New Orleans brings to mind two very distinct collections of memories. The first dates from the few times I made it over to the Big Easy from Pensacola while in training to become a naval aviator over twenty years ago. The second from my three weeks in Officer Recruiting Officer training that was held at the Navy’s Belle Chasse Department of Redundancy Department a mere 15 years ago. Most noteworthy is that both memory-gathering eras were before kids. Much of what little I knew of New Orleans was through the eyes of a much younger person unfettered by the joys of parenting, which meant I didn’t plan this visit accordingly. This sign kinda summed up my previous vision.
And somehow I didn’t know to recognize that disconnect until we pulled chocks and rolled on to Pensacola. Sigh…
New Orleans is a vibrant town whose reputation I understood to center on its laissez faire attitude. Although the city itself is a beautiful compilation of the varied influences of the many different people who have called this area home, I think it is the shifting identity of “creole” that is the basis of this attitude. I’ll get to what it is to be creole shortly, but first, a few highlights of what was in my greatest hits memory playlist to share with our kids. The French Quarter topped the list for sure, as that’s where we’d find the perfect mix of all that NOLA is known for – a little Jazz, a hurricane or two, beignets at Café du Monde, street musicians. What kid wouldn’t want to be exposed to that?
Hmm. Not unlike Las Vegas, there is a wide range of how one might experience New Orleans, all of which you can’t unsee, and so the plan evolved into how best to do so without scarring our kids unnecessarily. Looking back, we had planned our time in Texas quite well, meaning Flight and I discussed very specifically what we were cleared to do while the other was out of town, saving things we both wanted to enjoy as our flight of five for when we were all together again. Not only did we neglect to have that critical conversation before we moved Davista into the city, only steps away from the French Quarter the night before we moved on to Pensacola, but our individual ill-conceived visions for sharing the past with our kids were strikingly similar, which meant we perhaps overdid the French Quarter and didn’t see much of everything else. Shame on us.
So, let me back up our arrival and Flight’s departure for his work trip. When we departed Houston and blew by the road to Galveston, I was astonished to learn the combined Houston/Galveston metropolitan area boasts the fourth highest population in the U.S. !!! It would not be my preference to plant my flag in the line of annual hurricane wreckage, but apparently a lot of people do.
As Flight was at Davista’s controls, the flight path to New Orleans was his to choose. We mostly hugged the shoreline, and my meteorological assessment of this neck of the Gulf Coast proved spot on as we wound our way through small town after small town with all buildings of consequence on stilts.
I had previously seen houses in flood zones so perched, but was surprised to see a high school campus on stilts.
At last we arrived at the Bayou Segnette State Park. I initially had some reservations about this location, but our site proved a lovely little corner from which we could strike in any direction. A bonus was seeing whatever flora and fauna was out and about as we strolled along the raised boardwalk to get to and from the bathhouse. We saw an abundance of turtles, ripe mulberries (which Flight and I each sampled whenever passed through, much to the dismay of Keeper and Firebolt (WoodSprite actually tried one but decided they weren’t her favorite) whose anxiety was not eased as we repeated nearly verbatim our SERE training on berries), and thankfully only one snake.
Shortly after our arrival, we managed an early dinner, some chalk artwork, and rolled to the airport.
We dropped Flight off on Sunday evening and had to fend for ourselves until we collected him three days later. The following morning, after many hours of strong work devoted to dawdling school, I saw the wisdom of staying put for the afternoon to regroup before we headed to the French Quarter. I made the opportunity to review the two National Park Service sites that are only blocks away from each other and tentatively put them on the calendar to check out on different days.
Despite their proximity, there was a night and day difference between the two National Park institutions. The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a conglomeration of six sites and headquartered on Decatur St, one of the main drags through the French Quarter. There was also a daily Ranger presentation scheduled every morning at 0930. Typically we will try to knock out academic business in the morning, sometimes modified sometimes not, before we use the afternoons to explore the local environs. Primarily based on the scheduled Ranger talk I thought we should hear, we made the whole day a field trip day and headed into New Orleans proper at a most unreasonable hour.
Most fortuitously, and likely due to the early hour, we readily found parking and made it to the Visitor Center with four minutes to spare.
After a brief introduction on the title of the collection of NPS sites falling under the Jean Lafitte NHP (“I have a hard time with this site being named for a notorious pirate…”), the Ranger gave a solid history on the development of New Orleans and all the flags that have flown above her constantly shifting boundaries. What I hadn’t realized is that in the wake of LaSalle’s exploration of the Mississippi, the travel route from what is now Quebec to La Louisiane (named for then King Louis XIV) opened up, further compounding the influence of far reaching empires. In fact, a large part of what now makes up the local Cajun population is rooted in Acadian transplants (les Acadiens became the truncated “Cajun”) who, after being forcibly removed from their homes, traveled down the river from NE Canada. WoodSprite’s greatest take away from the talk was “Don’t treat people who work for you bad or they might kill you.” Apparently, LaSalle was notoriously unpleasant to his crew and, after several failed ventures (we’re talking on the scale of sunken ships and being shipwrecked 500 miles away from the intended destination), his minions mutinied and killed him. Zoinks!
After the Ranger’s presentation, we collected the Junior Ranger books and the girls got to work. Overall, this was the most depressing NPS Visitor Center we have visited. The Junior Ranger books were sloppy copies and many of the audio exhibits for listening to variations in local dialects and juxtaposing different music styles that have their roots in New Orleans, which I certainly would have enjoyed hearing, were out of service.
Even the Ranger who administered the oath to the girls looked as though she had just come straight out of a week in the field at the Barataria Preserve. On a positive note, we still learned a ton about both the Creole and Cajun cultures.
I had always understood “Creole” to be the nebulous descriptor for anyone who called the bayou country home. Not so. The term Creole has gone through several iterations in its meaning over the years. With its roots in South America, the term originally meant “native-born,” and was used as a means of identifying the native population from European transplants. Creole then morphed to include children of mixed racial descent and/or those who have French or Spanish blood. The best description of current usage I found comes from Louisiana historian Fred B. Kniffin, in Louisiana: Its Land and People, who stated Creole “has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house, and many other things. It is therefore no precise term and should not be defined as such.” Well, that clears things up.
Despite having no more solid a grasp on what it means to be Creole, my inner foodie was excited to see there was a discussion of the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine. In the loosest terms, the former tends to refer to “city food” and the latter to “back country” eats, however those terms are becoming interchangeable in the mainstream culinary circles. Or so I read at the Visitor Center. I have since learned that one of the prime discriminators between the two may be tomatoes, as Creole cooking uses them and Cajun does not, but not even that is a strict definition. The two styles of cooking reflect the unique identities of the people who have added to them over the years. The resourceful Cajun practice of using every bit of an animal and layering seasoning throughout its creation is very different from the Creole cuisine that developed more wide-ranging flavors steeped in the aristocratic tradition of having access to more exotic ingredients. I thoroughly enjoy both styles and was delighted to sample some of each, which brings me to our next unplanned evolution.
Our Junior Rangers were sworn in at 11:30ish and the Ranger encouraged us to make our way to the New Orleans Jazz NHP to catch the free jazz concert at noon. There would be another concert down the street at 2 pm featuring a band of Rangers who were all Jazz Musicians. After contemplating what kind of a threshold our children had for National Park venues as the lunch hour was nearly upon us, I proposed this compromise: let’s go pick up the new Junior Rangers books, listen to some of the concert and then get some lunch. The kids were game so we trundled off to other NPS site, collected new activity books that were no more challenging, and sat down to hear some Jazz. Much of this light, airy Visitor Center was taken up by a small performance hall with a goal of telling the story of this very important part of New Orleans history through experiencing the music.
Now I will admit I came to this session entirely uneducated in the mechanics of jazz save knowing there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on throughout sets, which usually starts with blending the sounds of all the musicians first, working through solo opportunities for each instrument, and then coming together again in a finale of sorts. I knew nothing of jazz piano, except that my uncle loves to play Dixieland jazz and I’ve only had the opportunity to hear him once or twice.
We were fortunate to have Richard Scott (see above photo) as our high noon solo entertainer. He spoke about the birth and evolution of Jazz and infamous piano player Jelly Roll Morton’s, well, role in that changing musical discipline, all the while playing examples of what he had just discussed. He gave a fantastic description of playing “Stride” jazz, where a piano player takes on the role of three different musicians to play a melody, a base line, and the in between harmony. Because a pianist is usually limited to two hands, the base hand walks or strides between the base keys and those hammering out the harmony. I have to say it was far more impressive to hear him play and improvise knowing a little more about all that goes into such a production. You can learn more about the New Orleans Jazz NHP here.
Exhibiting uncharacteristic patience, our kids did brilliantly with this experience. I knew to cut our time short than overstay their threshold for learning and have them give in to mounting sass driven by gnawing bellies. We quietly excused ourselves and meandered down to the Royal House Oyster Bar where all the kids all tried fried alligator.
While the girls are still eager to rely on the familiar offerings of kids’ menus, Keeper is quite pleased to order from the regular offerings. He surprised all of us, especially our waiter, by ordering the blackened redfish, which was delicious. I enjoyed sampling his meal more than my Taste of New Orleans that featured jambalaya, crawfish etouffée, and gumbo.
While we were awaiting our meals, the girls finished up their NO Jazz Junior Ranger workbooks and after dining we popped back over to have their work evaluated to earn their newest badges.
We took a rather serpentine route through the French Quarter to find our car and I realized there were so many places I wanted to further investigate, but that likely wouldn’t happen on this trip. Although, really, how scary might some voodoo stuff be especially for the 8 and under crowd? Exactly.
I knew Flight wanted to introduce our kids to beignets and so avoided Café du Monde. Instead we sampled some other New Orleans goodies and passed through the French Market at a steady clip. On our way we found pralines for all my friends. Happily double-badged and sweet-tooth pacified, our girls were delighted to call our French Quarter experience good. Keeper, however, started feeling nauseous on the way back to Davista. His system was overwhelmed by the rich food combined with the sugar hit. Poor guy.
As always, I was thrilled we’d be collecting Flight the following morning. In general, and as one might expect, this journey is so much easier with my life’s partner present, but keeping track of our gaggle together through the French Quarter was especially stressful and I was relieved we’d be returning to the 2-on-3 zone defense. After a quick Instant Pot dinner (for everyone but Keeper, still woozy he abstained), I sorted out the kids’ respective school agendas for the morning and didn’t think much beyond what time we had to depart for the airport before crashing out. My last coherent thoughts were vaguely centered on wondering what we’d do tomorrow with Flight as we’d covered a lot of Vieux Carré ground already today…
More on that in the next post…