This is a transcription of Episode 46 — New Orleans: Pass a Good Time.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are getting curious about New Orleans. Today in Two Truths and a Lie, I will tell you stories about Nic Cage, prohibition, and the New Orleans connection to Saturday Night Live.
Melissa: And then we’ll talk about five books with a strong sense of New Orleans. I’ve got a cookbook that is going to make you so hungry. It captures the good time spirit and totally over-the-top energy of New Orleans.
David: That’s a lot of work for a cookbook.
Melissa: It’s fantastic.
David: I read one of the best fantasy books of last year and a nonfiction about the stories of nine New Orleans residents. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the New Orleans 101.
Melissa: New Orleans is in the state of Louisiana. But it is not the capital. That honor belongs to Baton Rouge.
David: Just up the road a little bit.
Melissa: Yeah. New Orleans is one of those towns that so awesome, it gets a handful of nicknames. Oh, to be so awesome that you have multiple nicknames. There’s NOLA. That’s the acronym of New Orleans, Louisiana. There’s the Big Easy. Some people say that’s a reference to how easy it was for musicians to get jobs in the early 20th century. Although some people argue that there was a gossip columnist from the Times-Picayune who was comparing it to the Big Apple in the 1960s. So you have the Big Apple, which is go, go, hurry up, and the Big Easy, which is laid back. And sometimes it’s called the Crescent City because the original town was built at a bend in the Mississippi River and looked like a crescent moon. New Orleans is pretty much surrounded by water. It’s not an island, but it may as well be. It sits on the Mississippi River Delta. To the north is Lake Pontchartrain, and to the east is Lake Bourne. So water on three sides.
David: And swamps all around.
Melissa: All of that water is why Hurricane Katrina was such a problem in 2005. New Orleans was meant to be protected by a 350-mile long system of levees and flood walls. But half of that was overwhelmed by the storm surge. And although most residents evacuated before the storm hit, about 100,000 people were trapped in the city. Half of them ended up hunkering down in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome. And I’m sure people have seen the news footage of people on their roofs of their houses. They were not fortunate enough to make it to the convention center. And we are going to talk about all of that and more when we get into our books.
Melissa: All of that water is also the reason that New Orleans exists in the first place. The city was founded in 1718 by a French explorer named Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville.
David: Of course it was.
Melissa: Louisiana was a French colony at the time, and good old Jean-Baptiste was the governor. He thought that New Orleans would make a really good place for a port.
David: Yeah, he wasn’t wrong about that.
Melissa: He was not. It’s one of the most important ports in the United States today. However, at the time, it wasn’t as bangin’ as the French hoped it would be, and they didn’t want the British to get their grabby hands on it. So they gave New Orleans to Spain. A few years later, Spain returned New Orleans to France, and then the US bought it as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Melissa: All of that is important because the thing that sets New Orleans apart from other places is the way it’s created a unique culture from all of the diverse people who populated the city at various times in history.
Melissa: New Orleans got its defining characteristics, that sense of hospitality and amazing food and great music, from enslaved and formerly enslaved people, Native Americans, and immigrants from France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Italy.
David: Right. So as we’ve seen in other places, there’s a huge melting pot. And out of that you get tensions, but you also get great music and great food and lively culture.
Melissa: As you might expect. There are lots of amazing things to experience in New Orleans. There’s beautiful architecture and sun-dappled, tree-lined streets, steamboat cruises and haunted houses and spooky cemeteries. A World War II museum and Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo and pirates.
Melissa: All the good stuff.
Melissa: But really, there are three reasons. You want to go to New Orleans: the food, the music, and Mardi Gras. All that other stuff you can just squeeze in between meals. So let’s talk about the food.
Melissa: New Orleans is like a big old simmering pot of delicious things. There’s Creole cuisine, Cajun cuisine, soul food, and all of the seafood from the surrounding areas.
David: What’s the difference between Creole and Cajun?
Melissa: Creole is native to Louisiana, and it’s a mix of Native American, French, West African, and Spanish culture. Cajun is from transplants from Acadia. Acadia is part of what’s now the Maritime Provinces of Canada. So these were French people who emigrated to Canada and then got booted south to New Orleans, and their French Canadian heritage was mixed with African and Native American to give us Cajun.
David: I did not know that Cajuns are Canadians.
Melissa: I didn’t either until I started doing this research, and I feel like Creole and Cajun can sometimes get used interchangeably, and they are not the same thing.
Melissa: When I think of New Orleans food, I immediately think of jambalaya. That’s the New Orleans version of, say, a Spanish paella or jollof rice from West Africa. You’ve got a bed of rice with spices and onions and peppers and then protein like chicken and shrimp and the thing that makes it jambalaya: andouille sausage. This is not to be confused with red beans and rice or shrimp and grits, even though there are lots of similarities.
Melissa: We had the most delicious jambalaya ever at my Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans. Yeah, two decades ago. And I’m still thinking about it.
David: One of the books that I read dropped a reference to Mother’s, and I was really happy to see it.
Melissa: Gives me a little warm glow in my chest. Yeah, lots of delicious things were actually invented in New Orleans. You might have heard of the Po’Boy.
Melissa: Po’boy is both a kind of bread, and the sandwich that’s made from it. Banh mi is also like that. The po’boy bread is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. And when it’s ‘dressed,’ it’s an important term, ‘dressed.’ It means it’s got shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, Louisiana hot sauce, and Creole mustard. And all of that gets layered into the bread with roast beef or fried seafood. They’re sloppy and gloppy and delicious. Another iconic New Orleans sandwich is the muffuletta. That has a Sicilian background, and I’m going to be talking about that more later. So I’m going to move on to sweets.
Melissa: Also invented a New Orleans Bananas Foster. This is bananas sauteed in butter and brown sugar and rum and then set on fire.
David: Yeah, I remember being very impressed with Bananas Foster when I was about 13.
Melissa: Heck, yeah. Lots of times they make it right at the table side, so it’s flaming. And then they serve it with ice cream.
Melissa: And you definitely want to go to Cafe du Monde in New Orleans for chickory coffee and beignets. Yeah, but these are square shaped pastries that are fried and dusted very generously with confectioner’s sugar.
David: Kind of lean toward doughnuts, but don’t. Not quite there.
Melissa: They don’t have a whole. They’re square, like little pillows.
Melissa: If you think New Orleans food will make you happy. Let’s talk about the music. New Orleans is one of the best places in the world for music that will make you glad to be alive. There’s Cajun and Zydeco — that has accordions and fiddles, and it’s all about dancing. And of course, there’s jazz. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. That clash and harmony of cultures that we’ve been talking about combined African dance and drumming traditions with European brass bands. So basically you’ve got these really danceable, funky rhythms combined with bright melodies, and that created a uniquely American art form.
David: And New Orleans has and continues to have a nightlife that allows —
Melissa: Rollicking nightlife!
David: Yeah — allows musicians to get together and play together and learn from each other. It’s a culture of music.
Melissa: It all started with what we call Dixieland and then evolved to ragtime and bebop and the blues. And the thing that that music did was really capture both a yearning for home and a celebration of being alive.
Melissa: One of the biggest celebrations of being alive is Mardi Gras.
David: Which combines food and music into a walking festival of stuff.
Melissa: Lots of purple, gold, green, and beads. Something New Orleans natives want you to know is that Mardi Gras is just one day. This year it falls on February 21st. That one hedonistic, magical day comes during Carnival and the Carnival celebrations last for weeks. They always begin on January 6th at sundown, and the party continues until midnight on Mardi Gras.
David: That is a long party.
Melissa: That is 4 to 6 weeks of revelry. There are parades and black tie balls and dancing in the streets with costumes and masks and people throwing things at you from parade floats. The parades are put on by crews spelled K-R-E-W-E-S. Fancy.
Melissa: They decide on the theme for their costumes and the floats and whatever the goodies are that they’re going to throw into the crowd. And most of the crews are named for figures in mythology. So you’ve got your crew of Orpheus. Their annual celebration is called The Orpheuscapade.
David: The Orpheuscapade.
Melissa: Wow. This year, it’s an eight-hour party with live music and a nineties theme. But the dress code is tuxedos and floor length gowns. The Krewe of Bacchus historically has really big names for the king in their parade. Jensen Ackles from Supernatural. Michael Keaton. Elijah Wood. Anthony Mackie. Will Ferrell. But who the King will be this year remains a mystery until they announce it at the parade.
David: That’s exciting.
Melissa: Very exciting. Pro Tip. If you go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you want to get your hands on the Arthur Hardy Mardi Gras Guide. This is a publication that’s been printed for 47 years. It’s found in most drugstores, and it lists all of the parades and balls and has photos and FAQs and all the details you need to make the most of Mardi Gras.
David: That’s awesome. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
David: Okay. I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is true. Here are the statements. One: New Orleans holds an unbeatable record for breaking prohibition. Two: International celebrity Nic Cage of National Treasure and Face Off and ConAir owns a haunted house in New Orleans. And three, an 80-year-old grandmother from New Orleans once hosted Saturday Night Live. One at a time from the top. New Orleans holds an unbeatable record for breaking prohibition.
Melissa: I mean, that’s got to be true.
David: Yeah, it has to be. [laughter]
Melissa: Don’t be silly.
David: For 13 years, from 1920 to 1933, the US had prohibition, which made producing, importing, transporting and selling alcohol illegal. That led to a lot of arrests, but nobody made more arrests than Prohibition Agent No. 1, Izzy Einstein.
Melissa: Izzy Einstein? What a great name!
David: Yeah. In just five years, Izzy arrested just under 5000 people. He was a character. He was five, five or 165 centimeters and a weighed 225 or 102 kilograms. So he was like a barrel. And he listed when he walked.
Melissa: Oh, Izzy.
David: Yeah. He never carried a gun. And he spoke seven different languages. He’d show up dressed to look like a local. He’d walk into a bar, he’d order a drink, and when it came, he always said the same thing. He said, There’s sad news here. You’re under arrest.
Melissa: That’s amazing. [laughter]
David: Izzy primarily worked in New York City. But he said, I bet I could go to any city in America and catch a bootlegger within 30 minutes. In Chicago and St Louis, it only took him 21 minutes. It was 17 in Atlanta, and 11 in Pittsburgh. New Orleans, though, 35 seconds. Izzy got off the train. He got into a cab. He asked the cab driver where he could get a drink, and the cab driver turned around and handed him a bottle. Izzy cuffed him and said, There’s sad news here. [laughter]
Melissa: I can’t tell you how much I want a mystery novel starring Izzy Einstein right now.
David: There was a Hollywood movie about Izzy Einstein back in like the thirties. So a statement two: Nic Cage owns a haunted house.
Melissa: I mean. Yes, that sounds true.
David: So that’s a lie. But it used to be true. Nick Cage used to own a haunted house in New Orleans. In 2007, he bought the LaLaurie mansion. That house is primarily known as the residence of Doctor and Madame LaLaurie, who used it to torture slaves in the 1800s.
Melissa: Really not cool, people.
David: Not good. When that was discovered, a mob sacked and burned the house to the ground. Kathy Bates played Madame LaLaurie in the third season of American Horror Story. Nick, though, ran into tax problems in 2009. The IRS presented him with a bill for $14 million. And he sold it. I bring this up, though, because nobody buys drunk on eBay like Nic Cage. Let me run you through this. In addition to the haunted house he bought, Nic Cage has owned a pet octopus. A comic with a first appearance of Superman, a 40 acre private island, a 70 million year old dinosaur skull and a two-headed snake that he later donated to the zoo in New Orleans. And he still owns property in New Orleans. In 2010, Nic Cage bought two plots in a famous New Orleans cemetery. There, he built a nine foot tall white pyramid, presumably to house his earthly remains. Speculation about why he would do this is rampant. Some people think he’s a closet voodoo practitioner. Others think he has ties to the Illuminati. Some people think he’s an immortal who will entomb himself for a century before re-emerging. Or that he stored his wealth in the tomb. There are still others who suggest that he’s trying to outrun the curse of the LaLaurie mansion. A curse which has befallen every owner of the house for the last 200 years.
David: It could also be the curse of having $150 Million in poor impulse control.
Melissa: You know who else impulsively moved to New Orleans? Jennifer Coolidge.
Melissa: I feel like she and Nic Cage would make awesome drinking buddies.
David: And finally, an 80 year old grandmother from New Orleans once hosted Saturday Night Live.
Melissa: So that’s true.
David: That is true. In the 48 years that Saturday Night Live has been in production, they’ve had over 500 hosts. Only two of them were born in the 1800s. This is a killer trivia question. No one will ever get this. One of them was Ruth Gordon, the star of Harold and Maude.
Melissa: Oh, she’s so cute.
David: Yeah. And the other was a grandmother from New Orleans. In the third season, SNL had a competition called Anyone Can Host. 80 year old Miskel Spillman wrote in. She wrote, I’m 80 years old. I need one more cheap thrill. Since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left.
Melissa: [laughter] What a character.
David: She competed with four other finalists on a show in November, and she won the call-in. She walked on stage on December 17, 1977, with Buck Henry. She did a monologue. She was in a sketch with John Belushi and Jane Curtin. She also introduced Elvis Costello.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s so cool.
David: Yeah. That was the night that Elvis had been forbidden to perform his song ‘Radio, Radio’ because of its anti-corporate message. And then he did it anyway. Because punk rock. That got him banned from SNL for the next 12 years. It seems so quaint now.
Melissa: Yes, it does.
David: Like, he got banned for wearing the wrong colored boutineer to the ball or something. Pearls were clutched that evening. And after all, Miskel came out and she closed the show in a very Christmassy outfit. She had a fur hat and red dress in a big black belt. And she lived for another 15 years and passed in 1992 at the age of 94.
Melissa: What a great story.
David: Isn’t that nice? That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: You bet. My first recommendation is The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. This is a historical murder mystery that intertwines the razzmatazz of Jazz Age New Orleans with the story of a serial killer. A real-life serial killer.
David: Really? So this is a fictional account of a real-life serial killer.
Melissa: Exactly. In 1918 and 1919, New Orleans was terrorized by the axeman. He would creep into people’s houses while they were sleeping, grab whatever sharp object he could find, usually an axe, and whack them in their beds. All told, he attacked a dozen people.
David: First, yikes. Second, people used to have a lot more axes than they have now.
Melissa: Right. And once he started hitting people, get rid of the ax. Why is there an axe in your house when there’s the Axeman running around New Orleans?
Melissa: He attacked 12 people. Half of them died. The other half lived to tell the tale. But no one could accurately describe him. This led to rumors that he was some kind of boogeyman or spirit. We might not actually know anything about him if it weren’t for one significant detail. He wrote a letter that was published in the newspaper. And it is a piece of work. First, the return address was Hell. [laughter] Second, he claimed to be supernatural and in cahoots with the Angel of Death. And three, he warned that on the following Tuesday night, he was going to pass over New Orleans. He wrote: ‘I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing.’ Then he continued. ‘One thing is certain, and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night will get the axe.’
David: That’s an unhinged letter.
Melissa: It is bananas.
Melissa: So it got published in the newspaper and that Tuesday night, everyone was playing jazz.
David: Of course they were.
Melissa: In real life, the identity of the Axeman is still unknown, but with this book, the author uses a handful of fictional characters to investigate the murders and present his own fictional theory of the Axeman’s identity.
Melissa: One of the things I loved about this book is that it’s character driven, historical fiction first and murder mystery second. So don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of suspense and dangerous scrapes, but all of the action is driven by really interesting characters who introduce us to the underbelly of New Orleans. There are three people trying to solve the mystery, and all of them have very personal reasons for getting involved in this case. First, there’s Michael. He’s a detective lieutenant with the police department, and he’s in charge of the official investigation. And it is not going well.
Melissa: The entire city is on his back to find the axe murderer that’s terrorizing all of them. He has an enormous secret himself. And if it comes out, it’ll destroy his career and possibly the lives of two other people.
Melissa: His other big issue is that his former partner was a dirty cop, and Michael helped put him in prison, and that guy just got released. Michael is in a bit of a pickle.
Melissa: The dude who just got released from prison is Luca. After spending some time in the state penitentiary. He is reformed and he has good intentions to stay on the straight and narrow. But before he can say let the good times roll, he’s working on behalf of the mafia to find the Axeman.
David: Luca is? On behalf of the Mafia!
Melissa: Yeah, for reasons.
David: What’s the Mafia going to do to the X man if they catch him?
Melissa: Right. And finally, there’s a young girl named Ida. She’s a secretary for a Pinkerton detective who likes to drink more than he likes to detect.
Melissa: She wants to make a name for herself and become a full-fledged detective. She also happens to be best friends with Louis Armstrong.
Melissa: But this is before he was world famous for his trumpet playing and singing when he was just Louis to the people who knew him.
Melissa: I probably don’t need to say this, but I loved Ida. That girl’s got moxie. There’s also a hard boiled, super pushy reporter, a sweet young cop in training who might also have a secret. All manner of gangsters and cops. A lot of them are corrupt. All of these characters are very well drawn, and it felt like their action continued even when we didn’t know what they were doing. They felt well-rounded and like they had lives happening off of the page.
Melissa: And the author does a really brilliant job of setting up the New Orleans of 1919. Throughout a lot of book, there’s just driving rain and oppressive humidity encasing the city. It’s literally a hotbed of sexism, racism, and corruption.
Melissa: The book is also full of ethnic nicknames and callousness. Everybody is calling everybody everything. All the racial slurs.But it’s also really infused with the romance of New Orleans, too. The different cultures are colliding and clashing, but they also make the city a really special place. This book has everything. It has raucous jazz shows and opium dens and a moldering plantation house and cottages on the bayou and voodoo and bordellos. And against that backdrop, our heroes are interviewing suspects and following clues, all trying to stop the mad man that’s terrorizing the city.
Melissa: The author, Ray Celestin, also has put together all kinds of goodies to go with this book so you can really immerse yourself in the time. He made a playlist and he has a Pinterest with lots of images and a bibliography, if you want to read more and a guide for book clubs, if you want to read this with your friends. That’s The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. And I’m going to sneak in. One more mention of a book would be a nice pair read with this one.
Melissa: I also read The Quarter Storm by Veronica G. Henry. This one is a contemporary mystery about a voodoo practitioner who gets caught up in a murder investigation. It’s like if you took the Kinsey Milhone mysteries by Sue Grafton and put them in New Orleans in the voodoo community. Lots of cool little details about voodoo and everyday life in New Orleans. It’s a little bit lighter. That’s The Quarter Storm by Veronica G. Henry.
David: My first book is The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings.
Melissa: I love that title.
David: It’s a great title and it’s a great cover. It’s a really nice cover. This is a book that imagines that all of the myths of New Orleans are true.
Melissa: Ooh, that’s fun.
David: Yeah. This was a labor of love for the author, Alex Jennings. He’s not from New Orleans. He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. Jennings has traveled a lot, but he fell hard for New Orleans, so he relocated there in 2006. He says a spirit came to him in a dream and told him to move there.
David: Yeah. And then he spent ten years working on this book, his first novel. Jennings said, When I started, I was not the writer who could produce this book, but it turned out to be the great work of my life. A tribute to my city and my family.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice.
David: Is that nice? The fantasy colors broadly with the stories of New Orleans. So it has voodoo zombies, piano playing spirits, giant talking nutria.
Melissa: I love nutria. They’re so cute.
David: Those are big rodents that live in the river, if you’re not familiar. There are flying streetcars in this book. And schools of magic named after jazz musicians. There are haints and trees that grow. Mardi Gras beads and Enchanted Graffiti. There are entire neighborhoods populated by the dead or ideas that the city wants to keep alive.
Melissa: Oh, so cool.
David: I love that idea. There are also bars that suddenly appear, but only if you’re an artist. But the strangest of all of the unusual phenomena in this book are the songs that, under the right conditions, can take on a sentient physical form. The songs can get out and walk around. They talk to people. They do stuff, and they’re powerful. Which sounds like it might be okay, except that New Orleans is also home to murder ballads. Those are catchy songs about people doing each other in. Famously, there’s ‘Stagger Lee.’ Stagger Lee in the song was playing Dice with Billy. He thought Billy was cheating. So he went home, and he got his 44 and returned to the bar and he shot Billy. To Stagger Lee, every problem ends with a gun. You don’t want Stagger Lee in your living room.
David: In this world, we follow a few characters. The first we get to know is Perry Graves. It took me a few chapters to realize that Perry’s full name is Perilous. The Ballad of Perilous Graves is not about a cemetery. Perry just recently transferred out of a magic school. He’s a failed magician that really upset his little sister, Brendy. Brendy still at that school. Brendy is about three foot, six inches of solid attitude.
Melissa: I love her already.
David: Yeah. She might be my favorite character in that book. Brendy doesn’t suffer fools, even though she herself might be about nine or so. And then there’s Perry’s love interest Peaches. Peaches is the cute girl who lives in the haunted house a few doors down. She’s also super strong and maybe invulnerable. She can lift cars and she mysteriously disappears for weeks at a time. She is looking for her long lost father who still writes her letters.
Melissa: Is she undead or human?
David: I think she’s human. She’s a pretty clear lift from Pippi Longstocking. But peaches is much cooler. And ultimately, these three get involved in an epic world saving quest against a mighty villain. And right about the time I thought this might be a why book. And, like, I was looking on the cover. In walks Casey Ravel and his cousin Jaylon. Casey left New Orleans after Katrina and now returns with a broken heart. Jaylon is an artist. They’re in their twenties, I think. They have some good talks about the nature of cities and street art. They are decidedly not YA. They are adults with adult problems. And there is a ton of swearing in this book. Some of the characters are artful about it. Which brings me to the biggest problem I have with this book. I’m not sure who it’s for. I loved it. I know other people loved it. It was one of the year’s best fantasy novels for The New York Times and Vulture and the Boston Public Library. And maybe you will love it, which is why I’m bringing it up here. But you have to be okay with the layering of a high fantasy New Orleans and a core of YA-ish characters surrounded by an icing of talk about the value of art and the nature of cities and New Orleans in particular. Sprinkled liberally with F-bombs and pop culture references. If that sounds good to you —
Melissa: That sounds amazing to me.
David: Then definitely pick this up. It’s The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings. This author also made a playlist for this book. It seems to be a thing for New Orleans authors. This his list is on Spotify as well. It’s about 2 hours of some solid, great New Orleans music from artists like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John and Professor Longhair. It’s absolutely worth a lesson and we’ll give you a link to it.
Melissa: My next recommendation is a cookbook called Turkey and The Wolf by Mason Hereford.
David: I was very excited about this cookbook.
Melissa: You should be. Mason is the founder and owner and sometime chef of the restaurant Turkey and The Wolf in New Orleans. Foodie publications like GQ and Food and Wine and Bon Appetit lost their minds over his lunch-only sandwich shop in 2017. It was named America’s Best New Restaurant. It was so successful, he also opened breakfast spot nearby called Molly’s Rise and Shine. I have watched video interviews with him. I’ve read the book. I love Mason Hereford’s whole vibe. This book is funny and entertaining and infused with the idea of having a good time. The writing in this book is like having a conversation with someone who’s really smart and makes you laugh so hard that your cheeks hurt. I read the entire introduction out loud today. Do you remember that?
David: I do.
Melissa: And we were like hooting and laughing through the whole thing.
David: It was one of those times when I was reading something, and then you started reading to me. And then I was like, ‘No, what you’re reading is better than what I’m reading, so I’ll just listen.’
Melissa: Here’s a snippet so you can see for yourselves what this is all about: ‘The story begins with a bad sandwich. I grew up in rural Virginia in the tiny town of Free Union. My formative food experiences were at shabby family run country stores. Part gas station, part convenience mart, and part takeout counter. They sold beer and gas, lures and ammo, chili cheese dogs, and biscuits with white gravy. Some sold the delicacy that my mom calls rat cheese a wheel of fake cheddar that sweats all day on the counter, typically unwrapped and unrefrigerated to be purchased by the hunk and eaten with some saltines. It’s the dairy equivalent of a loosie cigarette.
David: That’s such a good line.
Melissa: It’s such good writing about terrible food.
Melissa: He won me over. He clearly loves bringing people together to make food and eat food. And he loves New Orleans like a native, even though he’s not. All of that is evidence on the pages of this book. There are glorious technicolor photographs of the food, the restaurant, and the people who make it happen. Rowdy is the word that comes to mind when I look at those pictures. I feel like if I ate at his restaurant, it would be the most delicious, exuberant, satisfying experience ever. And then afterward, I’d have to go to the hotel and close the blinds and turn on the air conditioner and take a nap for a few hours. But it would be worth it.
Melissa: He said in the book that there’s no governing principle for his food. He just wants to make stuff that tastes good.
Melissa: And he’s taken his early love for truly crappy junk food and turned it into delicious recipes for grown ups. So he has riffs on classic Southern dishes and New Orleans staples like collard greens and grits, breakfast biscuits, fried chicken, deviled eggs. Those are all there with a little twist.
Melissa: And then there are original recipes with really silly names like Chicken Pot Pies That Fit in your Pocket. Or Corner Store Pork Rind Tacos.
David: Sounds good.
Melissa: There’s a recipe called Meatloaf: The Sandwich, Not the musician. And another one called Meatloaf: The Bagel, not the Musician. He also has a sandwich called the Italian American. And this is a riff on the classic New Orleans muffuletta. So let’s talk about the muffuletta a little bit.
Melissa: The muffuletta is usually made on a very specific round loaf of bread with sesame seeds on the top. It’s Italian cold cuts and spicy olive salad. It’s like, what a hoagie in my hometown in Pennsylvania dreamt of being. In this version in Turkey and the wolf, you have all of that and a cream cheese spread that’s flavored with olives, hot peppers, capers, and feta cheese.
David: That sounds really good.
Melissa: It’s like taking something that’s already very hedonistic and just kicking it up a notch.
Melissa: This book also includes the recipe for the sandwich that made Turkey and the Wolf famous. It’s a boloney sandwich.
David: How did a baloney sandwich make them famous?
Melissa: Because it’s a baloney sandwich for the ages.
David: A legendary baloney sandwich.
Melissa: Yes. He made this sandwich with Seth Meyers on late night. You start with thick slices of white bread and you butter them all the way to the edges.
Melissa: Bologna, American cheese, mayo, sweet hot mustard, and shredded lettuce. And you’re like, okay, yeah, it sounds like a normal thing.
David: Pretty typical. Yeah.
Melissa: Then you add the magic ingredient: salt and vinegar potato chips.
David: Oh, yeah. Mm hmm. Yeah, that’s good.
Melissa: You see?
Melissa: So it’s chewy, crispy, salty, spicy. That sandwich is the cover of the book.
David: It’s a legendary baloney sandwich.
Melissa: Even if you’re not a super skilled cook, you should be able to manage these recipes just fine. But there’s also this from the intro of the book: ‘This book contains recipes that you can reasonably make at home, or in the case of one recipe that requires a pig’s head and a good 16 hours of your time, that you should strongly consider making at home, even if it almost takes you down.’ I read that, and I was very tempted to go to the butcher, shop around the corner and get a pig’s head.
David: We could do it.
Melissa: This is not the cookbook for you if you want to cook a traditional jambalaya or a gumbo. But if you want to taste the spirit of New Orleans, the melting pot of influences, a sense of community, and food that makes you whoop with happiness, this is a really fun read and great cooking adventures. It’s Turkey and the Wolf by Mason Hereford.
David: My second book is Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum. This book started when the author, Dan Baum, was a staff writer for The New Yorker. He was asked to go down in New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina. He got there two days after the levee broke. So Baum goes down, and he starts looking around. He checked himself into the Superdome when that was a rescue facility. He wanted to see what that was like. Baum writes a series of articles, but he feels he can only tell the story of Katrina by talking about the people of New Orleans in depth. In Nine Lives, he writes. ‘Long before the storm, New Orleans was, by almost any metric, the worst city in the United States. The deepest poverty, the most murders, the worst schools, the sickest economy, the most corrupt and brutal cops. Yet a poll conducted a few weeks before the storm found that more New Orleans, regardless of age, race or wealth, were extremely satisfied with their lives than residents of any other American city.’ The people of New Orleans are not like people anywhere else. And to get that story, he had to take his time. And you had to back up a little. Baum ends up moving there. He spends hundreds of hundreds of hours observing and interviewing people, and he backs up 40 years to a different hurricane: Hurricane Betsy
David: He starts Nine Lives in 1965. It follows the lives of nine people, some for over 40 years. Their stories are told, in short, well-written, punchy chapters. Some of the chapters are a page or two. The subjects come from a variety of background and interests. There’s a high school bandleader. There’s a millionaire who’s also the king of Carnival. There’s a transsexual bar owner. There’s a trumpet playing coroner. There’s a cop and a convict. By using multiple viewpoints, Baum shows the cultural richness of New Orleans and the power of its community and its blend of people. And the stories are powerful on their own, right? The profiles of the people in this book present a good portrait of both them and the times that they live in.
David: Nine Lives explores racism and sexism and gay rights and civil rights and the rise of container shipping and urban corruption and the parade culture and the music culture and the crack epidemic. It just feels like all of it. And he also presents the tide of life. So because the chapters sometimes jump years ahead, you see fortunes change. Marriages come and go. Children grow up. And Baum gives us a sort of a layer cake of New Orleans and what makes it different from anywhere else on earth. And that is all before we get to Katrina. But also, as a reader, you know, it’s coming. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s observation that if you want to build suspense, show a bomb under the table and then have two people have a normal conversation at that table.
David: So after about 200 pages, Katrina comes, and Baum presents the whole timeline. There are people having conversations about whether they should get out, whether they should evacuate. And because he’s given us 40 years of history, it’s easy to see why some people don’t go, because there there have been hurricanes before, because they have everything vested there, because they can’t for one reason or another. And then the storm hits and Baum illustrates that. And at first it doesn’t seem that bad. And then the levee breaks, and there’s 14 feet of water in some places. And there are 50,000 people in the Superdome and not enough food or water or diapers. And help does not appear. There’s a story of the cop driving around trying to figure out what to do with the dead body of a girl. And he is eventually ordered to give up and put her back on the street.
Melissa: Oh, God.
David: That girl haunts him. Social order breaks down, cops quit, armed tribes rise up. It is terrifying. And because I understand the personalities of the people, because I’ve been through their history, the tragedy of Katrina becomes very real. It is seen from many sides. It is shown in just a bright light. But it doesn’t stop there.
David: Baum presents what happens after. Katrina hit in 2005 and the book ends two years later. And with a little bit of Google work, you can find out what happened to those people between 2007 and now. This is a great book. I wish there was a book like this for every destination we cover. It is Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum.
Melissa: Before we move on, there’s two things I wanted to mention. One is I have a little bone to pick with the author. In the preface, he says, ‘Nine separate stories is a lot to keep straight. Don’t worry. For the first 50 pages or so, you can’t remember who’s who. The chapters were written to be enjoyed as individual stories. Everybody will fall into place eventually.’ And that’s true. The chapters stand on their own. But if you’re going to read this book, give it its due and take some notes. I’ve got two pages of notes about who’s who in this book, and I was happy to have them, in part because there are nine sets of characters and years go by sometimes, and it makes the tracking easier, but it also propelled me through the book. I wanted to see what was going to happen to everybody. Also, when I was doing research about Nine Lives, I found it that there is a musical written around it.
David: Yeah. The music for that show was produced and released. It’s on YouTube. We’ll have a link in the show notes if you want to take a listen.
Melissa: My final recommendation is The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata. For me, this is a hard book to describe. It’s fairly literary, but it also weaves science fiction and historical fiction, and it’s really accessible, and it has a forward-moving plot. And there’s a simple way to describe the story. Two lifelong friends find a book manuscript and go on a quest to return it to the dead author’s son. And that makes it sound like an adventure story.
Melissa: And it is. But it’s also much more elegant and layered than that. If I was writing this review, I would probably be tempted to use a word like luminous. But since I don’t usually use the word luminous in conversation, let me lay this on you.
Melissa: If this book was a color, it would be the warm gold of the magic hour just before sunset. It’s dreamy and a little melancholy. And no matter how much you want it to last, it’s only there for a short, precious time. That’s how this book feels to me. So now I’m going to tell you a little bit more about what’s going on between its covers. The story opens in 1916 in the Dominican Republic. We meet Adana Moreau. She’s a headstrong little girl who will grow into a lovely woman. And then in 1929 New Orleans, she’ll write a blockbuster science fiction novel called Lost City. The world will go crazy for her book about zombies and parallel worlds, and she will start to write a sequel called A Model Earth. But when she becomes deathly ill, she will burn the only manuscript of her second book. Then in 2005, we meet Saul. His grandfather has recently died. So Saul is cleaning out the old man’s house, and he finds the manuscript for that sequel by Adana Moreau, the book that would have been a Model Earth, the book that was purportedly burned.
Melissa: And he just goes down the rabbit hole of the mysteries surrounding this author and her work. And eventually, he and his friend Javier make it their mission to return the manuscript to the author’s son who now lives in New Orleans and is a theoretical physicist. But there’s one major problem. Hurricane Katrina has recently wreaked havoc on the city, and it is nearly impossible to find anyone. But because Javier is a wartime journalist, they just plunge into New Orleans to try to find this man and return this manuscript to him.
David: Seems a little foolhardy.
Melissa: So, you know, I love a novel where the characters set out on a maybe irresponsible, possibly impossible quest to do something that means everything to them, but would make other people kind of shrug their shoulders and be like, Why are you going now? Why don’t you just wait?
Melissa: That is one of my favorite things in a book. And this book does it really, really well. It does a lot of other things too. So first, there are stories within stories within stories. It reminded me a little bit of The Shadow of the Wind in the way that every time you meet a character, you also get their backstory. It’s just rich with detail and emotion. And then later, one of those little details will somehow show itself to be relevant to the main story in a way you didn’t expect. It feels like it was all very carefully constructed. You also get the entire plot of Adana’s sci-fi books, both the original novel and the sequel, even though they don’t really exist. And those made-up books are having a conversation with this book.
David: Oh, literally?
Melissa: No. There are similarities in the plot and the themes that the books are considering. And the experiences of the characters in this novel that you’re reading kind of mirror the characters in the story that Adana wrote. They’re like parallel universes, right?
David: Which might be one of the reasons why these characters are so attracted to this book.
Melissa: Exactly. The author, Michael Zapata, also really deftly weaves in historical details so that the history is right there when you need it for context. But there are not big long passages of exposition. There are invasions and pogroms and heartbreaking accounts of Hurricane Katrina, both the tragedy of when the levees broke, but also the heroic acts of people in the aftermath of the storm, just doing selfless things to help other people in the community.
Melissa: I have never been to the Dominican Republic in the 1900s, but now I have a better picture of what that was like. And jazz era New Orleans and post-Katrina New Orleans. All of them are vividly rendered. But the details aren’t just there to create a setting, although they do, that physical context actually helps us better understand the characters. It is an amazing trick. Everything in here has a reason for being there.
Melissa: So I want to talk about the characters a little bit. There are a lot of them, and there are strong bonds of love between them. So it’s really a treat to spend time with them. There’s just this amazing friendship between Saul and Javier. They know each other very well, which has its gifts and its curses, but there’s also really strong loyalty and acceptance, which was just a beautiful thing to see. There’s Adana’s love for her son. She was devoted to her son, Maxwell, before she died. And then Saul’s grandfather’s devotion to him. Saul’s grandfather is dead at the beginning of the book, but we get flashbacks and stories about Saul, and it’s clear he was devoted to raising his grandson. All of it is just so moving and heartbreaking and beautiful. There are also pirates and orphans and historians, a mathematician, and a chef. There’s a tiny smidgen of romance, and there are made-up book titles and name dropping of lots of real science fiction books. One of the things I’m going to be doing for our Patrons is giving them a bibliography of the classic sci-fi titles that are listed in this book.
Melissa: I should also mention that in just a few lines, this book explained the concept of the multiverse to me better than anything else I’ve read or seen or heard. It’s like, Oh, I get it now. This book is an examination of what home means to people and how stories help us navigate the world and make sense of our lives. It addresses grief and love, and it plays around with the idea of parallel worlds. The way this book made me feel, it’s a spiritual cousin to the book Still Life by Sara Winmann that I recommended in our Italy episode, which is one of the best books I read last year. If you enjoyed that book, you should definitely try this one. This is the Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata.
David: Those are five books we love set in New Orleans. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: I want to talk about our show notes a little bit. I invest more time in our show notes than any other blog posts on our site, and they are a treasure trove of video interviews with authors, photographs of things we’ve talked about, links to more information. If you’ve never visited our site, I’m going to encourage you to do that. strongsenseofplace.com/podcasts. It will be delighted by the things you find there.
David: Mel Where we headed for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re going to keep the party going. We’re going to listen to some reggae. And sip a rum punch and dip our toes in Montego Bay in Jamaica.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Robson Hatsukami Morgan/Unsplash.
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