An Irreverently Honest Literary Tour of New Orleans

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It sounds high-minded: a literary tour of New Orleans. But like most things in this crescent city, scratch a bit at the ornate gold crown and you’re looking at fingernails full of paste. For every grandiosity, there is indeed a seedy underbelly, and so went this literary tour of the Big Easy as we bravely boarded a flight unsure if we’d be flying directly into Hurricane Harvey over the Labor Day weekend.

Our first stop was the famed, family-owned Hotel Monteleone, tucked into the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets, if the French Quarter’s only skyscraper could be said to be tucked into anything. We rushed through the lobby of this 1886 Beaux-Arts gem past four generations of Monteleones staring down at us from burnished, oil canvases and there it was: the Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge.

We’d like to say it made it to the top our list because Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner were fond of the slow, fifteen-minute rotations of this twenty-five-seat revolving bar that debuted in 1949, but we’d seen it featured in this summer’s guilty pleasure “Girls Trip” and immediately wondered if it actually existed. And indeed it did, garish circus lights and all. In fact, Truman Capote used to take the bar for a spin, telling patrons he was born in the hotel and everyone from Eudora Welty to Stephen Ambrose set pieces here.

We climbed up into one of the elegant, hand-painted chairs and ordered up a Vieux Carré cocktail created here in the late ‘30s. The cough medicine-blend of cognac, rye, and vermouth was enough to get day-drinking started with a bang and our informative bartender brought us up to speed on films that had used the Monteleone as a set before “Girls Trip” including the 1999 Ashley Judd thriller “Double Jeopardy,” 2006’s Jerry Bruckheimer production “Glory Road,” and Michael Keaton’s 2006 starrer “The Last Time.” John Cena even popped off 2009’s “12 Rounds” in room 1480, also known as the Vieux Carré Suite.

With enough cocktail down our gullets to coin the phrase “Vieux’s counting?” we decided to peel off onto Bourbon Street for a bit of lunch. We’d love to say we selected the white-linened elegance of Galatoire’s because it was Tennessee Williams’s favorite spot and he could often be seen in the corner by the white-lace curtains picking his way through a trout almondine or shrimp remoulade and peeping the raucous patronage, but the truth is this is where Stassi Schroeder brought the Vanderpump Rules chicks for a piss elegant lunch where Stassi spite-ordered a ton of seafood solely to annoy her shellfish-hating nemesis Scheana Shay.

But Shay be damned. Mark Twain himself called Galatoire’s fish “delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” French import Jean Galatoire opened his doors in 1905 and Friday lunch at this establishment has been de rigueur ever since. About a decade ago, a group of investors bought the restaurant out from under the Galatoire family, but they’ve done their best in the continuity department with Creole classics like duck and andouille gumbo, chicken bonne-femme and oysters Rockefeller.

And while it was Vanderpump that got us in the door, Williams was given his due as lunch drew to a close and, with the help of a few Sazerac cocktails – more rye, this time with bitters and a sugar cube – my dining partner bellowed Brando’s famous line from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “I’m not going to no Galatoire’s,” my friend announced, really leaning into the restaurant’s first syllable, “for supper!” It was met with a smattering of applause by other tourists and dirty looks from the locals as we went off in search of more Tennessee.

The last twenty years of Williams’s life were his best, loaded with booze and pills, hookers, and completely incomprehensible plays. And while searching – okay, at this point, stumbling – around looking for the New Orleans residence for this two decades of mayhem up until his death in the winter of 1983, we happened upon The Williams Research Center. “Bingo,” we cried, piling into another Beaux Arts beauty that went up in 1915 and, after doing time as the Second City Criminal Court and the Third District Police Station, sat vacant for many years before the galleries we were standing in opened in 2007 as the first new construction after Hurricane Katrina.

In a greeting that could have very well been, “Sshhhhh!” a docent politely asked if we’d visited before and quickly disabused us of our Tennessee Williams notion, letting us know it was a common mistake, but that local philanthropists General Lewis Kemper Williams and his wife, Leila Hardie Moore, held a substantial collection of important Louisiana artifacts that formed the basis of The Historic New Orleans Collection housed at the center. Even as we heaved up our elbows to beat a hasty retreat, the docent quickly let us know that the center was hosting an exhibition dedicated to New Orleans’ brief but glorious experiment with legalized prostitution.

“Ya don’t say?” we responded, making our way over to the “Storyville: Madams and Music” exhibit that sprawled over the center’s two floors. Before we were done we discovered a quaint neighborhood north of the French Quarter along Basin Street that Alderman Sidney Story set up in 1897; the little hood that could bumped and grinded its way right up to the dawn of WWI.

The one-two punch of sex and jazz quickly put Storyville’s beer halls and brothels on the map, so much so that a cottage industry – Blue Books, or guides to the local trade listing everything from local prostitutes to venereal disease cures – sprouted up and sold like the proverbial hot cakes. But a lobby poster for the notorious, 1978 Louis Malle film “Pretty Baby” grabbed our eye. It features a prepubescent Brooke Shields with plump, painted lips clutching a doll. She plays the Storyville denizen Violet whose virginity is auctioned off by Frances Faye’s elderly, cocaine-sniffing Madame Nell. Yep, we Netflixed on the spot.

If the First World War shut down Storyville, it could also be said to have shut down Lieutenant Donald Mahon, a fighter pilot downed over Europe and presumed dead who mysteriously finds himself on a train to his hometown of Charlestown, Georgia. Mahon is the lead of William Faulkner’s debut novel, Soldier’s Pay, famously published when his New Orleans mentor Sherwood Anderson agreed to forward it to his publisher so long as he didn’t actually have to read it himself.

This lore and more is on tap at Faulkner House Books in Pirate Alley, a street that was said to run red with the blood of pirates locked up in the eighteenth-century Spanish colonial prison Calabozo that used to dominate this street until it was demolished in 1837. Luckily, Faulkner’s house, built in 1840 and where he wrote Soldier’s Pay, still stands and houses this quaint bookshop that bears his name, but is dedicated to all Southern writers.

Just next door to Faulkner House is Pirates Alley Café, the best spot in town for the local, liquid delicacy known as absinthe. For more than twenty years, the less than 400-square-foot pub has been serving up the green fairy, albeit New Orleans’ slightly dumbed down, but legal version, which substitutes the controlled substance wormwood with a more genteel strain called Southern-wormwood. We threw back a few and would place the effects somewhere between the dirty-dancing-with-a-floor-lamp antics of the “Girls Trip” crew and a bit drunker than we were before we started in on the absinthe.

But before we knew it, it was time for our cooking class at the storied New Orleans School of Cooking. “Where y’all was?” asked an incredulous Miss Anne as we waltzed in while her gumbo lesson was already underway. We took a place at the back of the classroom and, as we’d already incurred some ire, we tipped into the frosty pitcher of the local ale Abita that was handy atop our red-and-white-checked tablecloth. Miss Anne quickly made our acquaintance with the trinity. No, this had nothing to do with religion or supermodels but rather was onions, bell peppers (or “pep-PAHS” as Miss Anne called them), and celery, the basis of a roux or just about anything else that has to do with New Orleans cooking.

“Whatever you do,” Miss Anne intoned Johnny Cochrane-style, “don’t burn the roux,” and she whisked away taking her pan from a sickly beige to a rich brown gravy or what she called “Cajun napalm.” While she whisked, she filled us in on the history of New Orleans, whose origins she summed up as Paris emptying a few jails in the early eighteenth century.

Her biggest surprise, though, was that for as august as Louisiana cooking seemed, the Cajun variation didn’t really arrive until the 1970s when Louisiana native Paul Prudhomme put it on the map when he returned to New Orleans to take a job as the sous chef at Le Pavillon Hotel. A few short years later, in 1975, he became the first American-born executive chef at Commander’s Palace, turning the unsuccessful Garden District spot into world-class dining.

By the early 1980s, Prudhomme had his own booming spot in the French Quarter called K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Things got so busy in the quarter that Prudhomme hired a young chef by the name of Emeril Lagasse to work at K-Paul’s, but it wasn’t until the mid-‘80s that Prudhomme truly jumped the blackened redfish, taking Cajun cooking along with him. In 1984 he published his first of eleven cookbooks entitled Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen and it went on to win the Culinary Classic Book Award. The following year, he created a K-Paul pop-up in New York City that almost went down in a flurry of twenty-nine violations from the Board of Health.

Facing jail time, Prudhomme did what any Creole worth his file would do: He kept cooking and it took then-mayor and notorious foodie Ed Koch to declare an end to what the tabloids dubbed The Gumbo Wars. It was a can-do attitude Prudhomme demonstrated until the day he died, some days commanding his kitchen from a motorized wheelchair. He remembered weighing in at more than 500 pounds as a teenager and vacillated between 200 and 600 pounds in his lifetime, a lot for his sturdy, five-foot-six frame.

When Katrina shut his French Quarter restaurant, he simply shifted his team over to a relief center where he cooked for free, doling out as many as 6,000 meals in just over a week. The food magazine Bon Appétit awarded Prudhomme their Humanitarian Award for his valor in the eye of Katrina and less than a decade later he passed quietly at age seventy-five in his beloved French Quarter.

“When the taste changes with every bite,” Prudhomme was fond of saying, “and the last bite tastes as good as the first, that’s Cajun.” Apparently, he wasn’t talking just about the cuisine.

Editor’s Notes:

Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone
214 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Open daily from 11am-1am
Phone: 504-523-3341

209 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Open daily from 11:30am-10pm, closed Mondays
Phone: 504-525-2021

Lafitte’s Guest House
1003 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, LA 70116
Street plaque dedicated to Tennessee Williams’ long-term residence
Phone: 504-581-2678

The Williams Research Center
410 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Open daily from 9:30am-4:30pm, closed Sundays and Mondays
Phone: 504-523-4662

Faulkner House Books
624 Pirate Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116
Open daily from 10am-6pm
Phone: 504-524-2940

Pirates Alley Café
622 Pirate Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116
Open daily from 12pm-12am, weekend until 2am
Phone: 504-524-9332

New Orleans School of Cooking
524 St Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Open daily from 9am-6pm
Phone: 504-208-5320