Meet our FQJ "Libations" columnist who believes that with the right amount of respect, humility and luck, Lady New Orleans will embrace a visitor as one of her own.
- by Adam Tusin
- photos by Kerry Maloney and Ellis Anderson
I arrived in New Orleans in 2003, stationed here by the United States Marine Corps to work as a journalist in public affairs. After leaving the airport, I dropped my bags in temporary barracks, and the Marine who had fetched me said, “Well, I’m going to Bourbon Street. Wanna come?”
I was a 22-year-old Marine. Of course I wanted to come. I had been in New Orleans less than an hour. I remember thinking I would love this place for about six months before its charm started to wear off.
That was 16 years ago last June.
The French Quarter is magic because people are magic. When one says “New Orleans” to the uninitiated, only one neighborhood comes to mind - the original one. The past soaks everything, from the sidewalks to balconies. It is the residue from the spectrum of human emotion and experience. From utter torture to blinding euphorea, for centuries.
The Quarter is “The Lady New Orleans,” as my wife, Melody, is fond of saying. My 18-minute, on-foot work commute takes me from one end to the other. It begins on the more residential side and slowly morphs into the tourist-driven commercial area, closer to Canal Street.
I often come across slow-moving tourists, wide-eyed, blocking the sidewalk. I am not annoyed. These visitors pay my rent, after I pour them drinks. It is nice, almost flattering, to see them appreciate the magic of this place I call my home.
I got out of the Marine Corps in the summer of 2005. By then I had decided to stay in New Orleans and embrace it as a civilian. I took jobs working a door and bar-backing, trying to break into the industry. Then, that August, Katrina. A story for another time. I was spared any real tragedy, instead subjected to what I would call “massive inconvenience.”
Too many others suffered so much more. I returned in November to an almost unrecognizable city. So few people had returned that when I went looking for employment at the few establishments that had reopened, there was plenty of work available.
For the first few years that I worked in the French Quarter, I lived in the surrounding faubourgs. The word “faubourg” likely comes from the French “faux bourg,” meaning “false-boro." Americans (and many others) began to settle in these areas around the original city as New Orleans grew.
The French Quarter is the old city. There is a different kind of magic in this beautiful place to be sure. But it is not a different dimension.
As I continue to walk toward Bienville, the panhandlers, 24-hour bars, cover bands, street performers and clamoring tourists reach critical mass. I turn onto Exchange Alley, an oasis in the fold of the madness. I’ve worked at the Pelican Club there off and on for the past 10 years. We are a casual fine- dining establishment, chef-owned and operated. I help run the bar.
The bar windows look out over the alley, a beautiful pedestrian walkway. People saunter and enjoy their surroundings, shuffling brochure maps as if touring the 11 countries of Epcot center. Although Disney is completely manufactured and the French Quarter can be a little too real, it is not without its theatre.
If you take another stroll around the Quarter around six or seven in the morning, most visitors have bedded down for the night to process the night’s alcohol through that wretched sickness called hangover. The music is replaced by dump trucks collecting mountains of trash, municipal workers sweeping sidewalks and trucks blasting aromatically-engineered cleaning chemicals onto the pavement. Shopkeepers pressure wash the humanity from their storefronts. The janitorial dance seems to end as quickly as it began, and the tableau is reset for another day.
This happens every day. It would be difficult to appreciate the magic of this place still covered in the flotsam of last night’s poor decisions.
Poor decisions are a rite of passage for tourists and residents alike, and are important to life experience and developing character. Either the Lady New Orleans spares you, or forces you to suffer the consequences.
Every Mardi Gras, Orleans Parish Prison cells are filled with inebriated out-of-towners who thought it a good idea to urinate on a sidewalk, slap a police horse on the ass or start a bar fight on Bourbon Street.
Our cocktail decisions have consequences. I see lots of cleverly-shaped novelty cups coming from the bars off Bourbon. Fishbowls and grenades and light-up skulls. People convince themselves the strong, sugary concoctions are worth the price because of the souvenir cup in which it’s served. But drinks with high sugar content tend to produce severe hangovers.
Slightly less sugary and a bit less generic, tiki drinks go well with the climate here. Think umbrellas and coconut cups. New Orleans is sometimes referred to as the northernmost Caribbean city. Check out Latitude 29 (321 North Peters) for a nice selection of tiki drinks.
Classic New Orleans cocktails – done well - are my personal favorite and what I enjoy making. People have been tinkering with cocktails a long time, and I think too many bartenders try to plant their own flags before mastering the classics. I really enjoy the French 75 Bar (813 Bienville) and the Carousel Bar (214 Royal St.), although the Carousel is often crowded. You’ll want to dress up a bit for these establishments, and generous pours may necessitate some pre-dinner nap time.
Innovators, and those who fancy themselves such, abound in the cocktail community. I’m a bit of a purist and believe most improvement can be made with sourcing the best ingredients and well- balanced proportions.
Too often craft cocktail bars force ingredients together to create a muddied, inelegant mess of flavors, like a Mother’s Day breakfast made by an eight-year-old with M&Ms in the scrambled eggs.
One place that is doing it right is Jewel of the South (1026 St. Louis). Expect to wait for these handcrafted drinks as quality takes a little time. There were some ingredients on the cocktail menu that I and my wife, also a career bartender, had never heard of. But they honor the traditions, use quality ingredients and match flavors that make sense.
Then there are the industry bars. Ask a bartender, “What do you like to drink?” and the answer is often simple: a shot and a beer. Many dive bars have shot and beer specials targeting us industry folk. But remember you are ordering two drinks at once, and the pours tend to be stout.
Most restaurant employees have their after-hours spot near work. I encourage you to find your favorite local industry bar; they are not hard to spot and there’s no shortage. Some streets have high concentrations: Decatur, Chartres and Rampart. Keep in mind that most of the denizens know each other in some way. You are a welcome guest, but you are still a guest.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but I am not here to preach moderation. I am not in the business of moderation. This is not to condemn, or lecture, or even advise. I simply wish to add to the zeitgeist: Lady New Orleans is full of magic to be sure, but she doesn’t owe you a thing. With the right amount of respect, humility and luck, she will embrace you as one of her own and guide you through her gritty splendor.