"A Fifth of Bourbon: Life in NoLa"
- Poppy Z. Brite
New Orleans is my hometown and I love many things about it, but to be honest, I'm not entirely satisfied with the way I've portrayed it in my work so far.
I hope I've done a better job in my new novel, "Liquor," but in my previous work I feel I've been somewhat guilty of perpetuating an incomplete stereotype: Dark, Romantic, Haunted, Lushly Gorgeous New Orleans. That side of the city does exist, but it's a small side and creates an inaccurate picture.
First, a Warning
I love this city and doubt that I will ever live anywhere else, but it isn't just beautiful and spooky -- it will eat you alive and gnaw your bones if you're not careful.
I don't mean only the crime, or the poverty, or the filth, or the sadness -- though these certainly factor in. There's just something here that a lot of people can't take. They visit, they see the fun parts, they fall in love with it, they think they want to move here, they do move here and leave after a few months because it's driving them insane.
There's a way of life here that I call Divine Stupidity, which is the subject of John Kennedy Toole's novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces," the best book ever written about New Orleans. You have to be tough and learn to laugh at things that would enrage people living in a sane, sensible place.
My New Orleans guide is pretty restaurant-centric, but other than a little birdwatching and basketball-game-going, that's about all I do.
Marisol, near the French Quarter at Frenchmen and Esplanade, is maybe our absolute favorite restaurant in town. The chef is an insane freak with a divine talent. There's no way to classify the food -- could be anything from Korean to uber-French to German. There is a list of 50+ cheeses, each with its own housemade accompaniment.
Casamento's, on Magazine Street near the corner of Napoleon Avenue, is a pure and divine oyster bar. Some people tell me that it has an "attitude," but I've been eating there since I was three, so I've never experienced this. Prices are cheap. Note that Casamento's closes each year from late May to mid-September.
Other restaurants/eating places I enjoy are (in New Orleans) Adam's BBQ, Bennachin (east African), the Camellia Grill (burgers & breakfast), Central Grocery (muffulettas), Charlie's Deli (sandwiches -- try the "Moon"), Charlie's Steak House, Commander's Palace (haute Creole), Crescent City Steak House and Dante's Kitchen (upscale casual Louisiana/fishing camp).
There's also Dong Phuong (Vietnamese), Dunbar's (soul food), Hansen's Sno-Bliz (snowballs), Kyoto (sushi), Liuzza's (New Orleans with Italian touches), Napoleon House (better for drinking than for eating), Michael's Mid-City Grill (burgers & fried seafood).
Try Parasol's for roast beef po-boys, or Rio Mar (upscale seafood with a Spanish accent), R&O (seafood/Creole Italian/po-boys), Ruth's Chris Steak House, Sid-Mar's (boiled/fried seafood) and Tee Eva's (soul food).
On the West Bank: DiMartino's Muffulettas, La Pupuseria Divino Corazon (Central American), Mosca's (Creole Italian), Taqueria LaMexicana; (in Metairie/Kenner) Laurentino's (Spanish), Royal China (dim sum), Seoul (Korean); (in Chalmette) Rocky & Carlo's (Creole Italian).
It's also fun to visit St. Roch Cemetery on St. Roch Avenue, aimlessly wander the French Quarter, ride the streetcar from Canal Street all the way up to Riverbend, take a swamp tour, sit by the river and eat a muffeletta from Central Grocery on Decatur Street...in fact, it's hard not to have a fun and interesting time in New Orleans. It's been done, but it's hard.
There are people who would tell you that some of these activities -- the cemetery visit in particular, probably -- are fraught with peril.
Some people consider New Orleans to be a very dangerous city. It is certainly a poor city, but I don't feel that it is the murderous ghetto it's made out to be. All I can tell you is that I've done these things countless times and no one has ever bothered me. Maybe I'm foolhardy. I know I am averse to living my life in a shell of fear. Be sensible, keep your eyes open, and have fun.
If you're interested in museums, there's the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, and the African-American Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood, and the Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street, and the fabulous Wax Museum on Conti Street (don't miss the Chamber of Horrors), and the Confederate Museum and the D-Day Museum...yes, there are quite a few museums.
Oh, and a small plug: The Garden District Book Shop, in the Rink shopping center on Prytania Street, has signed copies of most or all of my books: "Lost Souls", "Drawing Blood", "Wormwood", "Triads", "The Devil You Know" and "Liquor".
Shown: Detail, Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans
Photo: Beth Winegarner
Aubdubon Park in Uptown New Orleans (right off St. Charles Avenue) is very beautiful and great for walking, running, biking; even golf, if you're into that. One thing I enjoy there is birdwatching. There's a lagoon with an island where egrets, herons, and ibises nest. If you like birds, other good places to see them are the bayou that runs along Marconi Drive near City Park (great blue herons, egrets, ibises) and the lakefront (brown pelicans, especially in West End Park -- walk across the footbridge behind the old hurricane-wrecked Bruning's restaurant).
As a special favor to me, please do not wear Mardi Gras beads unless it is Fat Tuesday and/or you have just been to a parade. At any other time, they are just a big garish sign hanging around your neck screaming I'M A DUMBASS TOURIST -- PLEASE ROB ME.
I would also greatly appreciate it if you did not patronize Bourbon Street T-shirt shops or buy/wear those stupid-looking jester/Cat in the Hat hats.
These sites may be of help for further city information: St. Roch site , NewOrleans.com, NOLA, NoLa Blog
Shown/header image: Exhibit detail, Voodoo Museum
Author bio: Poppy Z. Brite is the author of seven novels, three collections of short stories, and much miscellanea. Early in her career she was known for her horror fiction, but at present she is working on a series of novels and short stories set in the New Orleans restaurant world. Her novel, "Liquor", was recently published by Three Rivers Press to general critical acclaim; the follow-up, "Prime", will be released in 2005. She lives in New Orleans with her husband Chris, a chef.
More NoLa: Read Brite's blog or check out some real-life places Brite has used as settings in her work.
Read other travel features in the OCT/NOV issue of "Arte Six".