I can’t stop thinking about New Orleans. Last fall, Brendan and I went down to Louisiana to meet my half-sister Thea and her husband Pop, a singing cowboy, at the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette. Beforehand, we spent three days in New Orleans. We stayed at the Maison de Macarty, a fantastically restored mansion on Burgundy Street in the Bywater. We had the front top room with a four-poster bed and shuttered French doors that opened out to a huge veranda.
The ghost in our room was an old horndog who spied on us from the ceiling fan above the bed, making it chug slowly to let us know he was watching, which made me laugh out loud. He toyed with my Internet connection – not Brendan’s, that worked perfectly the whole time. Mine sparked in and out, mostly out, according to his otherworldly whims.
When we told this to Will Poole, the proprietor, over breakfast, he looked amused and chilled, both at once. “He always does that,” he said. “He loves to play with electronics.” He showed us a photograph he’d taken of a blur of strange light in the mirror of the wardrobe in our room. “That’s him. He’s the former owner. I think he liked our renovation so much, he stayed on. He’s a happy ghost.”
Breakfasts at Maison de Macarty were uniformly spectacular. Feeling, as I always do, like a high-strung neurotic, I had requested gluten-free food. They delivered. During our stay there, we got eggs baked into rings of soppresata on spinach; custardy, savory cornmeal mini-quiches; and a densely packed frittata, all of which we gobbled up, along with the beautiful fruit salads alongside, despite the fact that we were eating lavishly all over town, all day long.
Alarmingly shortly after breakfast one day, we hiked over to the Joint and got heaps of smoked meat so tender it melted on the plate, with perfect coleslaw. We ate our haul at Bacchanal, a sweet, grungy fenced garden near the levee in back of a wine store. We sat at a wrought-iron table under a spreading tree drinking cold Provencal rose and eating barbecue until it was time for a nap and therefore a visit from the Peeping Tom ghost.
We splurged on a dinner one night at the Commander’s Palace in the Garden District. A valet whisked away our econo-crap rent-a-car. We entered under an awning, and it took a team of uniformed waitstaff just to seat us. We got sazeracs to start and then a bottle of white Bordeaux and then, with dessert, tawny port. The place was so perfectly Rat Pack circa 1969, we kept expecting Frank Sinatra to walk in, or at least a low-level mobster in a shiny suit, or at least a crestfallen gambler with a black eye. We gasped over the shrimp and tasso with henican, far and away the highlight of our very expensive, very memorable meal, described evocatively on the menu as “wild Louisiana white shrimp stuffed with spicy Cajun ham, Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, pickled okra and five pepper jelly.”
By the time we picked Pop and Thea up at the Baton Rouge airport, we were in excellent gustatory condition for the Blackpot. Pop and Thea are expert Cajun dancers, thanks to their friend Millie, who moved north and brought all things Cajun to St. Paul, Minnesota before moving back down to Lafayette. We made our preparations: Pop and Thea taught us to two-step at a barn dance in Eunice the night before the festival, and the next morning, on our way there, we outfitted the car with a cooler, many bottles of wine, some whiskey, bags of ice, potato chips, and plastic cups. We dubbed it the Bar Car, and then we were ready.
The Blackpot is an annual music festival and cookoff at the Acadian Village in Lafayette, a museumlike cluster of restored 19th-century cabins on a bayou. A big stage and bouncy dance floor, with food stands and a bar, are set up behind the village for the bigger bands, with solo performances in the old, light-filled chapel. The cookoff itself takes place in the field.
It all passed in a blur, as these things do. We waltzed and two-stepped until we forgot we didn’t know how. The music was perplexingly wonderful. The musicians, most of them, were young, good-looking as movie stars, shockingly talented — native kids who’d taken to the traditional old ways and revitalized the music – most notably, the Pine Leaf Boys and the Red Stick Ramblers. We managed to catch three old-timey concerts in the church: Tatiana Hargreaves, Del Rey, and Ginny Hawker & Tracy Schwartz. We all danced from early in the afternoon till very late at night, soberly, then tipsily, then drunkenly, then flat-out euphorically. When waltzes were played, the whole crowd moved in a stately circle together around the dance floor like a slowly turning wheel. During two-steps, all our heads bobbed together, down-down-up. I had a rhythmic accordion in my head at all times, even when one wasn’t playing.
The Blackpot cookoff, whose three judged categories were gravy (gumbo or sauce), jambalaya, and crackling, was on the second and last day of the festival. That morning was full of bustle: tents went up, fires were built under them, boxes of ingredients proliferated on folding tables, and huge cast-iron black pots started smelling like Cajun mirepoix – onion, celery, and bell peppers. We made a tour of the preliminaries, asking every chef what he (they were all men) had going on. The answers were as varied as the smells were consistent: alligator stew, venison chili, turtle gravy…
We quickly ferreted out a controversy: a father-son pair whose cookstands were mere yards apart, a competition within a competition. Rodriguez pere, a chatty, charming, sharp-faced smart-ass who was clearly yearning for his own cooking-channel show and a spotlight on him at all times, told us, “That boy’s good for one thing only, making babies.” We walked over to get Rodriguez fils’s side of the story, but as soon as he understood what we were after, he melted into the smoke of his cookfire and wouldn’t say another word to us.
Hours later, after the judges had had a whack at it all and made their decisions, the festivalgoers lined up in front of all the cookers’ tables to get their share. Although he hadn’t won or even placed (the Miller family dominated), Rodriguez Sr. attracted the longest line by far. Earlier, Brendan had craftily, falsely intimated that we might be bona-fide food critics. Now, he fast-talked us to the front of the line and scored us plates of jambalaya and gravy. We ate and rejoiced. Rodriguez Sr. shouted over to us, “Best ever, huh?”
When the furor died down, Rodriguez Sr. escorted us over to his son’s table and had us try the turtle stew, which I couldn’t eat. His son stood apart with his baby in his arms, ignoring us, or seeming to. The father watched with a complex expression as Brendan tried it – proprietary, avidly competitive, hopeful. “What can I say?” Brendan told him. “It’s fantastic.”
Unsmiling, with another complex expression, Rodriguez Sr. nodded to himself.