Bastille Day in the Vieux Carré
Once every five years, I miss the Bastille Day activities to union with the entire family in New Orleans in celebration of my mother’s monumental birthdays. This year was her 95th and we are already planning on celebrating her 100th in 2017.
So, while those of you in France were dancing at the Bals des Pompiers or picnicking on the Champs de Mars awaiting the elaborate fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower, I’ve been partying with family and friends in the humidity, heat and tropical rains of the city that has most of its roots in France.
Everyone asks if New Orleans has returned to the living since the flooding of Katrina, and while no doubt it is not 100% rebuilt to its original standing, it’s never been more alive than now. Those in the tourist industry say it’s booming, even in the hot month of July, which traditionally used to be “low season.”
The signs of renovation and regentrification are everywhere, particularly in the “Vieux Carré” (French Quarter), the “Faubourg Marigny” and the Garden District, where homes have been beautifully restored with tender, loving care. Those that are for sale are now commanding high prices rivaling larger cities.
We’ve been doing what you do in New Orleans — partying. That means eating and drinking…although we’re more into the eating than the drinking. While we’re having one meal, we’re talking about where we’re having the next one. For example, we landed about midnight and arrived at my sister’s house about 1 a.m. after almost 24 hours of travel. She had a dozen fresh boiled blue crabs waiting for us as a midnight snack, so we rolled up our sleeves, opened the “Barq’s Rootbeer” and downed the crabs until 3 a.m. That’s how it all started.
The next day for lunch we piled in Acme Oyster House for raw oysters on the half shell, chargrilled oysters (their specialty) and “oyster loafs” (fried oyster po-boy sandwiches). Their menu says, “There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach or blood, or have immune disorders, you are at greater risk of serious illness from raw oysters, and should eat oysters fully cooked. If unsure of your risk, consult a physician,” — but that didn’t stop any of us. We just kept dipping them into the hot sauce, swallowing them whole after taking one bite into the plump translucent slimy casing, downing it with a Saltine cracker and a big sip of root beer. Divine.
I learned to eat a raw oyster at the age of two, peel shrimp by pinching the tails, crack open a crab to extract all the beautiful lump meat and suck the heads of spicy crawfish heads before I could hold a fork. If you weren’t able to do it yourself, you starved, because no one was going to do it for you. That’s just the way it was.
That same night we went to Mandina’s — a classic New Orleans Italian restaurant that’s been around since 1932. There, almost EVERYTHING is fried. It was so cold inside we shivered — everything is over air-conditioned to make up for the 80%+ humidity. Our waitress had a heavy “yat” accent and called everyone “baby” or “dawlin’.” The scene was as “Noo Awlins” as it gets.
Outside the restaurant, a man from Kjean (pronounced “kay-jaun” like “Cajun”) Seafood (236 N. Carrollton Avenue, 504-488-7503) was selling crawfish from his truck, which is surprising since they’re out of season. My daughter began asking him questions about crawfish that he happily answered. He had a small stash of crawfish left and without reserve, gifted it to her. She couldn’t wait to take home the bag of dark red creatures to devour them, in spite of the big meal we had just had. He was a smart man, because his generosity incentivized us into patronizing Kjean’s by picking up 10 pounds for a Saturday night feast at a friend’s.
The family festivities included a dinner at my oldest sister’s for the entire family (about 45), an honorary luncheon at the Synagogue after services (which had never had such a big turnout) and a brunch/pool party at another sister’s (I have three). My mother was honored by being asked to carry the Torah during the service (not allowed by certain religious sects — in fact, on July 12, 2010, an Israeli feminist was arrested when she carried a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism). Family and friends came from far and wide to celebrate, some of whom I hadn’t seen in as much as 40 years.
New Orleans has celebrated Bastille Day in its own way. The weekend schedule included a French Dog Contest, a Bal du 14 Juillet at the Old U.S. Mint, and of course, a fireworks show. Sunday afternoon was the Waiter’s Race at the French Market.
I had my own Bastille Day celebration with some of my oldest childhood friends at the Bultman family plantation-style home on Louisiana Avenue situated just behind the one-time funeral home on Saint Charles Avenue. The Bultman family immigrated to New Orleans in the 1850s and the family still live in the home. One might think he’d entered something akin to Tara, and the two-story high solarium filled with full-grown trees is one of New Orleans’ most heavenly sanctuaries. This is where Tennessee Williams wrote the Glass Menagerie while living on the third floor of the overwhelmingly large, stately and elegant mansion. It was a privilege to hold a “soirée” there and languish in what seemed more like a movie set than reality…but again, this is New Orleans at its finest.
Bethany and Johann Bultman are the co-founders and Board Members of the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic, a full-scale provider of medical care for New Orleans musicians. Johann grew up in France and visit Paris often. We have mutual friends on both sides of the Atlantic, including Susan Herrmann Loomis, friend and Normandy chef of “On Rue Tatin” fame.
On Tuesday my daughter and I head to Costa Rica for another adventure in a landscape contrary to our Parisian or New Orleans roots. I’ll be writing you from the beaches and rain forests, rather than the oak-lined streets and decadent indulgence of my home town where I’ve already put on several pounds, thanks to the crawfish, crabs, shrimp, oysters and all the specialities you simply can’t get anywhere else.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
P.S. I just got word that our 6th (3 more are in the works!) House Hunters International episode, “Searching for Style and Space in Paris” (episode HHINT-4107H), will air August 2, 2012, 1:30 AM e/p and 10:30 PM e/p. In this episode: Illysia decided to pursue a career in fashion and vowed to one day live in the City of Light. Now, with a successful career as a fashion stylist, Illysia is ready to make the second part of her dream a reality. She and her husband, Alec, are purchasing a pied-à-terre, which will serve as a frequent getaway from their Detroit suburb as well as an investment property that they may rent out when they’re not there. Watch what happens when “House Hunters International” strolls the fashionable avenues of Paris, France. Be sure to tune in!