On this episode, Juliette heads to New Orleans, visits a dive bar, shares the legend of NOLA’s greatest love story, and encounters a few ghosts, all while drinking an Irish Spring cocktail with Jameson whiskey.
Juliette rants about crappy L.A. jobs, adult acne, watching Ash vs. The Evil Dead, new horror movies, and missing New Orleans, all while drinking Bone Snapper Rye whiskey.
Autumn is an improper drink, disappointing at best but mostly just insufferable. My poor attempt at a Sazerac festers on the patio table to my right. Though the weather is just warm enough to drink outside, the sun no longer reaches my face. It hovers shy of my toes now and wavers.
I should make a fresh drink. Too much bitters gives my cocktail the attitude of burnt espresso and each reluctant sip makes me shudder. Yet this foul drink coincides with my disposition too appropriately to move, so between the dropping leaves and sneaking wind I stubbornly force it down.
It does not taste of New Orleans.
The bar in the back of Muriel’s in Jackson Square is narrow, found by winding through shabby New Orleans-chic halls of antiqued paintings, picture frames and a brilliant white-walled indoor courtyard. We sit on high stools in this nook and order from leather-bound menus: straight bourbon for my guy and Sazerac for me. Graceful female hands fashion my Sazerac with a subtle swoosh of absinthe, measured-by-site rye and bitters and syrup, and the twisted oil of lemon peel. I try to memorize her movements.
Tasting my first Sazerac was a bit like reading Hemingway for the first time, conflicting yet impossibly engrossing. It is not an easy drink. Spice may dominate the first sip, but by the second and third a complex sweetness will rise and the flavors become more ingrained, more natural.
We carry our drinks to the balcony. Candles on the fortune teller tables in the square below flicker against approaching darkness. In less than an hour, the Quarter will be illuminated by the yellow glow of restaurant and shop windows reflecting against glossy, rain-wet sidewalks. Musicians will hold court on street corners and tourists will follow cape-clad hustlers into haunted alleys. Every evening in New Orleans is endless, punctuated by my slow sipping of a Sazerac as we find our footing on a decadent path.
Concrete is no substitute for wrought iron.
What’s left of the sunlight skirts the edges of our driveway now. It’s filtered through wiry branches and the eventual glare of headlights to leave me in an unsatisfying shadow. Autumn holds no reservation about the false promise of its burnt hues and crisp air.
A reasonless funk attempts to replace my patch of warmth. Giving in to its sleepy creep appears luxurious until I see everything in my vantage being removed, the potential, the possible, and the likely all sinking into a black horizon.
I rise from my familiar chair against all pressure otherwise and fold it into reluctant storage. Winter will eventually claim my spot on the driveway, but nothing more. Inside waits, a peculiar and contained interlude before we return to where we belong.
Until then, there is time to master the Sazerac.
That we were walking along a two-lane highway with a five-foot wooden skeleton and a water bottle full of bourbon really should have been our first indication that we had, perhaps, over indulged. The five of us – six, if you count the skeleton – had reached a decadent apex of sorts, the net result of marathon drinking in the Michigan woods and the inevitable hunger that follows.
The destination, a roadhouse, couldn’t have been more than three blocks ahead. But what should have taken in sober steps a few minutes to reach took us an hour. Our lot arrived rowdy, ravenous, trailing mud from the shoulder, and clearly not at its most desirable.
The five or six of us crowded around a table intended for four. Anything, really, could have caught the attention of the night manager then: our insistent voices, spilled booze, the occasional embrace of a wooden skeleton. Mostly though, it was just us.
Where at home the affectionate cacophony of our Michigan gang’s friendship is normal, in public it becomes at best a nuisance, or worse, a hazard. And so we found ourselves, skeleton and all, unceremoniously escorted back to the dirt, on the road, exactly where we left off.
Such is summer for my guy and I, part sweaty lark and part madcap inspiration. We are at once decadent and motivated by the potential of brilliant sunshine, restless and seeking something more than what the everyday brings.
The languid posture of New Orleans calls to us early in the season. This is, to me, when the Quarter is at its most perfect. Sunshine and humidity keep doors open most hours of the day while the city gently hums in a radiant current.
Tradition dictates that our first cocktail come from Napoleon House, where the bartender assumes we’re locals who just happen to spend most of the year in other places. I’m happy to oblige the illusion. He hands me a Pimm’s Cup and my guy a bourbon, and we toast to being home.
Many, many years of visits to the Quarter have revealed only enough to know that there is more I need to see. We weave between uneven streets to find Backspace Bar. If there ever were a place built specifically for my vices, this would be it, all rich and textured and ready to breathe with me as needed to expel my ghosts on page.
My guy eases onto the waiting stool next to mine knowing we may be here a while. A raven sits over the bar, flanked by classic typewriters on antique shelves. Worn hardcover books press against a brick wall. The atmosphere is deliberate, of course, suited to the more refined barfly and offering better booze to keep us satisfied, with just enough dirt in the fireplace to remind us where we’re headed.
We stay long enough for several bourbons and a plate of red beans to materialize and vanish with familiar comfort. Breeze from the open door catches us eventually and prompts us back to our curious path, holding hands and smiling into the steamy sunshine. There are friends to meet soon.
We’re three bars ahead of them when a random storm forces us to slow our wandering. It’s just as well. Even as locals, our friends find it hard to track our Quarter footsteps. So my guy and I pause under a balcony as long streams of water pool into the street. This fleeting burst doesn’t change the color of the Quarter; it only enhances the vibrant foliage above us and surreal light from windows. Sidewalk saints, sinners and us all linger in the moment, connecting briefly under doorways and balconies to observe the fluid energy. As shared cigarettes burn out, so does the rain, and life, or otherwise, continues.
Our friends eventually catch us dancing in a doorway to the irresistible and incomprehensible rhythm of a Cajun jazz band. Heddy takes charge to lead us to the river, where a large festival is in perpetual progress. She chases the entire length of the Quarter in what seems to be a single step without ever once missing an in between moment. Her always-moving hands slide oysters and drinks into our willing ones, her spirited pace encourages us deeper into colorful corners we may have otherwise overlooked. She is a vivid encapsulation of New Orleans, entirely in love with her world and more willing than I could ever be to share it.
At the height of summer we visit the horse track. Arlington Race Park has an unapologetic bloom from more than 80 years of historic grandeur. Here, women wear hats, men wear bow ties, and hours are marked by post time since the noon sun lasts all day.
The cotton white Grandstand rises in electric contrast against the lush landscaped gardens, paddock, and track. Brilliant curved staircases lead to the main level, where the classic splendor collides with anxious perspiration and pencil shavings.
Real betters hunch over the Daily Racing Form and tip sheets in confined corners to construct elaborate trifecta boxes and exacta wheels. Our betting style, though conducted though my own superstitious rituals, is random and unremarkably simple. Whatever magical blend of name and color strikes our fancy becomes our bet, always placed with the gristled teller Roger, who will, on occasion, offer inside tips to win us a little extra cocktail cash.
It won’t be long before the formal bugle call to post, when taught horses and their jockeys will parade onto the track and to the gate. I smile at my guy. We link arms and walk past the tellers to a small side bar where Jacques is waiting.
Jacques isn’t the only reason we visit the track, but he is the best; a decorous bartender keen to good bourbon and always ready to compliment a couple in love. He immediately reaches for a bottle of bitters, the hallmark of a cocktail he created for me and has perfected over the last seven years: fizzy lemon-lime soda, rich bourbon poured with a generous hand, and spicy bitters, with a spear of orange and cherries to swizzle. It is not the fanciest drink ever created, but it tastes of summer and is made all the more sweet by the friendly kiss to my hand Jacques delivers with it.
Crowds gather at the finish line. It’s impossible to see the entire dynamics of a race from that vantage, but we cheer wildly at the starting bell and eye the large video screen to find our favorites. The appropriately named Read to Me runs well. He pulls ahead of the pack. I clutch my ticket and feel the pressure of my guy’s shoulder next to mine. The crowd swells in anticipation as the horses round the corner; we yell encouragement as Read to Me’s nose dips behind another horse. And then, he pulls forward again to thunder past us and emerge as winner, and our victory.
Like the races, our summer passes in a heated flash. I can always tell we’re nearing its end when I no longer see the Big Dipper through the sunroof of our car. I track it, you see, every night we visit the drive-in.
At the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the sky is clear and well suited to both star gazing and movie watching. We arrive long before the gates open only so we do not have to battle anyone for what has become our spot. The silver speaker pole looks like all the others, of course, but as the location of our very first date represents something more akin to home.
With our lawn chairs in tow and flask in pocket, we are at our most casual on that gravel oasis. We bask in the remaining sunshine, lick popcorn salt and nacho cheese from our fingers, and lean into each other to watch stories unfold.
Summer always resonates with uncommon pleasures. Some we find through our lasting friendships and unexpected acquaintances; others are found indulging our wanderlust. But while reveling in the lavish sunshine and especially when sitting under the sky at the drive-in, we find our best moments intertwined in each other. Such is our summer.
By rights, red beans and rice should only ever be eaten after midnight. Ours still has a while to go until the magic hour, but the simmering pot on the stove has filled our house with a scent that is familiar and unnatural. This holy blend of creole spices belongs distinctly in New Orleans – not here – where it wafts from unexpected corners and has a residence I envy.
I’m not even sure at this point what all I’ve stirred into my stew. The onions, bell pepper, and celery have melted into a singular entity. Andouille sausage is clear enough, I suppose, but the mixture has darkened as it cooks and taken on a thick, sludgy consistency. It is exquisite.
My local butcher eyed me suspiciously when I presented him with my shopping list earlier in the day. He didn’t have turtle meat. Not that red beans calls for it; I had originally hoped to make turtle soup, though it seems the whole of Chicago is rather offended at the thought of it. Even the butcher, with his dripping arms and juicy cleaver, apparently has limits. He couldn’t name a single place to purchase turtle meat and only begrudgingly suggested I try a gourmet supply house (“You monster,” his eyes added) when I pressed him further.
Ham hock and tasso are also apparently not Midwestern butcher staples. (Nor are sweetbreads and frog legs, I later found, which only further convinces me that despite all the culinary accolades, Chicago is hopelessly squeamish.) I settled on smoked ham shank. Not entirely authentic, and I’m still a bit unclear on what exactly it is, but as the stripped bone bobs into view it seems to be doing just fine in the deliciously dirty bubbling muck I’ve created.
My guy adds more wine to my glass. The raw edges of winter have left us itching for the home where we are not. At times like this we cook, sometimes all day and into the night, sharing bites and memories and hopes as we create the essence of places we love or will love one day.
We look beyond the kitchen and toward the window at the far end of the living room. There are only impressions to be seen in the dark outside. So we conjure a gas lamp out of the perpetual porch light flicker and ladle heaping piles of now-ready red beans over fluffy white rice.
If we shift focus enough, at this midnight hour we could be anywhere.
Out of so many places in the world, seen and unseen, my heart has settled without reservation in New Orleans. It sits in a broken state of perfection, collecting stories within the faded walls and crumbling streets, fluid with all the grace of southern charm and corrupt with timeless fascination.
Each visit reveals new perspective into this place I intuitively understand but can only hope to fully know. My champagne haze takes in steeples, parapets and cupolas rising only so high above me. To my right a man sweeps water off the sidewalk. Behind me, a riverboat calliope whistles off-pitch ditties that stretch for miles.
Jackson Square bristles with the slow current of morning. Lazy light creeps over the Cathedral and its bells ring out eleven. Nothing in New Orleans really sleeps; there is only rest and waiting for the right impetus to propel you into its self-contained jazz.
Carriages pulled by donkeys donning crepe flowers and garland clip clop down the streets, their barkers calling out ages-old stories and lore with practiced melodic tempo. At any time, the most amazing things can happen. A second line in celebratory pursuit of a brass band will parade down St. Ann Street, waving napkins and twirling umbrellas even before the sun is high enough to illuminate the street. Swarms of naked bicycle riders, men in extravagant red dresses, or foot-racing bartenders may pass you in joyous abandon and the site is no more shocking or unusual than that of café au lait and beignets.
My guy and I detour down Chartres Street to Napoleon House. 200 years of alcohol soaked conversation cakes its walls. The bar is slick from the condensation of cocktails being raised and lowered in the swell of summer. My own drink clings to its napkin. As in most Quarter establishments, air conditioning serves only to rearrange the dust on picture frames.
We fall into pleasant exchange with a man and his father. They’re from Balta, travelling through New Orleans on a culinary tour of the United States. As I sip my Pimm’s Cup, I know what it is to miss New Orleans. Funny I should miss it as I sit there, encouraging its temptations, but the enigmatic spice of Pimm’s sifts over my tongue and reminds me just how localized this sensation is. There is nothing like it in the world, this mash-up of indiscernible yet distinct flavors, in my drink and in the air around me.
The man’s father takes my hand. He is kind-eyed and at home here while his son jumbles maps and books. “I should never leave a place like this,” he says.
Later in the day we’re carried toward a small café somewhere between streets. A large tub teems with live crawfish at the entrance. The season is ripe for this dirty delicacy. I nod at my guy, eyes bright with shameful decadence. It does not matter that we’ve already eaten; we will eat again because we can, because it is blissful and because we are in love.
The night rolls in sultry waves. As the moon rises we follow the Mississippi River down, out of the French Quarter and into the Bywater. In this hodgepodge neighborhood of tradition and rebirth, the streets are uneven and uncertain. Swales collect bourbon water, which isn’t water at all but remnants of what washes off the streets. It smells of turpentine and rain, and on Thursday nights, it smells of sweat, too.
Vaughan’s sits among the shotgun houses. Christmas lights filtered through cigarette smoke wash the front porch in unrefined color. We enter to find the band, or, more precisely, Treme Funktet, assembling for a singular late-night performance. There is no stage, just a creaking wood floor that holds both band and crowd. We merge into a sweaty jumble when the music starts. The trombone juts dangerously into the throng to dance with us, in and out as we all improvise a kinetic melody.
Red beans and rice are dished from a giant pot in a back room. The warm hug of Creole food fuels our night. It extends back into the Quarter, where we resume our ceaseless instinctive journey, enveloped into a city of endless dimension.
I should never leave a place like this.