28 April 2024

A Look at Louisiana

Into the deep south.....

Waiting at Dallas/Fort Worth airport to board a flight to the Crescent City, the bartender serves me a Lone Star and asks me why nurses carry red pens?  As this is another of the many things I never learned, he tells me it is so they can draw blood..... (Boom, Boom?)

So Farewell? Dallas, Texas, and Hello! N'Awlins, Louisiana, or NOLA as she is known.

The first I ever heard of the Big Easy was, I think, when I heard Lonnie Donegan singing about The Battle of New Orleans:

Well, we fired our guns and the British kept a comin'
And there wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began a running
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Of course (?) I knew nothing at all of the history of that 1815 battle, nor that it became a symbol of American democracy triumphing over the old European ideas of aristocracy and entitlement.....  Well, there's a thing?  Who would have thought?  

The next time NOLA came to my attention was when I became interested in jazz, and learned about musicians such as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Becket and then Dr John.

And music is still central to the city.  I failed to get into Preservation Hall, which claims to be the best place for Traditional New Orleans Jazz since 1961 (which was ten years before the death of Louis Armstrong) but there is no shortage of lesser venues, such as Three Muses (above) or simply on the streets, both by day:

and by night:

It is a grand city, with more history than much of the rest of the US put together.  It has some elegance, like Jackson Square and the St Louis Cathedral:

And the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, has lots of character:

But this was the view from my hotel room:

And this was on the way home at night:

If Dallas has something of Singapore about it, I would say that New Orleans has something of Mumbai crossed with Lima about it.  It is big, and loud, and crowded and the air isn't fresh.  Enormous sky scraping chain hotels like the Hilton and Sheraton are filled with tourists and conference attendees, who spill out drinking and dancing onto Bourbon Street at night, or troop around the Quarter with guides to the supposedly haunted locations of the town.

Traffic is huge, as in Dallas.  I am almost crushed by a Huge black pick-up that has a sticker in the back window saying, "Fuck Biden and his Administration: Vote Trump!"

No apologies.....

But the city streets were not built for vehicles of this calibre, even though there are old-fashioned street cars that rattle and clang up and down St Charles Avenue, past the nineteenth-century millionaire homes that hide their rocking chairs under live oaks whose root systems hump up under sidewalks and crack them upward like baked clay (James Lee Burke - Sunset Limited).  

No, I want to see the swamps, the spooky gator infested bywaters of the Mississippi delta, as we saw when we came into land:

Captain Everett is my guide, and he takes us out on a flat-bottomed boat on a tour of the bayous and muddy waters of Honey Island Swamp. This is near Slidell, a town once famous for its large creosote plant on the north-east shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

Captain Everett is an expert and informative guide and we are introduced to something of the local culture, such as houses that can be floated up or down stream as needed:

And to others that may be more permanent:

But the high point (at least for those of us from Norfolk) was the close relations to one of the million or so Alligators that patrol these streams. This one (by the name of Wally) seemed to be secure in the fact that his jaws have a closing force of 2,000 lbs. Gators have been around here for something like 200 million years so I guess they hold all the cards, and I ain't going to argue with this one:

There are snakes a-plenty too:

And raccoons, and almost everything else that likes swamps, including mosquitoes.....

I head back to the city, where oysters taste sweet, dirty rice is just that, and chicken and andouille gumbo is kinda soupy...

Although the population of the greater New Orleans area is around 1.25 million, the population of the actual city was 383,974 in 2021 and its median household income was $45,594 p.a.

The five largest ethnic groups in New Orleans are Black or African American (Non-Hispanic) (57.6%), White (Non-Hispanic) (30.6%), Asian (Non-Hispanic) (2.73%), Two or more races (Non-Hispanic) (2.6%), and White (Hispanic) (2.1%).

23.8% of the population for whom poverty status is determined in New Orleans (at least 88.700 people) live below the poverty line, a number that is almost twice the national average of 12.6%....

By comparison, Dallas has a 2024 population of 1,295,447 and the average household income is $102,023, with a poverty rate of 17.54%. According to the most recent statistics, the racial composition of Dallas is: White (48.14%), Black or African American (23.61%), Two or more races (13.06%), Other race (10.88%), Asian (3.66%), Native American (0.63%) and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (0.03%).

All very different from rural Norfolk.....

To gain some wider experience of the history here, I take a trip out to see Oak Alley Plantation (a National History Landmark). This is something akin to a National Trust (or English Heritage) property, now a non-profit trust organised and operated exclusively for charitable, literary and educational purposes. The alley of live oaks, the canopy somewhat thinned out by Hurricane Katrina (a devastating and deadly Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that caused 1,836 fatalities and damages estimated between $97.4 billion to $145.5 billion in late August 2005) is now around 250 years old, around halfway through its potential lifetime.

This 63 acre site includes the East Garden, the West Garden, the Big House, the Allée,  the Garçonierres, the Stewart Family Graveyard..... and 'A Slavery at Oak Alley Exhibit.'

I have a Mint Julep.  (It is all so much to take in....)

Then I have a Bourbon Twist.  (The mind still boggling.)

Extracting sugar from cane was a complex industry and there is a very informative show about this in the Sugarcane Exhibit, but, while I am as much to blame as anyone, there is something very Tate and Lyle about all this.....

This excursion includes another swamp tour, this time on the the Barataria Preserve, one of six sites comprising the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. More gators. More swamp.  It is captivating, and this time my guide is a native who grew up knee deep in these  brackish flows.  We see a Cardinal, a rare flash of crimson in the greenish grey wilderness, dripping with Spanish Moss:

There's a juvenile Bald Eagle:

Oh, and here's Wally, keen to snaffle up a marsh mallow (a suitable snack for a swampy, methinks) though he may be contemplating a bigger bite:

And we get to handle a baby gator, hand-raised by the authorities, but bewildered by the Mexican sunglasses:

It's copacetic..... I'm just so glad I'm not a tourist......(Doh?)

Back in the city, cruising the concrete highway past the Caesars Superdome (and the ragged shelters of the homeless beneath the overpass) it feels like time to party.  I forget why (which was probably the point....)

 First a crawfish boil:

Then a boilermaker (Abita Amber and Bywater Bourbon) - though I draw the line at depth charges:

I am looked after by my friend Davis, Maitre d' at the Royal Oyster House, who definitely calls the shots - sazeracs, old fashioneds, and worse:

It all rolls into one, and by closing time, we are all life-long friends (though the podner on the left looks a little out of his depth.....)

Whooo!  Saints alive!

What's left? 

A two and a half hour one-to-one tour of the Quarter with Cheryl of the Friends of the Cabildo, during which I get an insight into the many wonderful condos in the neighbourhood:

And a glimpse of past elegance in the 1850 House:

Then a wander round the Warehouse/Arts District, visiting the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (in which there are some beautiful swamp scapes) and the Contemporary Arts Center, in which I take a snap of a local man taking a picture of a picture of a local man.....

Then a paddle down the Mississippi on the Steamboat Natchez (The Natchez's powerful steam engines were built for U.S. Steel Corporation's sternwheeler Clairton in 1925. Her genuine copper and steel steam whistle is a treasured antique. Her copper bell, smelted from 250 silver dollars to produce a purer tone, once graced the S.S. J.D. Ayres) a fun paddle on which the local girls like to look their best:

Where you get a fair idea of the might of the Mississippi and its importance to trade (The Port of New Orleans is one of the busiest ports in the world. It was established in 1717 when France controlled Louisiana. It began as an export for tobacco and indigo, and an import for rice and vegetables, but later grew as a major port for cotton. Steamboats, cargo ships, tankers, and barges are notably seen along the water still today. Approximately 175 million tons of freight are transported along the river each year. Today, it serves as a major port for shipping everything from oil and cars to coffee and poultry). As an aside, the river is 191 feet deep at this point....

And finally a walk round Frenchmen Street (now recognised as one of New Orleans’ best spots for live music; it is parallel to Elysian Fields Avenue and adjacent to Esplanade Avenue. Frenchmen Street is located away from the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street and tucked between the French Quarter and Marigny neighbourhoods) where either Katrina didn't ruin everything or they have made real good since:

And then past the Cornstalk Hotel (originally built as a home in 1816 for Judge Francois Xavier-Martin, who is best known in Louisiana as a former chief justice for the Supreme Court):


Do you know what it means
To miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day?


To tell the truth, having read a bellyful of James Lee Burke, and eaten Catfish Po'Boy sandwiches, Crispy Oyster Tostadas, Blue Crab Claws, Crawfish Étouffée and downed some 22 oz Blue Moons and a Hurricane or two, I think I can safely say:

Do you know what it means
To miss New Orleans
When that's where you left your heart?
And there's something more
I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans

Edgar De Lange / Louis Alter

You got it......

Get me home......

26 April 2024

A Taste of Texas

Way out west.....

I always wanted to be a cowboy - at least I thought I did....  Watching The Lone Ranger or The Cisco Kid, then Bronco, Rawhide and Bonanza on TV, and then films from directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Delmer Davies, before the late flowering with Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, I yearned for a horse and saddle, and a bed roll and a hickory fire, a bottle of bourbon and a can of beans....

Many happy afternoons were spent playing Cowboys and Indians, practising drawing my Colt Apache, and pretending to rob banks or kill savages.  Innocent days?

But I never made it to the Wild West, despite reading great novels such as The Searchers, Lonesome Dove and The Way West, as well as biographies of the likes of John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok, life on the prairie passed me by, and the legends faded into the past.

Until the opportunity arose recently to visit Dallas, and the dream was revived.

Except that, with a nod to Kirk Douglas on Whiskey trying to cross Route 66 in the 1962 film Lonely are the Brave, the motor vehicle has changed the face of Texas.  Although it has been around for 100 years or more, the oil and motor car industries have all but killed the cowboy, except on the big spreads where horses, and mules, are still the King.

Even the recent past (before the tech boom) focussed on the motorcade:

Which drove through Dealey Plaza (though the shining towers weren't there then):

This is the view from the window of the book store on the right of the sixth floor:

But we all know how that ended.....  (Or do we?)

Yes, guns are a part of the culture, whether they're for shooting Kennedys, or Oswalds, or hunting, or robbing banks.....

Though Bonnie and Clyde did not rob the bank in Waxahachie, as they considered the city too big and the police department too sophisticated.  Indeed it has that air about it, having two courthouses and a mighty jail right bang in the middle.....

As well as a fine Meat Church, right next to the Theatre (which has a free show every Tuesday):

And a picturesque grain store just across the railroad tracks:

We stopped in the bank (now a restaurant) for a beer in Waxahachie after following one of the Ennis bluebonnet trails, a flowering delight amongst ranches on rolling hills.

These bluebonnets (a kind of lupin and the state flower of Texas) bloom every year in the first weeks of April. (The town of Ennis is the Official Bluebonnet City of Texas and it showcases over 40 miles of mapped driving Bluebonnet Trails sponsored by the Ennis Garden Club.)

Fields of them make quite a sight, perhaps especially when mixed with the Indian Paintbrushes (or Prairie Fire) and are enormously popular with visitors from all over:

However, pretty flowers are not cowboy stuff (they are in fact poisonous to livestock), and so we head to Fort Worth, where I get a real taste of Texas. The Stockyards Hotel has been the place to stay in Fort Worth since 1907, and it is home to Booger Red's historic saloon (named in honour of the legendary Texas bronc-busting champion Samuel Thomas Privett (1858-1926)).

It is here we have 'Anita Rita' Margaritas (concocted with premium tequilas, lime juice and secret ingredients including extract from selected Sarrano peppers) served on the rocks in a frosted 18oz schooner (with a salted rim). and guacamole (in preference to a 12oz Buffalo Butt beer)....

Then, to get properly kitted out, we cross the street to M L Leddy's: (a visit to M.L. Leddy’s is like a trip back in time, where old-fashioned values are refreshingly new again. In the historic Fort Worth Stockyards location, hand-laid brick streets welcome customers into a rough-hewn world of knotted pine, pressed tin ceilings and the unmistakable smell of leather).  

I quite fancy a pair of Vaqueros, but at $1395, style #O2818 (Full Quill Ostrich), it seems a little too much for my life in Snettisham. Likewise, I kinda feel the jackets and hats would be a touch out of place in my Norfolk village..... and I really don't need a hand-tooled saddle.

But we have a great time in Fort Worth. Rabbit and rattlesnake sausage with wild boar ribs and Blood and Honey Ale at Lonesome Dove, and then, brisket, pulled pork, grilled corn and Shiner Bock at Cooper's BBQ, before moving on to Billy Bob’s Texas (built in 1910 as a cattle barn, but opened in 1981 featuring a 100,000 square feet entertainment centre with more than 30 bar stations, real Pro Bull Riding, and a Texas size dance floor.)

So this is where I get to live the dream (or dream the life....)  Bull riding - here I come: (That's me on the right, y'all):

And off we go.... (Off being the word:)

Yeeee Haawww!

Well....  It was fun while it lasted, and pretty soon I regain consciousness, and then we are back in Dallas, where at the (Simply Tex Mex) Taco Joint I have a Spicy Grilled Shrimp Taco chilled by a large glass of Pacifico, 

Then I lubricate my aching bones in the Lakewood Growler (a Texas Craft beer Growler Fill Station) with a flight.....

Which really doesn't last long when you are a thirsty cowpoke:

Back in the real world of Dallas I experience modern America. Empty sidewalks, wide streets, six lane freeways, high rise blocks.   

But it has an elegance, looking across White Rock Lake at the CBD from the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, it has something of Singapore about it.

And the mansions in the leafy streets in the University quarter are breathtaking by night, their etched windows and lit porches inviting all to gasp at their wealth.

In the centre there are vast art galleries such as the Dallas Museum of Art (currently highlighting a special exhibition entitled The Impressionist Revolution), the Crow Museum of Asian Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Centre (which has works by Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miró, Jean Arp and Anthony Gormley amongst many others.) And there are smart restaurants (such as Mi Cocina) by the tree-lined Klyde Warren park.

Back home with my hosts it is time to rest under the trees by Briar Creek.  It is cool, and calm, and as I reflect upon this new world and my adventures in it, a white heron dreamily glides across my vision, quietly bringing me down to earth.....

With very many thanks to Emily and Richard for their kindness and hospitality in making all this possible