Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New Orleans (finally!)

What can be said about New Orleans and Tales of the Cocktail that so many people haven't already said? (Other than "Write something already!!! It's been over a month!!") I'm not sure, which is why this has been so long in coming. Better to get something written now, though, before the details get lost.

I've started and stopped this post several times, and have never been fully satisfied with what I was writing. So I'm going to abandon the timeline approach entirely and instead just focus on a couple of elements that I found most important.

First, given the focus of our trip, the conference bears some mention. Oh, sure, there were lots of cocktails and liquor was one of the all-around most fun things we've done, and not perhaps for the reasons that people might first suppose. Oh sure, there were plenty of excellent cocktails and liquors and liqueurs and whatnot, but those were just the framing elements for the week. The attendees, presenters, organizers and all those we met who were otherwise associated with Tales or the many bars we visited were, to a person, fascinating, friendly, just a bit kooky in their own way (I include ourselves in this statement...), and well worth knowing in any context. We got to hang out with tiki kings, talented bartenders, bloggers and rare-ingredient masters, talented and vivacious women (I was wondering how I was going to work that picture into the post), and best of all we got to see our home-town friends win a couple of well-deserved awards at the closing ceremonies. (Go ZigZag!!)

I can't stress enough how great everyone was; I hope to maybe see them again next year.

The sheer enthusiasm that everyone showed for their craft, hobby, or avocation was mind-boggling.

Right behind the drinks and companionship, though, was the food. Historian and professor Morton J. Horwitz has said that "In New Orleans, gluttony is a way of life." I have no idea of the context of his remarks, but I can attest to the fact that eating seemed to be a non-stop, done-with-gusto event. We ate low-brow, we ate high brow, we ate traditional, and we ate modern. Some of the personal highlights for me were: hot dogs on Bourbon Street (yes, yes, I know, but I have to have a hot dog in just about every city to which I travel -- I made an exception for Italy, but that's about it...); muffalettas (have to try to make those at home, but I just don't see how we can duplicate them, especially the bread); a fantastic cocktail-paired dinner at Commander's Palace which has been written about elsewhere much more thoroughly and with better style than I can manage; and a somewhat decadent brunch at Brennan's. That last was definitely guilding the lily. I'd just completed a morning AppleJack seminar where we were served four (4!!) full-size cocktails; I then met up with Wendy to walk down the block to Brennan's, where I proceeded to order a Sazerac and she got a Brandy Milk Punch. Those were both necessary to cut the richness of the Hollandaise sauce on our meals, but it was only 11:00 in the morning!! Is this Horowitz's "gluttony" in evidence? Perhaps, but at the same time I never once felt that we were doing anything other than simply enjoying life to the fullest, which after all is what living is all about. Trite, maybe, but still true.

As a side note, those eggs were really, really, really good. I think I gained 5 pounds that day.

I don't feel even remotely qualified to comment on New Orleans as a city, but I will write a few things about the French Quarter. Yes, we were tourists, and even short-timers, so we didn't get outside of the Quarter more than a couple of times, but I think that's understandable given all that's there and the fact that I'd never seen it before. (Wendy had made a brief trip to the city long ago.)

Anyway, back to the Quarter. It's got that shabby-chic thing going on, similar to what I imagine parts of Havana are like (in essence if not in actual architecture). Katrina may have done some of the wear-and-tear we saw, though it's my understanding that the French Quarter was relatively-lightly touched. No, I felt as if New Orleans has always been that way. It's been a working port city longer than most other American cities have even existed; it's a bit roughed-up around the edges, but has a charm that is both hard to define and almost impossible to ignore. I'll say right now that I don't think the quarter is as beautiful as some cities I've visited, but I don't think it's supposed to be. This isn't a Disneyfied 'New Orleans Land', it's a real city where things get worn down, patched up, and get worn down again. Closest I've come to finding something similar might be in Venice, which is equally overrun with tourists and equally unique in atmosphere and history.

Lastly, but most importantly, I want to comment on the people of New Orleans. Without a single exception, we were greeted warmly and treated exceptionally. Many people thanked us for visiting. We could not have felt more at home.

A small addendum: I urge everyone to read Chuck Taggert's excellent summary of where New Orleans is today, and what Katrina has meant for the city.