Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

The Mississippi ends: A day in the French Quarter

New Orleans on a Saturday afternoon felt like a sacred and salacious holiday. With the weather in complicity, we sinned over hot chocolate and beignets at Café du Monde and I quickly learned that breathing is ill-advised during the consumption of these French doughnuts. One accidental exhalation through the nostrils and a plume of white powder flies through the air like pollen and lands on your travel companions with an understated grace. The line to the famous Café du Monde was long, and rightly so. For less than three bucks, you get three warm and decadent beignets, basically deep-fried dough topped with powdered sugar. Despite the length of the line, there was enough going on in the French Quarter to keep your senses occupied. A man coated in silver belting renditions of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Artists lining the Place d’Armes and shoo the prying eyes of my video camera away from their work. Fortunetellers, shoe-shiners, Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, a devil and nun duo (“She’s mad because she don’t get ‘nun’,” Satan would say with a grin to onlookers)—they all assembled like jesters in the court of New Orleans’ oldest and most hallowed ground. The cream-colored St. Louis Cathedral oversees the processions like an unimpressed regent. On this day, it felt like Hurricane Katrina was biblical history.

We continued through the Quarter and I would stop every fifteen feet or so to film the ironwork or a hobo or an electric violin performance or the neon-lit goings-on of a divey jazz club. Loren was looking for a 2010 book by Andrew Beahrs called “Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens” to find a recipe for one of Twain’s lavish meals in New Orleans. When he was living in New Orleans as a trencherman, Mark Twain ate baked sheepshead and fried croakers. Don’t worry; I didn’t really know what those names meant either. We later found out that croakers are basically bait fish and sheepshead is a very, very bony Gulf fish “that could be elevated by the right hand.” Despite the unsavory imagery the fish names bring up, we were anxious to dine as Clemens had dined, to experience 19th Century New Orleans through our stomachs.

Loren left us to our own devices on Bourbon Street and headed off for the public library to find this book, while Alyssa and I visited Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop. I’ve seen Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.” I know the huge role voodoo and witchcraft play in the history of this city. We spent a surprisingly long time in the voodoo shop, charmed into a state of hypnosis by the shrunken heads and Wiccan shrines and noxious odors coming from incense sticks that would help with everything from fertility to the viability of your business. We left the shop with two grotesque New Orleans voodoo dolls, crafted by “a local practitioner,” promising protection. From what?

Before meeting up with Loren for lunch at Napoleon House, Bonaparte’s intended New Orleans abode, the two of us wandered to the banks of the Mississippi, Twain’s first and greatest love. Between the hideous steamboat calliope music barraging our ears, the brown and brackish waters of the river, weary after traversing the country, and the unending streams of tourists gawking at the Hare Krishna parade on Decatur Street, I thought back to our simple days in Hannibal, Missouri, when the water was clearer and the only sounds were those of flora and fauna and of our boat cutting through the water. We’ve come a long way. Allegro III, our dirty steed, has already gone about 7,000 miles. Today marks the beginning of our eighth week on the road. Holy crap! as they say in Utah.

At Napoleon’s, Alyssa downed a shot of Bourbon (on tape) for medicinal purposes and I had a wonderful tuna salad stuffed inside an avocado. I also relieved myself in the trough/urinal in the men’s room at Napoleon’s that brought me back to Berghain in Berlin and everywhere in India. I am happy that the common thread of my extensive and lucky travels these past five months is trough-urinals.

After lunch, you will not believe that we ended up running into the culinary historian of the Hermann-Grima House and piquing her interest in our project and in preparing the sheepshead and croakers. Elizabeth Pearce offered us a deal: she would prepare the Twain feast for us on Tuesday if we took part in a photoshoot for her New Orleans cocktail tour, during which she told us the fascinating story of New Orleans through the ingredients of the local concoction Sazerac. It was a tough decision and it took a lot of sacrifice, but we agreed to the torture of learning about this incredible city while wielding specialty cocktails. This was, far and away, the worst day we’ve had so far on the Twain trip. I hope a day like this doesn’t happen ever again.

Dan Q. Tham

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One thought on “The Mississippi ends: A day in the French Quarter

  1. Tracey on said:

    New Orleans is definitely one of my favorite places, (and I’m glad you stopped to appreciate the ironwork, too!) Enjoy the hospitality while you can! If you get a chance, visit the lower ninth district – the area that got hit the hardest by Katrina – for a different perspective on the city