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Sunday, Dec 15, 2019

Brunch Travel: Halloween in New Orleans!

From real zombies walking the streets to haunted hotspots galore, New Orleans is truly the place to be for those who love to be terrified!

brunch Updated: Oct 27, 2019 00:23 IST
Aarti Sethi
Aarti Sethi
Hindustan Times
The French Quarter in New Orleans is known to be haunted
The French Quarter in New Orleans is known to be haunted(Aarti Sethi)
         

In which cities of the world is it legal to drink alcohol on the streets? This seemed like a good question to ask ourselves before we planned our family holiday. For us, that meant something for everyone.

Everything fabulous you’ve heard about New Orleans is true. The live jazz bars, the bands on street corners, cyclists with hands-free cocktail glasses, magical lanterns, epic Cajun-Creole cuisine, quaint street cars, and musical boats on the mighty Mississippi.

Guns just want to have fun

In NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), the party is at Bourbon Street. The trick is to live close enough to it to walk, but not close enough to become deaf. There are few cars to be seen, and there is always the option of a horse drawn carriage. We quickly ticked off Jackson Square, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), St Louis Cathedral, and the World War II Museum.

The mighty Mississippi river is home to musical boats and restaurants serving Cajun-Creole cuisine by its banks
The mighty Mississippi river is home to musical boats and restaurants serving Cajun-Creole cuisine by its banks ( Aarti Sethi )

Why is there such a large and famous Second World War museum in Louisiana, USA? I had to find out, and dragged the niece and nephew along. It helped that we are all obsessed with the two big wars. At first, it seemed like a typographical error. “World War Two – 1941 to 1945.” What? Yes, America did indeed join the war in 1941, but I’m not sure it’s correct to believe that this defines its factual duration. Once we got past that, there were war planes and a 4-D movie (rotating seats, falling snow et al), and fascinating original war memorabilia. It turns out that this museum is amongst the top tourist attractions in the United States.

The music on the streets greets visitors at every nook and corner
The music on the streets greets visitors at every nook and corner ( Aarti Sethi )

Our Airbnb debut was extraordinary. On the way to it, we crossed statuesque American townhouses, charming Creole cottages, and French Colonial plantation homes which had clearly been preserved. Ours was a delightful Shotgun House from the 1800s. Which means that if you stand in front of the house, you can shoot a bullet clear through every room in the place (we did not do this). From the outside it looked like a small cottage, but extended inwards into large bedrooms with panelled walls, parquet floors, high ceilings, a stone-tiled open modern kitchen, and finally, a sun terrace and fountain. This southern home had luxurious bathrooms with claw-foot bathtubs, casement windows and antique fans complete with an oddly comforting whirring sound. I was confused. Is this Airbnb or was I staying with Ida Mae or Mary-Lou Jane from Louisiana, circa 1808? Everything was as it should be in the Deep South. We were relieved there were no slaves.

Big street costume party

We had two new culinary objectives. Beignets. And alligator meat. It’s a yes to the first and a big no to the second. Alligator meat is chewy, but unlike rabbits, alligators are not particularly endearing, so the guilt is missing. Beignets, on the other hand are made of bread, butter, sugar and a little bit of cloud. They were soft, warm and sweet. One bite and I was thinking of fairies laughing and tinkling carousels. We sat by the river, ate them with powdered sugar flakes, and watched the boats go by.

Beignets at the famous Cafe du Monde are soft, warm and sweet
Beignets at the famous Cafe du Monde are soft, warm and sweet ( Aarti Sethi )

The music on the streets is not just jazz. We foot-tapped to string quartets, the stray piano man, and a lot of wonderful guitar. The live music is up against the background of colourful street art and landscapes. It’s an irresistible juxtaposition. In the French Quarter, we walked from bar to restaurant to coffee shop to bar again, and realised that most places had music, and every place was casual. Perhaps it’s because this area is full of tourists, we didn’t see anyone formally dressed. We did see a man sipping Gatorade in a pink flamingo costume, spotted an octogenarian in Spiderman pyjamas, spied a man outside the church dressed as a priest (maybe he was a priest), saw a Dominatrix hailing a carriage, as well as a guy in thongs cleaning a street lamp. And it wasn’t Halloween yet.

The author (left) armed with a stick to brave the real zombies walking the streets
The author (left) armed with a stick to brave the real zombies walking the streets ( Aarti Sethi )

The French Quarter in New Orleans is reportedly one of the most haunted places in the United States. The city is proud of its forbidding reputation, and its tourist attractions are proof of this. The Mortuary is an old mansion that rests in the middle of a cemetery and served as an actual mortuary for 80 years. Now it is flooded with sightseers who go there on Halloween to be terrified. Halloween stealthily approached us, and houses on the streets had been decorated with grotesque ghouls, jeering jack ’o’ lanterns and smiling skeletons. What we did not expect to see were real zombies walking on the streets. We’re still not sure if the vacant-eyed chap with the outstretched arms and slow mechanical walk was one of those, or simply a lively reveller. My sister Anandi and I armed ourselves with sticks and bricks just in case.

The gumbo is quite a hit too
The gumbo is quite a hit too ( Aarti Sethi )

The indoor-outdoor French Market was on the list for souvenirs. We couldn’t believe there were so many things there that we had done without all this while. Mardi Gras beads, a Rougarou mask (the famous Louisiana swamp monster), wooden clogs (in case of floods), multiple versions of hot pepper sauce, General Jackson bobbleheads, ancient hats of Louisiana (in case we were invited to a hunt), and the essential Hurricane Glass in the shape of male genitalia. There is little wonder that in our time at the French Quarter, we did not spot any children. Having said that, I understand that the city sports a fabulous zoo, amusement park, and Butterfly Garden.

Not by bread alone

New Orleans was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the period when the country was coming together in bits and pieces which were bought, acquired, taken from the European powers that had occupied them. ‘Occupied,’ because the original residents have always been Native Americans. This amalgamation over the decades brought together two of the world’s most wonderful cuisines. Cajun and Creole.

On Halloween, houses on the streets are decorated with grotesque ghouls, jeering jack ’o’ lanterns and smiling skeletons
On Halloween, houses on the streets are decorated with grotesque ghouls, jeering jack ’o’ lanterns and smiling skeletons ( Aarti Sethi )

I learnt that the biggest difference between the two is that Creole cuisine uses tomatoes and proper Cajun does not. So off we went on a merry trail to discover the finer nuances of both. I say merry, because each of these gastronomic quests was accompanied by amazing cocktails and even better music. Coop’s Place gave us a stunning seafood gumbo, spicy jambalaya, crabmeat stuffed jalapeno peppers and Étouffée, (a wonderfully seasoned stew). Everything was always accompanied by hot, crisp bread. We ate fresh oysters almost everywhere we went, but the giant plates at Acme Oyster House won. The lively, grungy Frenchmen Street is home to a row of feisty bars…the Spotted Cat Music Bar, Apple Barrell with men on electric guitars, and Adolfo’s, which serves Italian cuisine with Cajun-Creole influence. The stuffed flounder in ocean sauce (crabmeat, crawfish and capers) was so good that I thought it had jumped off my plate and slapped me.

Bourbon street in NOLA is one happening place!
Bourbon street in NOLA is one happening place! ( Aarti Sethi )

My nephew Kartikeya tracked down Dat Dog and ate a ‘Croc-Dog’ but I didn’t want to get into that. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar was built in the 1700s. At the time, when someone said that they ‘knew a guy,’ they meant Jean Lafitte. Today, after surviving two great fires, more than one devastating flood, and the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, it is known as the oldest standing structure used as a bar in the United States.

At the French Market you get the chewy alligator meat
At the French Market you get the chewy alligator meat ( Aarti Sethi )

In 1721, priest-chronicler Charlevoix said that New Orleans was “a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators.” Three hundred years later, it is known as ‘the Big Easy’. In striking contrast, it is a place of exuberance, of jazz cruises, astonishing food, dazzling energy, and of simple, unadulterated joie de vivre.

Author bio: A former executive with the Swatch Group, Aarti Sethi is a free-spirited soul based in Delhi, who is loved by friends for her sense of humour, and hated because she loves dogs more than people!

From HT Brunch, October 27, 2019

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