls passed by. Then the cute guys indulged in the age old sport of carefully paying attention while not paying attention to the members of the opposite sex.

Pickups were parked on the side streets, their beds filled with, variously, BBQ pits, couches, port o’ johns, prep tables, ice chests, crawfish boiling setups, and just about anything else one might possibly need during a long day of fun at the parades. These setups ranged from what, clearly, were last minute arrangements, to full-on catering operations that would put many, more professional, caterers to shame.

On the tailgate of one truck, there were two guys shucking fresh, very cold, very salty oysters. I stopped to chat with them and within, oh, let’s say, five seconds, I was invited to sample a few. These few turned into about twenty-four in pretty short order. Nice guys, those oyster guys. They invited me back for a few grilled oysters later in the day -- enticing me with the claim that their grilled oysters would make those poseurs at Drago’s wish they had their secret recipe. I promised I’d return later in the evening, knowing that the chances were slim that a) I would be on that part of the route later in the day b) that they would have any oysters left and c) that, if there were any oysters left I would likely be shucking them as those guys were already, at eleven a.m., fast approaching the coordination danger zone that often occurs when beer and oyster knives meet. But you can’t predict what a Carnival Sunday will bring so I didn’t turn them down.

My boys met up with some friends at 1st and St. Charles and I got them squared away with the friends’ parents, swapped cell phone numbers, the general plan for the next few hours, and sampled a few of the snacks they’d laid out on a couple of tables covered with garish LSU tablecloths -- Tulane logos are much more tasteful. The remains of a lovely brunch held earlier in the day at a nearby home had been duly delivered to the parade route: all kinds of good cheeses, some canapés consisting of very large shrimp and remoulade sauce, a nice gumbo z’herbes, and lots of French bread. There were also pitchers of fresh juice, milk punch (in a silver pitcher -- and being poured into silver beakers), Bloody Marys, soft drinks, and, if you were up to it, an entire bar set up. It might sound as if these people had gone a bit overboard, but there were probably 2000 folks with more or less the same setups along the parade route. It’s about sharing and having fun on the Avenue, and we are, if nothing else, pretty good at sharing and having fun. Gracious, effortless hospitality is what we do here and what we’ve always done. If you can’t find any friends anywhere in the world, come to New Orleans during Carnival week and you’ll probably make some for life.

Once the boys were squared away I walked uptown about fifteen blocks to meet some friends at General Taylor and St. Charles, just down the block from the Columns Hotel, and directly across from Rayne Episcopal Methodist Church. This Mardi Gras season the church is surrounded by a chain-link fence, necessitated by the fact that the very tall, very old, and very grand steeple on the sanctuary blew off during the storm and the church is only now beginning repairs.

My friends, who are, unlike me, very organized, had gone out in the middle of the night and secured the spot by placing a couple of tables, some chairs, a few ladders, and other parade accoutrement on the side of the street. The stuff was left there with the hope that it would still be there when they returned in the morning -- and it was.

Much like the gentlefolk up the street where I’d left the boys, my friends were enjoying a pretty elaborate spread, though this one was accompanied by decent champagne poured into plastic flutes. It was all very civilized.

Just down the block, I saw a friend of a friend slaving over a couple of burners and some cast iron pots. I walked down to say hello and to scope out the food. He’d just hit the serving stage of an excellent duck and andouille gumbo that had been concocted, roux and all, right there on the spot. He’d been out since about seven in the morning and was pretty well as done as the gumbo. He offered me a bowl of the stuff and some really great bread from Boulangerie, the excellent French Bakery on Magazine Street. I looked around for a place to sit, spied an empty folding chair, and plopped down to eat. Inside of two minutes, an older woman, very tiny and very cute in her carnival finery, walked up and informed me that I was in her chair -- but that it would be okay to stay if I’d introduce her to “the gumbo man” and help her acquire a bowl for herself. I got her some gumbo and we both sat down and enjoyed the rich soup, chatting like old friends even though we’d just met. In the tradition here, it took her only three moves to figure out that she actually knew who my (long passed away) grandparents were and that her son had gone to Tulane with my Dad. I wasn’t surprised -- it happens here all the time. Instead of the usual, “What do you do for a living?” it’s “Tell me again, who are your Mama and Daddy?”

Once I’d completed old home week, the parade was in full swing and I rejoined my friends. This was a pretty typical Mardi Gras group -- old New Orleanians, out-of-towners there for their umpteenth carnival, and people visiting New Orleans for their first parade weekend. All of us had an equally good time, acting like fools and begging people riding by on the floats for tiny plastic trinkets and the occasional “big score.” The throws vary from cheap plastic beads to very valuable (at least for the next few days) stuffed animals, spears, cups, and toilet paper with the Krewe logo embossed on every super--absorbent sheet. Successful grabs were marked by the laughing recipient holding the prize high and showing it off triumphantly. This behavior went on, this particular Sunday, for more than twelve hours, thanks to an Endymion parade that had been rescheduled from the previous night because of inclement weather. This Sunday was one for the record books in New Orleans -- more floats rolled down St. Charles Avenue than on any other Sunday in history. In this post Katrina world, it seemed to make it a very important and historical event, even though it was caused by an unforeseen overnight rain shower

That evening, just as the last Bacchus float passed, there was a delay in the parades and I was feeling pretty worn out. I quietly said goodbye to my friends, new and old, and started the long trudge home. As I walked down St. Charles, I realized that I was feeling a bit peckish -- and remembered the oystermen at the corner of Thalia and St. Charles. I knew my chances were slim, but it had been a very lucky day. I decided to walk an extra block and see if there were some grilled oysters at the ready. I lucked out. The grill was smoking, and as I walked up the oysterguys (who by this point could also be known as the “going to be really hung over on Monday guys”) yelled out that they’d been waiting on me and to hurry up. They said that they were running out and didn’t want me to miss out on the planet’s best grilled oysters. Never one to disappoint a bragging chef, I sat down in the offered chair and scarfed up six on the half-shell, grilled with butter, chopped garlic, Worcestershire, and Crystal Hot Sauce. Now, I’m a lover of Drago’s finely grilled bivalves, but the guys were right -- their oysters were absolutely delicious. Oysters have rarely come to such a worthy end.

I made sure to find out if they were coming back (yes, on Tuesday, all day) and bade them a good night. As I walked the quiet side street back to my home, the only sounds to be heard were of a distant, soon to pass parade. I was full, happy, and feeling some hope for this place, my city that is so unlike anywhere else on the planet.

Sure -- absolutely -- the place is a mess. Just a two-block walk to the other side of St. Charles Avenue from my house will put you square into no-man’s land -- a place that is still, even six months later, largely uninhabited and shows few signs of recovery. Most of the city is like that, though the older parts, the parts built on the high ground, are coming along remarkably well. There are burned-out buildings, abandoned or closed businesses, cars that haven’t been moved in months, streetlights that don’t, and might never, work, and many, many other constant reminders of the disaster that happened here last August 29th. The parts of the city that are operating and habitable are coming back remarkably well -- though it’s only about a quarter of the city in terms of both land mass and population. There are parts of town that, no matter what your political stance on the issue, will probably have to be razed before any practical rebuilding effort can occur. It’s a mess, that’s the one thing here that’s for sure.

Much of the city will take years to repair, and much of it, in fact, may never be repaired. What that storm couldn’t kill, what ten Katrinas can’t kill, is us. We’re still here. More and more of us are coming back every day, and we’ll keep coming back as long as we can find a job and a place to live. This is our home. The Feds won’t send us the money because they don’t get it and we’re off of the front pages because the most of the media don’t get it -- but that’s OK. We get it. It’s the people, it’s the food, it’s the people and the food. It’s Mardi Gras, it’s Jazz Fest, it’s strong coffee, it’s red beans and rice, it’s Bloody Marys in the middle of the street at eight in the morning. It’s your mama and them’s house, and mostly, it’s everything that makes us what we are. We live in New Orleans and we don’t want to live anywhere else.

It might not be right, and it might not fit neatly into most people’s “normal” slot, but we’re good with it. We like us.

The rest of the stuff? The infrastructure? It’ll get fixed. Eventually. We’ll start next Wednesday morning. Just as soon as we wake up.

Brooks Hamaker (aka Mayhaw Man) is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. He hopes that all of his neighbors can come home soon.

Photo by Sara Roahen, whose untitled memoir about a Yankee discovering New Orleans' unique food culture will be published in 2007 (W.W. Norton).
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I spent most of Mardi Gras Day, starting at about 8:30 in the morning (later than usual, but, not surprisingly, there was a power outage overnight and the alarm failed), walking from Uptown to Downtown to the Marigny. I met up with many resplendently dressed friends and strangers gathering for the beginning, or the middle, or some part of the St. Ann’s Parade-a neighborhood walking parade that makes it’s way through the Quarter to Canal St and then on to the Riverfront to dump ashes in the Mississippi.

I didn’t make the whole thing, but I did go to Canal and it was a great trip. Several brass bands, all playing in semi unison, played hits like I’m Walking, It Ain’t My Fault, Mardi Gras Mambo, Night Train, and, in one particularly moving moment, a beautifully rendered version of A Closer Walk with Thee. It was pretty spectacular and for just a few, very precious moments, just like it should be here in the city that, aptly, is often called “The City that Care Forgot”

Some scenes from Tuesday:

8:30 a.m.

Thalia and St Charles

A huge crowd of men women and children in the street doing the Electric Slide with a group of highly amused onlookers cheering them on. There were a couple of cops in the dancing group and they looked just as happy as everyone else. Nice to see those guys enjoying themselves. We are kind of short on cops right now and they had to have been pretty close to exhausted by that point.


St Charles and Camp St

I walked up the Avenue, cluelessly walking through the police line (I had a big costume on so I think that they thought I was supposed to be there-think Wedding Crashers-The Carnival Episode!) and into the back of Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Walking Club. There were 10 or so loosely organized groups, with the rear being brought up nicely by the Ducks of Dixieland in their duck themed outfits. Trad jazz in the front, brass in the middle, and Soca in the rear. A very nice way to get downtown. I kind of ended up walking with them for a bit and it was a very good time.


Gallier Hall

The crowd in the reviewing stands, mostly uncostumed and politically connected somehow, was seemingly uninterested in the colorful passersby. They seemed much more tuned into whoever they were chatting with on their cellphones. Perhaps they were all talking to each other. It was an odd scene for people who have, really, some of the best and most historical reviewing seats in all of Carnival.


Poydras and Magazine (I had to go, Ok? It was the nearest can that I could find)

A woman walked up to me looking for an ATM that worked and had money in it. She said that they parking thieves were holding her license until she came back with the dough. Not much works here, but we can still collect parking fines I guess. Sheesh. Welcome to New Orleans, friendly, well meaning tourists. Howdy do! Pay up!


Poydras and Magazine

A group of highly amused looking cops had a young civic leader down on the ground next to a very nice, new Cadillac Escalade. I asked a policeman what the deal was, and he laughed and said that they had caught “the dumbest guy in New Orleans-and that’s saying something!” Apparently the guy was in, they thought anyway, one of the famous stolen Cadillacs from Sewell Cadillac. He was driving it around with a Texas plate on the front and a LA plate on the back-only two blocks from the scene of the theft. Bold, indeed.


Canal and Royal St

The first tune that I heard walking into the Quarter was a spectacularly energetic version of Liza Jane being played by a group of men who, apparently, were all in different bands and just met up for a bit before going on to their regular gigs. It was, truly, wonderful. Ohhh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane! Yes, indeed.


R Bar-Corner of Royal and Something or other

Giant crowd. All in costume. I had some friends there dressed as sort of existentialist Super Heroes-the funniest of which was my friend Chad-outfitted as “The Cuddler”. It was a very good costume, as cuddling seemed to be going very well for him in that very sexually liberal, and somewhat confused crowd. Many costumes with Katrina themes-mold, FEMA, Halliburton, politicians, blue tarps, etc. Lots of stunning imaginations left here, it would seem.


Down Royal towards Canal

Parade progressed slowly behind the Storyville Stompers and a bunch of extra brass. They were, in just a few words, as good as it’s ever going to get. Brass being played outside, in a march, with a crazy happy crowd. It really never gets any better than that. All hits, all the time. Singing, dancing in the streets, heavy drinking, botanicals in the air. Wonderful. Just fantastic. The best.


Jackson Square

The band and parade (at least a thousand happy souls) stop in front of the Cathedral and play a few tunes to the delight of the onlookers, who have no clue what all of these people are doing walking around together.


Old Supreme Court Building/Wildlife and Fisheries Building/

Unbelievably, there are about a dozen clean port-o-potties set across the street from K-Paul’s. Yes! No lines!


Royal and St Louis

My fabulous and slightly scary Venetian carnival mask breaks (my mom brought it to me this summer. Thanks mom) and a quick thinking woman from Brooklyn dressed as a cross between Carmen Miranda and Marie Antoinette on acid stepped from the crowd with repair materials. A quick repair and I was once again slightly threatening instead of tired and disheveled. Masks are good things to have.


Royal and Canal

Parade dead ends into Rex Parade like some scene from Monty Python. People smashing into each other going in opposite directions and laughing about it like maniacs. Band sits on the side of the road and takes a break with some much needed beers and some shade-as it was unusually sunny and hot for the end of February, even in New Orleans.


Down St Charles towards home

I stop and talk to a number of the BBQ men that I had met on Sunday. Never one to turn down some good food, I sampled ribs, chicken, more oysters, rabbit, pork butt, lips, feet, gumbo, chicken fricassee (high point of day-it was ethereal in it’s goodness), jambalaya (both with and without tomato-I’m a tomato guy, me-but they’re both good.


Home-St Mary St.-Lower Garden District

Shoes off on the front steps, watching the world go by. 10 miles of so of walking, talking, laughing, and eating will do that to you. Then off to the keyboard to crank out what you just read and two other pieces hopefully for publication.

It was a great day and one that I will always remember. It’s been a hard time here, hard for all of us, as a group and personally, and this was truly a cathartic experience in many ways-some of which won’t ever even be realized. They just were and will be.

Thanks for following along. I look forward to seeing you down here. It’s a great place, even now, just know that while you can come and have a great time and that we are glad as hell to have you, that it’s not fixed and with will be a long while before it is. But it will be. You can bet on it.



Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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The hurt goes on but the courage keeps shining through. Thanks.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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BRAVO to all the vallant, courageous people who are still riding out a storm, unvanquished and as triumphant as the trumpets blasting out "Oh, When the Saints...." as the umbrellas bob and the marchers swing off down a good ole New Orleans procession. No wonder---this is the city of resurrections and renewals, of Lenten abstinence following the most grand and glorious of parties. As sure as Spring follows a long cold season, those blossoms are going to spring forth, the music is going to float higher and higher, and the people are going to be stronger and more alive than ever before.

A phoenix rising from the ashes will have no such coloring and no such beauty as the spirits rising from the mud and destruction which was New Orleans. We watched them mourn, we watched them cry, we watched them clutch each other and their meager belongings, and we wept and were touched and did what we could from a far remove.

We were appalled and enraged and moved to tears, by the absolute waste and destruction, the loss of life and property, and the images which were a constant reminder day after day. But our truest tears were caused by the great heroic spirits, the moments of reunion and joy, the faces and the hugs and the small gestures of caring and concern.

I have one moment in particular that I will never forget, and I think of him often, this half-year removed. A young face filled the screen, the sweat-and-tear-stained face of a young African-American man, alone in the stadium. For nights, he had tried to sleep sitting in a stadium seat, and had at last lain down on the dirty concrete. His despair came through the screen with his picture and his words, which I repeat to myself sometimes, and I still wish I could have just driven down and FOUND him and brought him to our home and given him a bed for as long as he needed it.

He was weeping as he spoke so quietly: "My head is killing me. I need a bed. I need a bath." I still think of him, and hope he is safe and warm and clean, with a good place to rest. Maybe my prayers for just ONE helped in the greater scheme of things.

That indomitable spirit, that zest for life, that bonhommie which has always been embodied by the people of New Orleans has been shining even more brightly in the past few months than ever before in its long history. The rebuilding and the renewal of a city is a wonderful thing. The unshakable, unvanquishable spirit of those courageous, determined people is even more glorious.

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while i've been to new orleans a couple times, and plan to come again very soon, carnival/mardi gras never really appealed to me.

until just now.

beautiful. thanks for that account, brooks!

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."


Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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Brooks, you've really topped yourself! The article is beautiful and moving, and your recap of Fat Tuesday is so vivid that I really can imagine having been there and done that myself -- and that from someone who hasn't been in Louisiana for Mardi Gras since I was two years old. :biggrin:

Michael aka "Pan"


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Thanks again for a moving and vivid account of a truly historical Mardi Gras. I was wondering about you this past week, and which side of the "should N.O. have Mardi Gras celebrations this year or not" fence you were on. I should have known that you'd embrace your beloved traditions and GO FOR IT! :biggrin:

Hope you know that while some may have stopped thinking about you and your neighbours, I doubt many of them are eGulleters!


"Anybody can make you enjoy the first bite of a dish, but only a real chef can make you enjoy the last.”

Francois Minot

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I have sent a link to your article to my kids. Even though they are dispersed to Chicago and DC, a part of their heart is still in New Orleans. As a veteran myself of many Mardi Gras, I have to say that you have captured the essence. What is so encouraging is that, through your writing, I see that the spirit is still alive and undaunted. Well . . . maybe daunted but getting there. Thank you for sharing.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Thanks everyone for all of the kind comments.

It was a really great weekend and, at least for a time, good for the city.

There are so many things that we apparently don't do well, but we are really good at having giant parties. And I'm particularly glad that so many of you, through me, have a little better understanding of what this is all about.

It's not about Bourbon St and naked coeds in the Quarter (though, clearly, that's part of it if you want to do that. I fully support the rights of naked coeds everywhere. It's a Constitutuional Freedom that I am willing to fight for). It's really about families doing things together that many of them have been doing together for 50 or more years, often in the same, exact spot that they have been doing it for years. Big barbeques, whole families bringing amazing assortment of foods for a family covered dish extravaganza, beautiful floats (this year with a common theme, mostly, as we were handed the biggest "fish in a barrel" costume theme ever last Aug 29), marching bands (though there were precious few of those this year), and really imaginative people dressed in some costumes that are second to none both in imagination and construction.

It was, truly, a beautiful weekend and I, and about a half million other people, enjoyed it immensely. I hope that I see you here next year on the weekend before Feb 20th, 2007.

Get your tickets in your hand if you want to go to New Orleans

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I don't think anyone has ever been so eloquent about Fat Tuesday, and how much the abnormal means normalcy.

Thank you Brooks for a reminder of why I love the place, even though I haven't been around for a while. It's kind of like a tattoo. I'm seriously considering a trip for Jazz Fest. It'll be one for the books this year. Besides, Fats has already agreed to play.

I'll even forgive the LSU crack in the spirit of the season. :wink:

Edited by FistFullaRoux (log)
Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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I thought that a few images, no matter how poor, might be of use to some of you who only read the pictures. :wink:

These are 1)grainy 2) occasionally out of focus 3) colorful 4) kind of crazy 5) my digital camera had gone missing (since found) and I was using disposables and had them developed and emailed to me.

The reasons for this are because that's how Mardi Gras is.

Here are a few and there are a bunch more on Image Gullet (link below photos at bottom of post)

The early morning scene outside the R Bar, just before the St Ann's Parade arrived


St. Ann's on Chartres, just off of Elysian Fields headed for the R Bar. There were about a dozen brass players, and roughly a gazillion costumed revelers dancing and, if memory serves me, at this point the band was playing a really long version of Smokey Johnson's, "It Ain't My Fault"


There were 2, count 'em, 2 women playing slide trombone in this motly but talented ensemble!








The Naked Chefs (rear view only-trust me-it's best this way)


Yes, they gave me a leg. Yes, it was good.


The band takes a break after the crash at Canal and Chartres


Cooking on the Avenue (I have much better pictures of this part of the action, but they are in the hands of a magazine publisher at the moment. I'll post what's left when I get them back



He was trying to get me to go try his friend's red beans and chicken. I did, of course. I didn't want to hurt his feelings. I'm nice like that.



Graham, Parade Boy Extraordinaire.


Lots more and some of the same here. I'll add to them as I get them.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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  • 4 years later...

So, I was in town this weekend for, what was to become, a way too short and way too painful kind of thing to recount (Thanks, Delta and the God in charge of weather in the ATL. Hopefully, you'll get that straightened out shortly). But, I did go to the Methodist Church mentioned on Sunday morning. It's beyond gorgeous. And, happily, in my short visit, get to see my house, my hood (and I live in what most of you would call the hood) and my friends. Life ain't so bad-even if you do spend the night on the floor of Hartsfield,

We still ain't back. Earl (oil to you Northerners), theiving politicians, the largest provider of domestic seafood, and the (depending on your count) largest port in the World still haven't gotten us there.

On the other hand, we still know how to cook...

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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