A Tale of Two “Lauras”
So, it was our first night back from our Spring Break trip to New Orleans, and we were sitting around the dinner table doing a recap. I asked Yao Yao what her favorite part of the trip was, and she didn’t hesitate for a second: “Laura’s,” she said.
Jim, my husband, and I looked at one another and beamed, two proud parents who had instilled a love of architecture and history in our child. Okay, let me backtrack: On the last full day of the trip, we had rented a car and driven out to plantation country, and our favorite of the two plantations we visited was called “Laura,” run by a creole woman. It was a fascinating place, but still, we were surprised that it had had such an impact on Yao Yao. And we felt a little self-congratulatory, I’ll admit. For a minute, at least:
“I don’t know which I liked more – the pralines or the Mississippi Mud.”
Wait. What? Obviously, she’s not talking about Laura, the plantation. She’s talking about Laura’s, the candy shop.
And we came crashing back down to earth. It was lesson in not becoming too invested in the “lessons” our kids take away from these trips. They come around. They always do. But not necessarily on our timetable.
The reason we chose New Orleans in the first place was one of those quirky little moments that piques a kid’s interest. We were watching the movie Chef, with Jon Favreau, the story of a chef who, after a horrible – and horribly public – contretemps with a food blogger, sets out to rediscover what made him love food and cooking in the first place. He opens a food truck and sets off across country, and when he reaches New Orleans, he teaches his son about the glories of beignets at Café du Monde, among other things. Right then and there, Yao Yao added the Big Easy to her bucket list. (Come to think of it, can a 13-year-old have a bucket list?)
And truth be told, Yao Yao “got” New Orleans right away – its balance of history, tradition, and lore on the one hand and pure hedonism on the other. (Except for Yao Yao, “hedonism” was confined to beignets at Café du Monde most mornings and po-boys, jambalaya, gumbo, and red beans and rice the rest of the day.) In other words, it’s the Two Lauras.
There is a tremendous amount to do in New Orleans with kids, and it all fits in the Two Lauras Framework. Our days were spent wandering the historic neighborhoods – Treme one day, the Garden District the next (you have to take the streetcar out there – and at three dollars for an all-day pass, it’s one of the city’s great bargains), and the Marigny the following day, soaking in each neighborhood’s history, personality, and architectural style. And each has its own signature eateries, all of which we sampled whenever the mood struck us.
In fact, on our Treme day (the only day we didn’t start at Café du Monde), we walked to Li’l Dizzy’s for grits and eggs (breakfast) and headed straightaway in the direction of Willie Mae’s Scotch House for their signature fried chicken (lunch). Nobody starves visiting New Orleans, cher.
And we would often combine visits to certain areas to correspond to mealtimes – for instance, a trip Uptown meant lunch at Casamento’s on Magazine Street – where the fried oyster po-boys are served on entire loaf of bread.
Nights were spent mostly wandering the Quarter, studiously avoiding Bourbon Street, listening to the street musicians, and window shopping. Yao Yao loved all the music, from single folkies to blaring brass bands. As a sop to Jim, who loves traditional music in all its guises, we waited hours to get into Preservation Hall to catch Shannon Powell’s band – an electrifying set that blew everyone’s socks off, including mine and Yao Yao’s.
So you see, New Orleans is much more than Bourbon Street and hurricane drinks. If that’s your pleasure, it does exist – still – but we found most of the city, and certainly the outer areas, steeped in history, architecture, and really good food, and that’s what we were there for. My only warning to those of you who enjoy good food, pace yourselves! This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Anyway, after the Two Lauras episode, we were surprised by two incidents that confirmed our theory: I walked upstairs and found Jim and Yao Yao on the computer, looking for a recipe for Boucherie’s 12-Hour Roast Beef Po-Boy sandwich, which they both enjoyed on the last day of the trip. And later in the day, Yao Yao asked me whether I would buy her the memoirs of the creole owner of the Laura Plantation.
Two Lauras strikes again.
Our trip was divided into two categories:
Louis Armstrong Memorial Park, home of Congo Square
There is something bittersweet about this park. On one hand it’s a tribute to a musical legend (one of Jim’s favorites), but on the other hand, it’s not safe to visit in the evening and is surrounded by some of the tougher areas in NOLA. Congo Square is an emotional sight to see, and it’s easy to image the enslaved men and women coming to play music on Sundays in this one space permitted by authorities. I was told that local musician’s gather and play music here, and I wish we’d had the opportunity to experience such a session. The park is 32 acres and it’s a lovely place to walk, eat a sandwich, or visit some of the artwork that’s been installed.
Louis Armstrong Memorial Park
Cabildo Museum in Jackson Square
Housed in the building where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, this is a great museum for the entire family. I was surprised at how much time Yao Yao spent here, and I suggest seeing the museum before heading out to the plantations – it doesn’t sugarcoat the slave experience.
About an hour outside New Orleans, this Creole plantation was one of our favorites. The grounds are one of the best preserved in the area, with some of the slave homes still existing. You can tour the grounds with a guide (ours was excellent and really made history come to life). There is a log of the men and women who were enslaved with names and their “worth.” It was haunting – and had a big impact on Yao Yao.
Built in 1878, the Destrehan Plantation is the oldest documented plantation home in lower Mississippi. The grounds are lovely, the guides are costumed, and it’s only 30 minutes from New Orleans.
The epicenter of New Orleans jazz, Preservation Hall is a real treat, and I strongly suggest you go online and book your Big Shot tickets immediately, which allows you to skip the line and waltz (or strut) right in. The Hall is an intimate space and doesn’t house very many people. There’s no alcohol served, and it’s a suitable for the entire family.
Established in 1919, this is classic Louisiana with an Italian twist. You line up along the counter and wait your turn. My soft-shell crab po-boy could have fed a family of four! You feel like you have stepped back in time.
A bit down at the heel, but so-o-o good. This was the first meal we had in New Orleans and the wait was about 25 minutes. Yao Yao’s face lit up when she bit into her fried shrimp po-boy. I was lamenting the fat and carbohydrate content and the woman next to me leaned over and said, “Honey, don’t worry about it. Our bread is very light.” That became the mantra every time we tucked into another huge po-boy – in other words, we used it a lot. It’s a fun, funky spot. No table service.
Mr. B’s Bistro
This eatery was recommended by Rick and Mike, dear friends who have lived in New Orleans. I may have consumed a pound of butter by the end of the evening, but it was worth it. I’m not a huge bread pudding fan, but seriously, try it here. It’s out of this world.
Mr. B’s Bistro
K- Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
Credited with bringing Cajun cooking to broader America, Paul Prudhomme is the anchor of the K-Paul institution. We had a wonderful evening and our appetizers (chicken and Andouille gumbo for the spouse, shrimp and fried green tomatoes pour moi) were incredible, but we were not as impressed with our entrees. This however, was after a full week of eating too much of. . . well, everything.
We had an amazing time at this neighborhood eatery in the Garden District. I thought the food here was superior to some of the more renowned restaurants we visited. Make a reservation as they book up quickly.
Café du Monde
They first started serving coffee in 1862 and haven’t stopped. This open-air French café serves chicory coffee and piping hot, sugarcoated beignets, and it also makes for great people watching. This was definitely one of Yao Yao’s top picks.
Acme Oyster House
Yes, it’s a bit touristy, and yes, it’s a long wait to get in, and yes, it’s not cheap for such a casual eatery, but it’s fun and lively and a good midlevel spot to eat oysters, soft shell crab, and the like. I always hate to admit liking a place that’s on every list, but it’s good and fun and the wait staff was great.
Acme Oyster House
We got a small bag (read $15.00) of mixed pralines (it’s prah-, not pray-, by the way) every day of the trip. We spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whose choice of treats was the best. The women who work here are generous with their samples, which just added to the ridiculous amount of sugar we consumed in one week! Hey, it’s New Orleans.
There are many more wonderful restaurants and hunderds of other places that deserve your time and attention from the aquarium, voodo tours, the Commandor’s Palace and so on. You are just going to have to pack your bags and see for yourself!
The food was really good in New Orleans. I liked that there was so much variety and not everything was fancy. We ate in some really fancy restaurants but we also ate in some very “funky” places, too. We even took po-boys to the park one day. I got to try beignets and fried green tomatoes. Laura’s chocolate was so good! Don’t miss it.