On Friday, January 16, we landed at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Holly’s parents and her grandmother picked us up and we immediately headed for the French Quarter. It’s been a good five years since we’ve been to New Orleans, so we had a day of shopping and eating planned as we meandered through the streets of the Vieux Carre, otherwise known as the French Quarter.
For many people the French Quarter IS New Orleans, however anyone from here knows that it’s simply one small section. Although it’s littered with tourist traps and souvenir shops, the French Quarter is also a vibrant and integral part of New Orleans. Plenty of people still actually live in the Quarter and it is almost a city unto itself. In addition there are tons of great restaurants and shopping that can’t be found anywhere else. If you’re ever planning a visit. I highly recommend getting away from Canal street and work your way deeper in the Quarter. The side nearest Canal street is the most touristy and least authentic section. We always aim for Jax Brewery to park and use that as our starting point for entering the quarter.
Jax Brewery used to be a brewery for Jax beer, but is now a shopping and dining complex that sits next to the Mississippi River and is catty corner to Jackson Square. Most of the businesses there are geared more towards tourists, but it’s a great place to park if you want to be close to the heart of the French Quarter. It’s also just two blocks down from one of the more famous landmarks of New Orleans – Cafe Du Monde.
This is one of the few places that I can think of that a world famous tourist attraction and also a local favorite. Cafe Du Monde sits just off Jackson Square and can easily be seen from a distance from it’s large green awning. 90% of the restaurant is outdoors. There’s some seating inside, but all the times that I’ve been there, I’ve never eaten in there. The outdoor areas is completely covered from above. Most of the sitting area is covered by a roof, but the outer section is covered by the green awning. Not having walls gives you a panoramic view of Jackson Square if you sit close to the sides. If you’re further in, you’ll be lost in a sea of people.
The seating consists of 50’s style aluminum tables and chairs. On the napkin dispenser is the menu, as brief as it is, and a waitress comes up to take your order. At your feet are well worn large slate tiles that transport you back to the early days of the quarter and pigeons scurry in the distance looking for dropped crumbs from recently departed guests. You can sit anywhere you like, but regardless of your seating choice, you will be entertained. Sometimes street musicians stand on the sidewalk just adjacent to the Cafe and play Jazz as you dine. Other street performers also make appearance. I’ve seen magician and clowns who make balloon animals, but the Jazz musicians are the most popular.
Cafe Du Monde only serves one dish and it’s Beignet’s. A Beignet is basically a doughnut, in fact that is what they were called back in the day, but it like no doughnut you’ve ever had. They are square and have no hole They are fried, just like a doughnut, but puff up after cooking and become somewhat light and fluffy with a crunchy exterior and instead of a glaze they are covered with powered sugar. They are a bit of a challenge to eat if you don’t want to get any powered sugar on you, but that’s part of the fun. The other thing that Cafe Du Monde is famous for is their coffee. They make a traditional French coffee that is a dark roast with chicory and comes in two forms: black or cafe au lait. Cafe au lait is simply a cup of half coffee and half milk.
An order of Beignet’s come 3 to a plate and since there were 5 of us in the group, we ordered 3 orders of Beignet’s. We figured that was enough, but we ended up ordering another order because they were just so good. I had the coffee with chicory, but everyone else enjoyed the cafe au lait. Holding your breath as you bite into the crunchy sweetness of a Beignets is a unique pleasure. With the mess that it makes with all the powered sugar, it’s a food that makes you feel like a kid again. You’re supposed to make a mess! As the dough almost melts in your mouth, you take a sip of rich dark coffee and let it all slide down. Sitting there with family, talking and laughing when you point out someone has some powered sugar on their nose, was the southern version of a Norman Rockwell painting.
I could have sat there all day soaking up the sounds, smells and tastes of the French Quarter, if it weren’t for the desire for another hallmark of New Orleans, the Central Grocery Muffuletta. So with full bellies and a perky disposition from the caffeine and sugar, we left Cafe Du Monde and headed down to the Central Grocery and the French Market.
Although we had just finished eating, I was ready to go to Central Grocery and eat a Muffuletta. I’ll explain more about what a Muffuletta is later, but suffice to say that my favorite sandwich of all time. I was like Joey from Friends, always ready for a sandwich. Everyone else convinced me that we could have it later after we finished shopping. Although that may have been the wise decision, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity and could have gone to Central Grocery right that second.
Instead, we continued walking and shopping down Decatur street at all the various touristy shops. However, I don’t mind these so much because New Orleans has so much more to offer than just T-Shirts. Spices, cookbooks, pralines, hot sauce and other various specialties can be found. When we lived here these items weren’t all that special since most could be found in our local grocery store, but since moving to New Orleans, these items are a bit more treasured now.
I shop a little bit faster than Holly, so I would go outside and sit on a scrolled iron bench and wait. James, Holly’s father, wasn’t far behind. This gave us a chance to catch up on things. He’d tell me about a recent fishing trip he and his son went on this fall and I’d talk about how the Mac is a great computer. It was our typical conversation, but I really look forward to them and sitting there in the cool weather listening to the brass bands playing in the distance and the other wonderful sounds of the Quarter made it even nicer.
Eventually, we made our way to the French Market, which is an open air market that’s been there forever. This is where the locals used to buy their fresh produce and some still do to this day. It’s a large covered area, but much like Cafe Du Monde, it’s open air. The first section is true to it’s name, but the latter half of the market is made up of Flea Market style shopping. I knew I was going to need a little help to get through the latter section of the market, so just before entering, i spied a small stand that served draft beer. I ordered a small Abita Amber, which is one of my favorite beers and is brewed locally in Abita Springs, Louisiana.
Enjoying my fresh draft beer, we made our way into the French Market. With my new found love of cooking, the traditional market stands were a blast to shop in. Hundreds of vendors have small shops were they sell untold spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cookbooks. Even though the products were fresh and new, the businesses looked like they had been there for 100 years and some actually may have. Slate tiles worn smooth from the passing of millions of customers and painted wood shelves worn to the paint from untold number of purchases were the norm. Shopping for groceries in a National Landmark is certainly a unique experience.
As we made our way deeper into the French Market, I couldn’t help but lose myself in all the many spices and mixes for sale. I’m still a cooking newbie, so many of the ingredients didn’t mean anything to me. In other words, I didn’t know how it could be used in a dish. I tried to take a mental picture so that when I run across a recipe that calls for something I haven’t used before, I can recall that picture and hopefully find it locally. Eventually my cooking pallet will expand and my next visit to the Market may have me leaving with a truckload of goodies. 🙂
Thinking about all this cooking actually made me a little hungry. It had been a few hours since enjoying those wonderful Beignets and I was in the right place if I needed a snack. I found one place selling “Alligator On A Stick”. How could I pass that up? Alligator on a stick is nothing more than alligator and pork sausage. It’s sliced to a serving size, skewered and served hot. I happen to like alligator by itself, but sausage form is good too. It made for a nice snack as we wandered further into the market.
There’s a small street that separates the grocery section of the French Market and the flea market section. As I stood at the edge, it was like looking into the gates of hell. This may be the first level, and thus not all that painful, but it was hell none-the-less. To Holly it looked like an amusement park as she picked her way though one table after another of hidden unknown treasures. With my interest gone, my plastic cup empty and my stick devoid of alligator, I went in search of the “man chair”, but there weren’t any to be had. I could sit on the curb, but the streets of New Orleans are some of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen and that didn’t seem like an option. The only thing keeping my spirits up was the Central Grocery Muffuletta awaiting me when the ladies were done. 😛
After two more hours of shopping, Holly, her Mother and here Grandmother were done shopping. Judie gave me just the pickup I needed when she announced, “Michael, you ready for a Muffuletta?” Damn skippy! I led them from the chaos that was the Flea Market back onto Decatur. I was taking them the fastest way back to Central Grocery and in 5 minutes were inside the doors and awash in the smells of olives and other Italian meats. It was around 5pm and I knew that they were set to close at 5:30pm so I had a huge smile on my face as I stood at the counter to place my order. That’s when the guy behind the counter made the announcement, “If you’re hear for a sandwich, we ran out of bread, so there are no Mufflers.”
Running out of things is normal in Louisiana. We’re blessed with a bounty of fresh fish, produce and baked goods and it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to run out of certain things. The guy behind the counter explained that they had a lot of people in that day, so they didn’t have enough bread on hand. They get fresh bread, especially made for them, each day so the only option was to come back another day.
I was disappointed for sure, but hope was not lost. I quickly rearranged our schedule and informed everyone that on Monday we would be returning here before catching our return flight. I said it not as a suggestion, but more as an edict.. We WILL be coming back on Monday. 🙂 To be so close to my favorite sandwich and to have to wait was frustrating, but as I thought about it more, it made more sense to pick up the sandwich before we caught our plane so that we could bring one home with us.
Bringing back a Muffuletta from Central Grocery for friends and family was a tradition I grew up with. If you heard someone was going to the Quarter, you’d ask them to bring you back one. I vividly remember our neighbor bringing back a brown paper sack that was almost clear from the olive oil leaching out from the sandwich. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. We’d thank them for the gift and immediately dive into eating the Muffuletta as they would tell us about their trip. Good times.
Our legs were tired from all the walking that we’d done that day, so we ended up choosing Franks, a restaurant that was close to eat dinner. It wasn’t all that good and IMHO is only in business thanks to tourism. I can’t see locals choosing to eat there. It’s not that the food was bad per se, but there are plenty of restaurants that are far better close by.
As we piled back into the car to make our hour and a half drive to Baton Rouge, I quickly fell asleep in the back seat. Maybe it’s a Pavlovian response from all the many years of driving back from New Orleans as a child, or the fact that I had just eaten dinner, but it was deep sleep that carried me all the way back to Baton Rouge. This day was a good day full of great food, great company and good times. Knowing that there was even more good stuff planned for the next day felt like a warm blanket wrapped around me.