Tuesday, December 21, 2010

East Meets West in Louisiana



Life's a voyage that's homeward bound.

-Herman Melville

Before moving to Louisiana, I lived in Alaska for six years. In some ways I felt welcome up north, and in other ways I felt like a Vietnamese-American wandering solo in a cold cold world, literally. I remember walking into a newly-opened Vietnamese restaurant in Anchorage on a zero degree afternoon. They sold pho, a hot Vietnamese soup that will cure what ails you. After I paid the bill and thanked the family staff, the proprietor asked me, "Your Vietnamese is still good. You must be visiting from the Lower 48." I explained that I had been living in Alaska for six years already. "How do we not know each other yet?" Truth be told, it was a reasonable question.

I moved to New Orleans six months ago, and though never having lived here before, Louisiana has quickly started to feel familiar. At fist I found the humid heat oppressive, but it didn't take long for my body to adjust, calling upon those sectors of my genetic make-up built for swamp life that had remained dormant during my Arctic years. Like the Vietnamese, Louisianans are foodies, across class boundaries; Just as I've seen a day laborer in Vietnam venomously accuse a street vendor of selling Thai rice with her beef dish, I've also seen a Cajun construction tradesman spit out a piece of boudin made with Uncle Ben's instant rice. Like Vietnam--my family's homeland--and California--my family's home--a good section Louisiana is comprised of coastline, and is dotted with fishermen. And in both Vietnamese and Louisianan cuisine, catfish and shrimp are prominent players; those little dried shrimp my grandma would sprinkle in clear-broth soups? You can pick them up at a local grocer here to toss in your gumbo.

For these and other reasons, it was no surprise when I learned of the Vietnamese community based out of a section of New Orleans appropriately named Village de L'Est. These new immigrants who had already once given up their worldly possessions to hit the high seas in search of America were some of the first New Orleanians to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and were seen watering their lawns within a week afterwards, without any significant assistance from the Federal government. "Just another monsoon to them," was one explanation I heard from a Vietnamese American.

Though not quite the first thought of New Orleans, the Asian presence here is real. So real, in fact, that the mystic subculture of Vietnamese in New Orleans formed the subject of a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler in Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. While not nearly as much a tour de force as in California, the presence of the Vietnamese immigrant population in the Big Easy is evident in the couple of strip malls holding court to about thirty Vietnamese restaurants, groceries, and shops. Behind one of those strip malls is a small canal that is chock full of water lilies and lotus flowers grown by these recent immigrants, farmers and fishermen to the core.

I was first made aware of the unlikely connection between Vietnamese and Louisianans by my co-worker Charles, who grew up in Central City, a black neighborhood with a multitude of corner stores and po-boy shops. It was during a work-related discussion of a Vietnamese-owned po-boy shop in the neighborhood when he said emphatically, "Listen, when it comes to po-boys, the Vietnamese community has learned to satisfy the tastes of the black community." I was both stunned and proud; Charles did not know I was Vietnamese at the time he made that assertion. But what he said made sense; in fact, one could argue that the po-boy sandwich of New Orleans is long-lost brethren to the similarly overstuffed banh mi thit sandwich of Southern Vietnam, also made with French bread.

These and other similarities were highlighted for me when my mother came to visit here from California just a few days ago. After first inquiring in her usual manner if I had met any eligible bachelors suitable for marriage and child-rearing, she then asked, "So do you buy Jazzman rice?" My mom delves into the details of the rice scandal consuming the minds and tummies of her and her retired Vietnamese friends in Southern California. "There's a new rice grown here in Louisiana, a white rice but that's better for you than jasmine rice and still tastes good!"

As the basis of flour used in noodles, dough, or simply as is, jasmine rice is the staple of every Vietnamese meal. "It's not as sticky, but because there's less sugar, it's better for older people with diabetes. People have been going crazy for it at home." By home, she is referring to an area in Southern California referred to as Little Saigon because of the quarter million Vietnamese people living there. In a hushed tone, she explained that sales have skyrocketed for Jazzman rice, the genetically engineered brainchild of three first generation Asians who grew up in New Orleans, working in tandem with agricultural scientists from Louisiana State University. The entrepreneurs almost single-handedly funded the start of this new crop in Louisiana, and emblazoned their packaging with an image of Louis Armstrong. With their connections in the Asian restaurant industry in-state, sales were solid from the beginning and continue to soar. The upset in sales of Thai rice in America spurred the Thai government to conduct genetic tests on the Louisiana rice, under a suspicion that it was a violation of a Thai patent. The tests results were negative for Thailand--a big win for the Big Easy grain.

Not long after my mother disclosed this tale we were strolling on some of the narrow streets of the French Quarter, when the local okra man passed us by in his pick-up struck stocked with vegetables of the Southern sort. In a lilt that I swear could be passed for Vietnamese, he crooned "I've got ooooookkkraaaaaa..." Right then my mother was on the phone with my father when she said excitedly, holding up the phone, "Minh, listen, listen! They sell vegetables on the street with that sing-song call just like in Vietnam!"

Eventually I took her to the famous Parkway Bakery for the New Orleans piece de resistance--the almighty po' boy. Between the two of us, we shared an alligator sausage po'boy, fully dressed, a fried catfish po'boy, also fully dressed, and a side of sweet potato fries. We sprinkled all with Crystal tabasco sauce. "So good," she mumbles, in between mouthful chews. "It would be perfect if they had Vietnamese hot sauce. Maybe you should give them a bottle."

She's right, and her suggestion is not a bad one. Will it be long before I see the Vietnamese rooster hot sauce sitting next to the ketchup bottles at Parkway Bakery? When that day arrives, I will know that I am home.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

First in Line for the Second Line


When I was a little school girl growing up in a vapid suburban town in Southern California, I would take my textbooks outside and do my homework listening to jazz music playing on the local public radio station. It was at the age of eight that I started collecting jazz compilations with whatever money I could scrape together and by the time I hit middle school, I was listening to Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo, Louis Armstrong and his scat singing, Billie Holiday and her crooning about love. I dreamed one day that I would grow up and experience the world of music and life, something totally antithetical to the homework and parochial school that defined my existence at the time.

Shortly after reaching that magic age of 18, I lived in Berkeley, San Francisco, Budapest, Hanoi, and New York City. I managed to sneak in some fantastic nights in jazz clubs in European towns like Krakow and Budapest, but while living in San Fran and NYC, for the most part I was distracted by the wave of local hip hop, punk rock, and alternative (emo) music that defined collegiate urban counter-culture at the time.

And then I moved to New Orleans a few months ago. It was then I began in earnest my search for old jazz--that one dominated by brass, by vocals, by all those things that once were part and parcel of great music, and that gave it mythological status in my pre-adolescent imagination. Searching high and low, I went to clubs on Bourbon Street (what a joke), Frenchman Street, Magazine Street, all the usual stops. And I learned that New Orleans is not unlike New York City; there is great music, but because of the size of the population and amount of clubs around, there is also mediocre music, and even absolutely unlistenable music.

So by now, I've heard really good jazz performances, right up there with totally lifeless, mediocre-skill performances. Like Goldilocks trying out chairs, my thirst for that je ne sais quoi in jazz continued--and was finally quenched when I went to a second line.

The second line parade is a tradition dating back almost one hundred years. So named because they used to followed a main line of a parade (the floats and main dancers), today they are something of a parade in themselves, characterized by a brass band and dancers in thematic costume. Second lines are hosted by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (S&P clubs for short). The earliest known predecessor to the modern S&P club dates back to 1783 and was called the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association (PBMAA). It was comprised of freed slaves who bought their liberty from their slaveholders by saving funds earned from various crafts on the side. The PBMAA served as a means in which the veteran freed slaves would assist their newly-free brethren.

After the Civil War, S&P clubs also began providing loans, assistance,
and legal counsel to the newly emancipated slaves. The end of the Civil War also left an abundance of readily available brass instruments formerly used by military bands, and Black brass bands began rising from the ashes. It didn't take long for the African-American tradition of the jazz funeral to form, wherein a multi-piece brass band would accompany mourners playing both dirges and songs of jubilation. S&P clubs began collecting dues in order to ensure a proper jazz funeral for its members and served as a rudimentary form of life insurance for low-income blacks in New Orleans, to whom these services were not available otherwise in a racially segregated United States.

Eventually, with the end of Jim Crows laws, the social service components of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs became redundant, and hence removed. The clubs were transformed to Social Pleasure Clubs, or S&P Clubs. No longer was a death required in order for the clubs to perform; instead each club hosted a second line.

A second line performance is the culmination of a year's worth of preparation. Costumes are designed and prepared by specialized tailors and cost hundreds of dollars, as is the case with the exotic shoes sometimes made of alligator skin. The fashion genre is frequently some combination of funkadelic meets 40's chic--in other words, beyond description. Dances are highly stylized and rehearsed, reflective of a century of the jazz tradition, with flairs of African tribal heritage. The dancers are accompanied by a full brass band of 10 or more musicians, and sometimes there will be two bands battling it out, one hosted by the women's contingent in the S&P, the other for the men.

The paraders are accompanied by a caravan of revelers following them through the side streets of New Orleans for about four hours, stopping at neighborhood bars and stimulating some local business. And there are no lack of provisions for the in between; part of the caravan is comprised of vendors carrying little else than a cooler with wheels, chock full of light beer in cans, and a mobile barbecue follows throughout, luring the weary with the fragrance of grilled sausages, chicken and ribs. In addition to the vendors, there are also police nearby. S&P clubs are required to pay a pretty penny for a permit, which buys a day-long police escort, with officers on horse, motorcycle, and car.

Because of the expense and level of production, S&P clubs typically host a second line once annually, but in a town where you can throw a brick and hit an S&P, there is a second line every Sunday over the span of about nine months. Needless to say, I have been eager to witness this in the flesh.

But, as with many things involving music, dance, and alcohol, and New Orleans, second lines can also be rife with violent assault and murder. As early as the sixties, locals recall the occurrence of stabbings at a second line. The first second line after Katrina was marked with lethal shootings. And, just this fall, one of the first second lines had a lethal shooting, as did another soon after. In both cases the victims were unintended bystanders of stray bullets from a gang altercation that occurred shortly after the passing of the second line and their police escorts. In the latter case the victim was two-years old.


I found this element disheartening, and I did not venture to second line for several months after moving here here. But things seemed to change; In a compact little town like New Orleans, typically there are no informants after a murder, for fear of retribution. But in an uncharacteristic rage, witnesses and informants stepped forward and the murderer of the child was apprehended. Since then, not another incident occurred. Sadly, perhaps that two-year old was the sacrificial lamb bringing about at least a few months worth of second line ceasefire.

My first second line was two months ago, in the Irish Channel, hosted by the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the oldest dating back to 1928, and so named in the honor of a 1927 visit to New Orleans by the Prince of Wales. I was accompanied by my friend and former boss, Shawn, a talented photographer, who was well-versed in the ways of the second line and had a deep connection to the Mardi Gras Indians (more in another blog entry). I decided that between his company, and staying close to the police escorts, that I could finally venture into this world about which I've been so curious.

Last Sunday was my second, second line, hosted by the Dumaine Street Gang. I am now a repeat second liner.

What I saw at these events--or more accurately, what I heard, was what I had hoped for when I moved here, but what I couldn't find on the sanitized streets of the more affluent sections of the city. The degree of care in the costumes, the level of jubilation in the dancers was something I had never seen before, not in this country, nor in my travels abroad. Joy, sheer joy, and tradition; all these things clearly led up to what I saw.

And the music, well finally I was hearing local jazz. That kind of jazz that
is played only by those who have grown up surrounded with the stuff, in their schools, in their families, in their friends, in the history of their hometown, when that hometown happens to be where jazz was born.

Second line jazz is distinct from what I have heard in clubs and bars here and abroad. The players are clearly feeding off the surrounding dancers, and paraders, many of whom are friends and family, and you can hear it in the power and tone of the instruments, aside from the technical acumen. It is loud and it is powerful, enough to move hoards of people to dance, sort of like a high school marching band, but really really good, without the goofy uniforms, and played by young, Black, New Orleanians for the most part. In the span of four hours we pass under freeways, out of and into neighborhood after neighborhood, by hundreds of houses, rich and poor; almost always, residents perch on their stoop or peer out their open windows, dancing and smiling as their eyes and ears fall into the music.

At one point I wander over to the itinerant grill and meet up with Rudy, a teenager living in one of the public housing projects in Central City. He is a hefty kid, sweet, positive and kind, and I know him through my work (with an affordable low-income housing developer). Rudy is a second-line lifer, and stuffs his ears with second-line music at decibel 1000 every chance he gets. He is a parader of another S&P club, and goes out every Sunday to enjoy and support the other clubs' parades. It is a sunny, crisp, cool day, and I am bundled in a light sweater, walking along for hours already when he asks me if I'm having fun. I tell Rudy that the second line--this part of the world that comprises his whole world--is one of those reasons I am glad to live in New Orleans, and that it makes me happy. "Yes, indeed. That's why we do it. To make people happy, to make us happy. We parade through the neighborhood, lifting spirits one block at a time."



New Orleans is a strange mix of deeply-rooted culture, based more-often-than-not in the poorest segments of the population, sitting smack dab in the middle of a criminally rife neighborhood. It almost seems as if this has always been so: as a young man, Jelly Roll Morton played piano in brothel; as a well-established musician, Louis Armstrong traveled alongside a host of agents, most of whom were heavily involved in the mafia; King Oliver made his name playing in New Orleans' red-light district

This crazy little place is so damn thick with talent, and in some of the most dangerous segments of town. Search the Disneylandish streets of Bourbon Street, and you'll get little more than strippers luring frat boys and middle aged men while dancing to loud bubble gum music. In Marigny, you'll find lots of talented musicians, very few of whom grew up here, and many of whom you could bump into in Austin, New York City, or San Francisco. But follow the second line through the back streets of Central City, or along the edges of the Irish Channel, or around and about Treme, and you will hear the music, that kind of music for which New Orleans is fabled, that Storyville I once thought myself corny to want to be true. Though second line jazz has a modern flavor of its own, in many ways it serves as the folk music of New Orleans, serving communities with its boisterous power to bring about dance.

As I continue to listen to live music here, over and over I pose myself this question: What makes good music good? What is the secret of a good musician? Is it the hard living of New Orleans, the recklessness of it all that produces the countless legends that were born and bred here? Is it the nothing-to-lose mentality of poverty that pushes a great musician to give it all he's got? Is it the brigades of tradition and support the New Orleans culture has provided for the musically inclined?

I doubt there is a single answer. And I don't care. There is no lack of music here, great music, and lots of it. It was trickier than I thought finding that local sound borne of tradition. But now I know, and on many a Sunday, I am first in line for the second line.
video

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Singing on the Brain


When I was a child, my parents would take me to their friends' house for kid-friendly dinner parties. Invariably, in attendance were doctors, pharmacists, and radiologists, all immigrants from Vietnam, and all with children my age and older. Almost as invariably, after the meal was eaten my parents would spirit us away just as the hosts were breaking out the karaoke machine; But not before my sisters and I could get in a good laugh and point with the other children at their parents making utter fools of themselves, hitting high notes that weren't high enough. It boggled my mind; these people worked so hard to come to this country, and struggled to become health care professionals in a language they barely knew when they escaped their own war-torn homeland...and yet, they could not carry a note to save their lives.


My parents, having the good sense to understand their limitations, spared us children from such humiliation and never participated in such activities. For that I was grateful. Always my mother surrounded my sisters and me with music, buying opera and classical music cd's, taking us to see the symphony and the ballet, and paying for piano lessons. But never did she or my father mistake us to be the Von Trapps.


And that sums up the early roots of singing in my life. As I grew up, time and time again, I observed the strange fixation the Vietnamese-American community--in fact, many Asian communities--have with karaoke. And this proved true again when I lived in Vietnam for a year while in my early twenties. It was my Vietnamese language teacher, also fluent in Japanese language and culture, who said it best: "Westerners love to express themselves through dancing; Asians love to sing."


Eventually, I too succumbed to my genetic predisposition and after a few shots of hard alcohol, I frequently found myself in random Asian-themed karaoke haunts while living in New York City. I knew I was bad, but with some liquid courage, on these occasions I was shameless, and had the security of knowing that everyone listening (and not listening) to my warbling were just as if not more intoxicated than myself.


Not long after leaving New York City, I moved to Alaska where I took up my second instrument; the fiddle. Eventually I had become able enough to start my own band and play a few bar and dance gigs, and I sang as little as possible in Alaska, except of course, when I encountered that old friend of mine--the karaoke bar. But other than those lapses of judgment, I rarely allowed my weakness for song interfere with my fiddling, though I envied those who could mingle the two. It was during my days as a public fiddler when I promised myself that if I ever got to choose who I could be reincarnated as, it would be a jazz vocalist like Billie Holiday, hands down. And, since that day had not yet come, I seldom opened my mouth to sing.


My aversion to singing in public while sober was noticeable. I recall on one occasion I had the opportunity to play music with some of my favorite living old-time musicians, the Foghorn Stringband. After a few hours of jamming, one of the players observed aloud that I would not sing, despite the crooning nature of oldtime music...But he was white; how could he possibly understand the ghosts of my Asian-American past? The karaoke indignities that my people and I have imposed on ourselves throughout my life?


Don't get me wrong; I'm not ashamed of being Asian-American. In fact I believe that, generally speaking, we are capable of contributing to the world in many ways like many other immigrant communities. I also believe that singing (and driving) are just not one of those ways. Though my position on this subject has softened somewhat upon my discovery of talented Asian opera singers, I still am convinced that I am genetically predisposed to NOT sing.


But then I went to the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. The Spotted Cat is known for its almost exclusively traditional style jazz, from swing to Dixieland, and other brass-related genres from a era far past. One night in particular, I caught Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, a swing band with a comely female vocalist, clad in 1940's apparel, hair swept in an orderly chignon, with tattooed vines arching above her eyebrows. The musicians were proficient and her vocals were pretty, but more strikingly, she looked like she was having fun, smiling as her eyes fell on the dancers in the crowd.


She reminded me of the promise I once made to myself, of becoming Billie Holiday upon reincarnation. And that's when it struck me; I don't HAVE to die and be reborn as a woman who became a prostitute at the age of 12 and live a life of pain and suffering in order to sing (though it probably helps).


I mean, I guess I could just take singing lessons. Not for the purposes of ever singing in public, mind you. Just to be able to carry a note in the shower.


In a town like New Orleans, throw a brick and you'll hit a singing teacher. During an impulsive and somewhat feverish craigslist research session, I listened to a multitude of mp3's from various local voice instructors. I eventually came upon my future teacher, Maria, singing The Very Thought of You, and I liked it. Two days later, I am parking my bike in front of her quaint shotgun apartment in the Lower Garden District.


I like her almost immediately. Maria had been a jazz vocalist for twenty-some years, raised children, and at some point after moved to New Orleans by herself. In her late forties, there was a charming element of rebirth about her...lots of art on the walls, her own florals on canvas, and some Asian-inspired pieces from a different era. When I arrived she had just come out of the shower; petite in stature, her hair was wet and messy, but her white men's shirt was neatly fitted, and she wore heels, giving her a slightly disheveled but ladylike appearance. She tells me that she has only recently moved to New Orleans (4 years ago) which inspired her to sing again after years of dormancy. She sat at the piano and we began some voice exercises. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.


In those 45 minutes, to my surprise we learn that I have a range of almost three octaves, and that my pitch is good. We also learn that I have no power or tone and that I tremor out of fear--to put it bluntly I have a wimpy singing voice. She also tells me that my speaking voice is notably below my natural range. I am not surprised; as a result of hearing enough ear-piercing Americans blabber on the other side of some cafe or hostel while traveling overseas in my early twenties, I actively began lowering both the pitch and the volume of my voice. Though I eventually would learn to speak more loudly in public settings, this effort at bringing my voice down a note (or three to be exact) only intensified when I began to practice law and spoke in courtrooms for hours at a time on a daily basis, side-by-side with mostly male colleagues, in front of mostly male judges, representing mostly male indigent clients.


With this revelation thanks to Maria, combined with the scars of my karaoke past, I realize that I am carrying life-long voice baggage. Maria tells me I need to quit it. Partly for shock value, she shares the story of Walter Cronkite, who like myself, also spoke artificially lower than his natural range, and eventually developed nodes in his throat.


A few days later, after some amount of peer pressure, I accompany my good friend Suzy to Buddha Belly, one of the many local karaoke-laundromat-bars in town. Suzy is smart, professional, and dedicated to her work, and at the same time, the picture of an attractive and charming white Southern girl. But she suffers from an addiction to karaoke I've seen primarily in Asians. I watch her wobble on stage as she shouts out a damn hearty version of Megadeth's Master of Puppets, stomping her high heel boots under the colored lights, as someone walks past her with a basket of clean laundry.


And, in her wake, after a few shots of something strong and liquid purchased for me, I sing two of my favorites; Lola by the Kinks and Heart of Glass by Blondie. I laugh hilariously during and after each song, partly because of the alcohol and the good company, and partly because it is apparent that my voice training has not yet come to fruition. My voice teacher Maria has her work cut out for her.


On my bike ride home, I realize what a travail it is for me to try to sing, even if just for my own enjoyment. Despite having played instruments for over the span of about twenty-five years, never did have I truly and wholly attempted to hear my own voice, until now, when I have relocated to New Orleans.


In the past I have learned to do the things I am surrounded by; having lived under the roof of two book-reading professionals for eighteen years, becoming a professional was second nature. Later I surrounded myself with Alaska and all of its rugged beauty, and I learned to split wood, ski, and ice climb. And now, I have chosen to surround myself with music--live music, of the kind I used to only catch on cd's and special public radio programs. While I have no delusions that this immersion will make a professional singer out of me, I do dream that one day I will be able to belt out Stormy Weather, The Way You Look Tonight, and other classics, hitting all the right notes with power...in the presence of only my dog and cats, with shampoo in my hair and water running down my back.


And until that magical moment happens, I suppose I can always catch a good jazz singer at the Spotted Cat.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Blackpot Festival: That's What I Like About the South



"The South is a place. East, west, and north are nothing but directions."


--Letter to the editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1995


It's a warm, dry(ish) Friday afternoon in Louisiana, and I'm high-tailing it out of beautiful New Orleans for the small, not-so-scenic college town of Lafayette, Louisiana for a four day weekend on Halloween. To those who like Cajun music and Cajun culture, this makes perfect sense. This dubious demographic headed towards Lafayette includes a bunch of Louisianans, myself, and about thirty Alaskans, most of whom I've known for years.


I first stepped foot in Lafayette about two years ago, for Festival Acadien. I was living in Alaska at the time, and with the visit to Lafayette I was obeying the call of Eric Graves, Ray Garrity, and other "elders" as they are referred to in the Arctic. They are a group of talented musicians in their fifties living Alaska, who, through the decades of cabin living in various parts of the state, have formed a tight friendship based on music, Alaska, and, well, whiskey. They play American roots music, including but not limited to oldtime, bluegrass, and Cajun. And I, forever an aspiring oldtime musician, like the other initiates under the age of 50, admire their musicianship and adore their company. So when they said they were going to Lafayette for Festival Acadian, I and about 30 others from Alaska followed, as if we were caravaning the pied piper.


Festival Acadian did not disappoint. The music and musicians were amazingly talented and shockingly friendly. So friendly, in fact, one of my close oldtime girlfriends found herself a Cajun fiance at that very event. Fiances aside, the hospitality combined with a purview into the culture of Southern Louisiana was a true treat for us Alaskans, stranded by ourselves statewide through most of a 9 month winter, appreciative of kindness and fun.


Lafayette was my first realization that there is a part of this country where the roots of this truly American subculture thrives. A mix of hillbilly French, a touch of Creole, a lot of the South, Cajun culture is truly reflective of the American melting pot (a quality of the United States that I will always value as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants).


So, when the elders changed course from Festival Acadien and put the Blackpot Festival on the calendar, over 30 Alaskans responded to the call, and so did I. But this time, now living in New Orleans, my commute was a little shorter. It was because of this I left New Orleans during one of its most cherished holidays, Halloween, and found myself driving through what seemed like a giant corridor of strip malls and box stores on the main thoroughfare of Lafayette.


Eventually I reached Acadian Village, a Cajun folk life museum comprised of a series of historic cabins and outbuildings, a blacksmith shop, a church, and a dancehall, all interspersed between open fields and bayou-like bodies of water. On this weekend it served as the site of Blackpot Festival.



The festival itself is the brainchild of the Red Stick Ramblers, a band of young, local musicians playing a combination of Cajun, gypsy and country swing. I first saw them perform about six years ago in snowy, mountainous Anchorage, when they were in their early twenties, energetic, and alive, and on tour. Since then their musicianship has only grown, with a huge repertoire and writing their own songs in this virtually self-created genre of American roots music. Their dedication to not only the technical aspect music but also the culture is well-illustrated in their hard work in organizing Blackpot Festival.


The Festival itself occurs on two stages; one in the main hall with a spacious dance floor, and the other in the church, where one can watch an assortment of smaller, more mellow acts. From zydeco to Cajun, blues, to singer songwriters (but good ones), both local and visiting, there is no shortage of exceptionally good live music on either stage over a span of approximately 15 hours. Nights inevitably end with main acts like Feufollet, the Pine Leaf Boys, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and the Red Stick Ramblers (the second of whom were thrice nominated for a Grammy).


Food was also a regular and persistent element at Blackpot. On Friday night, after watching hours and hours of all-star Cajun and oldtime jams at various campsites, I wandered over to a tented area at about 4:30am only find a magnificent gumbo being prepared by Toby, a Cajun family man in his thirties. Amid a din of revelers at this waking hour, Toby attended to his art with the focus of a chemist. By that point, Toby had been preparing the contents of his magic pot for a few hours. When I arrive, he tops his concoction with fresh green onions, and with that, a bowl of piping hot gumbo is placed in my hands. I lap it up like a starving dog. The next morning, against all odds, I had not even the slightest hangover, and I am wholly convinced that I owe this phenomenon to Toby and his gumbo.


Food also was honored in a more formal manner at Blackpot. As the name implies, black, cast-iron pots played a central role. On Saturday I woke up to about fifteen groups of people, setting up shop with black pots, gas burners, and coolers. Inside the coolers were random animals and animal parts: frogs, rabbit, pork, you name it and apparently the Cajuns will eat it. Competitors were local, and included Red Stick Rambler Blake Miller and his father. By afternoon, with Cajuns stirring and hovering over their black pots, adding a pinch of this and a handful of that, the scene looked like a witchcraft convention, but instead of ghoulish potions, the cauldrons emitted fragrances of onions and spices, and tasty dead things. Free samples of everyone's wares were handed out and a contest ensued. I chose the award-winning rabbit stew and black-eyed peas, enough calories in one plate to sustain a herd of elephants.


On Sunday, the Krewe de Alaska headed out to the Blackpot

after-party at the Lakeview Campground. Owned by Toby's family (of the 4:30am gumbo fame), the Lakeview is a campground about an hour out of Lafayette, nestled amongst tall trees surrounding a small lake. The site was dotted with (amongst other outbuildings) a few flush facilities, a large log house, and a barn. In the 1950's the 3000sq. ft. log house served as a dance hall to the surrounding parishes but now desperately requires renovation. To compensate, however, Toby converted the pole barn he built three years ago to store machinery into a veritable dance hall. The floors were bedecked with OSB laid on top of gravel. The structure itself was a combination of corrugated metal and trusses. The ceilings were high, and bedecked with windows, fans and speakers. The stage was a makeshift space on the floor with decent sound equipment. That night, we danced and waltzed our hearts out to a number of bands, including a concoction of all-stars (including Steve Riley) dubbed the Racines, and an impromptu jam of members from the Pine Leaf Boys, Feufollet, and the Red Stick Ramblers. We were fed a gumbo for the road before heading back into town. Not a bad way to end a night.


Since my move to New Orleans four months ago, my out-of-state friends and acquaintances have frequently asked me if I like it here. The answer is an affirmative one, but I've had a hard time placing my finger on exactly why. Everyone expects me to talk about the French Quarter, or the festivals, or the beignets, all of which rank high on my list of pro's, but don't quite capture what keeps me from moving to Panama like I had planned shortly before changing tack and moving to New Orleans.


What I like about living in New Orleans, about living in Louisiana, is what I like about the South. There is tradition--to a fault, in some instances, but there is a common respect for where people came from and how they became part of the local culture. There is food--that rich, flavorful, spicy kind of food that can give you either a coronary, a vivid trip to the toilet, or both, or just some good memories. And there is music--a music that is rooted in a tradition almost as old as this country, if not older. In the South, people have maintained and even revived these traditions; doing otherwise would be unthinkable.


There are strong elements of these factors all over the South, and especially in New Orleans. And, while I love my new life in New Orleans, the town of Lafayette is enigmatically dripping with Cajun in a way that drives me to return. Blackpot Festival in Lafayette is like an adrenaline rush of tradition, music, and food encapsulated in a few days. In one weekend, it's what I like about the South.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Defying Nature in Palm Springs


I know what you're thinking: casinos, golf courses, and senior citizen conventions, right? Think again. Well sorta. OK, sure, the free city map has a large, conspicuous marker for the local social security office, hearing aid shops are readily abound, and just about all of the passengers on my plane were age 65 and above. But the Palm Springs of today has a new look. It’s been struck by hipsters and gay-boys, and in all the right ways.


I am slated to do a quick overnighter here because of the wedding of my longtime friend Kara. And I’ll be honest, knowing full well that she reads my blog--When she first announced Palm Springs many months ago as her matrimonial destination, my initial thoughts were something along the lines of, “You have got to be kidding me. I know we’re getting older, but isn’t this a little premature?” But, with Kara being my friend of 21 years now, Palm Springs-bound I was.


Stepping off the plane, I was pleasantly surprised: the airport architecture was comprised of modern concrete and angles, but elegant with its desert landscaping, set against a dry mountain backdrop sprinkled with palm trees jutting into a clear blue sky. Truly a sight for sore eyes. From there to the Ace Hotel, I saw a lot of mid-century motels, relics of a time far past, but in good condition.


After a short cab ride I arrive at my destination, the the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Formerly a Howard Johnson’s motel, it had since undergone major renovations and, as much as I usually detest modern-style architecture, and all its “sleek lines” (ask yourself, isn’t there a reason villains in movies always live in modern villas?), it worked here. In the rooms, the floors were polished concrete with exotic rugs on top, the linens a crisp clean off-white, and the walls and curtains were comprised of off-white canvas tarps, completing the desert theme. The furniture was sparse, mostly polished wood, with effective shelving. The larger suites had patios bedecked with cozy but tidy gas fireplaces. The entire expanse of the motel was landscaped with concrete and combed sand. And, unlike your standard Americana motel, instead of a huge parking lot in the middle, the Ace had a large pool and bar, a number of patios, and some smaller pools. A little hipster oasis in the desert.



Palm Springs has come a long way. Originally the stomping grounds of Native Americans, this former reservation was torn up by the U.S. federal government and distributed in checkerboard pieces to a railroad company in the 1870's. Later, with much irrigating and pumping in of water, and importing of date palm trees from Algiers, it was then developed as an agricultural center. By 1940's, all attempts at farming were almost completely replaced by the luxury resort strategy, with strong success. Desert casinos and high-end hotels popped up. Celebs like Frank Sinatra built second homes. Such predictably warm, arid weather served its patrons well, particularly the elderly ones, who bought homes and condominiums en masse. And that is how I identified Palm Springs growing up: I knew it as the home of my father's professional mentors and my mother's sponsors when she first immigrated. Those people were all senior citizens.


But in the last ten years, Palm Springs has broadened its demographic. Now a weekend stop for Los Angelinos, it is replete with restaurants and pool clubs for the boho yuppie set. Gay- friendly nightclubs and restaurants have also officially arrived, making it one of the top stops for members of the gay community. During my stay I was able to have lunch with an old grade-school buddy of mine, former high school football star turned multi-starred chef, who is opening up a new restaurant next to the Ace. His theme revolves around fresh, seasonal fare, targeting the new Palm Springs breeds--the younger, hipper, and gayer sets, with tastes for healthy and gourmet, and who have money to spare.


After a long evening of libations and post-banquet snacks by the various pools and fireplaces in honor of my my gal pal Kara and her new husband Gerry, I woke up the day after my arrival to go for a run. As I'm jogging under the stinging rays of the desert sun, I look around at the scorched mountains, covered by only the burliest of vegetation barely hovering over the ground. From the top of the mountains against a crystal blue sky, my eyes don't have to wander far before they fall on the many stuccoed spa clubs and hotels.


I am running in the middle of the desert for fun. In another era, such an activity would have been fairly stupid and life-threatening. But on this day, there is no sand in my teeth, and under my feet, there are smooth, almost polished, sidewalks. If I want to I can veer to the left and climb up true desert-mountain terrain. But, at any moment I can buy a bottle of mineral water long before I even begin to feel dehydrated. The irony of it all is a refreshing message to me, a resident of New Orleans, a city that critics all over the country and the world have suggested should have been left to fallow after its near destruction because of its seemingly impossible relationship with nature. But looking at the desert all around me on this jog, if nothing else, Palm Springs is proof that man has already and can work with, and maybe even defy nature, to create an oasis of human delights on scorched earth. Don't get me wrong here--unspoiled nature, like that of Alaska and other rare spots, is truly an amazing experience, and one that we as humans should preserve for as long as we can. But I'm not going to cry if someone has a cocktail ready for me when I get back to the hotel after this jog through a beautiful desert landscape.


By the time I return to my room, I feel a dry, intense heat emanating from my head. I grab a bottle of mineral water from my hotel fridge and thank god for the beautiful pool I'm about to plunge into. And I ask myself, has Kara whipped up those Bloody Mary's yet?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Random Pig Parts in Cajun Country




Boudin. Believe me when I tell you that pig parts, random pig parts, are delicious when combined with rice and packaged in intestine, and lovingly referred to in this part of the world as "boudin". Sounds like ordinary sausage to me, you might say. Well, if you're entering Cajun country and know what's good for you, do not utter such a heresy. Boudin is a thing of art here, so much so that the town of Lafayette hosts a boudin cookoff with 25 different artisan chefs disseminating their wares, in competition for a number of awards, any of which they will don with pride and distinction.

Like the ubiquitous fresh fruit stands in California, or po-boy stores in New Orleans, you will find the almighty boudin shop in Lafayette. Brought to Louisiana by the French, Cajun boudin is comprised of pig parts, including but not limited to heart meat and liver, and white rice cooked dirty with seasoning, blended, and cased in intestine, touched with a peppery Cajun kick you will not find in its European predecessor. Cajun boudin is typically boiled or simmered, sometimes smoked or grilled.

Despite its origins in the French culture, boudin and all things authentically cajun are not readily found in New Orleans. Like any true regional specialty, quality boudin can only be found in smaller towns like Lafayette, or for those in New Orleans, the nearby town of LaPlace.

And I, on my boudin quest, I took the road less traveled to Lafayette, drawn in large part by the annual boudin cook-off. There I had the good fortune of reconnecting with a long-lost former cousin-by-marriage, Vicky, and her Cajun husband Gene. Gene exemplifies one of the many reasons I have for many years connected with the cajun culture. Known for eating frog parts, alligator, liver sausage, and just about anything that moves and can survive in the region, while spicing it all up with red and black pepper, I've always felt that cajuns were the equivalent of white Asians. I have a theory that Cajun and Asian sauces are so exquisite in order to mask the strange and often pathetic creatures cooked in them.

It is a hot afternoon on cook-off day. A beer vendor is the first stand on the perimeter of the festival grounds in the middle of historic downtown Lafayette. "I don't know about you, but I like washing my boudin down with beer." I agree and we stroll down the boudin aisles with light beer in hand.

And so the noshing begins. We purchase $0.50 samples from a multitude of vendors, some of whom have held titles from the cook-off for years, some of whom are newcomers looking to make a name in the boudin world. Twenty-five vendors in all, I'm overwhelmed by the choices. Traditional cajun boudin, smoked boudin, grilled boudin, crawfish-stuffed boudin, boudin wrapped in bacon, deep-fried boudin balls. So many pig parts, so little time. Luckily, I have Gene's guidance.

By profession Gene works in the construction industry and comes from a family of tradesmen. But the seriousness with which he discusses our sample strategy, and the detail in which he analyzes the almighty boudin is reminiscent what I'd read from a food critic from a Michelin guide or New York Times culinary columnist. Immediately he scolds me for having accepted a free ice cream sandwich to start. "Now why would you contaminate your palate like that? I'll let it go because it's a local maker, but seriously..."

The boudin samples are delightful. A combination of seasoned rice and meat, boudin is like a complete meal in an edible wrapping. I'm enjoying just about every bite. But through Gene's lenses, I am learning the distinctions that only a true Cajun would notice at first blush. "See now, this maker hasn't processed the parts to my liking. The spicing is right, but the texture needs work. Chewy parts are unacceptable." At the next stand he points out, "See here, the liver flavor is more distinct, yet not overpowering. However, the casing is too thick and chewy." At another stand he barely finishes a bite before he observes in disgust, "My god, they've used minute-rice." After a few bites myself, I notice he is dead on with every call.

By the time we arrive, two hours into the festival, his favorite makers have sold out their product. But after ten generous samples from other vendors, I am somewhat relieved, and wondering if there is a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist on hand. By now I agree with his call on the ice cream sandwich.

We stay for the awards which have been swept away by Nunu's. I'm also pleased to see the charming newcomer family of redheads take the specialty award for their bacon-wrapped and smoked boudin.

Waddling back to the car, I contemplate buying some packages to take back to New Orleans; chock full of one of mother nature's most effective preservatives--pork fat--I have been told that boudin links store well. But with all the blood in my body struggling to process the contents of my rice and meat-stuffed stomach, and with the weight of my intestine-filled intestines, I cannot muster the strength to engage in what seems at the time like an exhausting transaction. But, I forgive myself, for, a mere two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans, there is no doubt in my mind that I will be returning for this delicacy of random pig parts in Cajun country. I look forward to a future of deep fried boudin nuggets, and smoked boudin with bacon, and boudin with a seafood twist...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nighttime Gardens


After months of sweltering heat, I have taken up the horrid act of running. It's an activity that I dread, especially after having tasted the pleasures of hiking in the mountains of Alaska after a long day's work. But I'm left to my own devices in a land which lies mostly below sea level, and I have no intention of ending my war on aging and staying active. So, in addition to biking to and from work, I've resolved to run a couple miles after work a few times a week.

Tonight was perhaps the second evening in a row where temperatures have dropped below 80 degrees F. On this particular day, it is 7:00pm by the time I have finally found myself sitting at home. I look at my dog, and we agree that it's a good time to go for a run. For the first time since I moved here almost four months ago, I put on a long sleeved shirt. One of those micro-fiber numbers I'd wear to go cross-country skiing in Alaska. Except that on this night I have soccer shorts on instead of thermal underwear and ski pants. I laugh knowing that it has already started snowing in Alaska, yet here I am wearing soccer shorts to go outside.

In an effort to be gentle on my aging feet, we run on the streetcar tracks down the tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. The tracks are metal rails laid almost flesh against the grass, and also serve as a path for joggers in the area. Tonight is the first run in which both Milo and I are able to keep a brisk and steady gait, thanks to the cooler temperatures; it is only 68 degrees F tonight. After ten minutes of jogging, my mind relaxes into an endorphin-laden numbness.

And then, somewhere in between my house and Audobon Park, it hits us. Both me and the dog slow down to a stop and look up and around. Where is it coming from? All I can see are the arching boughs of the oak trees above, and short, flowerless bushes along the island separating the tracks. I can't see it, I don't know where it's coming from, but it's there; a sweetness that I have never before encountered in my life. It smells like someone is slicing peaches, giant peaches, floating in the air. Milo the dog is looking around and sniffing. I don't how long it was we stood, our heads turned up towards the cool, dark sky, soaking in the sweet scent, pondering its source.

And, just at that moment, only a couple feet from where we were standing on the tracks, a streetcar passes us, glowing in the night like a car from a child's antique train set. Quietly, it slides past us, filled with a handful of passengers sitting motionlessly, wind rustling their hair, as they ride home. Like a ghost gently tapping our shoulder telling us it's time to turn around.

I am filled with lightness by the time we get back to the apartment. I recall my arrival in New Orleans in June, how scary everything seemed, how different it all was. How hot and humid it was, how stinky it was with the stale air with an omnipresent scent of trash. It stuns me that the odor of garbage has been replaced with sweetness, and that my blood no longer feels like it is boiling. I vaguely recall my neighbors Matt and Amanda talking about how nice it is here except for summer, and I remember thinking at the time that they were feeding me outright lies. But now I believe they were telling the truth, even though part of me at this very moment wonders if it is all in my imagination, and I'm not quite sure which parts are from my imagination.

The scents are real. A mix of sweet olive trees, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine, it pervades most of St. Charles Avenue and has for years and years. It escorts me on my run like a loyal guardian. Considered by some an invasive weed, the ubiquitousness of night blooming jasmine is a remnant of a time far past where it was planted en masse in an attempt to mask the scents of a primitive sewage system.

I don't think it masks the sewage however. With this crisp cool air, I am convinced that the scents of this nighttime garden in fact has replaced the humid odors of detritus and waste.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: New Orleans was built for the night. Of course the whole world knows that the streets of the French Quarter come alive at night with music, drink, and merriment. But only those of us who live here know of the botanical garden that awakens from its summer-long slumber, after the seasons change and the heat has decided to end its blazing torture.

Tonight I am intoxicated by the adrenaline from cool, fragrance-filled air. I sip a glass of wine, write this blog entry, I will read a short story and doze off to bed, filled with the aromatherapy that only sweet olive, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine can give. How lucky I am to have this nighttime garden.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Entering Sainthood


"Every Saint Has a Past, Ever Sinner Has a Future"
- Oscar Wilde

I grew up a football-hater. This is because I went to a Catholic school with a huge football program. When I was a senior, the team won both state and national championships. We had days off if the team won certain games. We got the luxury of wearing our own clothes instead of uniforms on pep rally days. We skipped classes for those pep rallies, and priests led us in prayer for the team to win.

And I, well, I hated football; or maybe I just resented it. Though I had grade-school friends who ended up being stars on the team, to me the game seemed appropriate only for neanderthals--violent ones at that--and it puzzled me how it could be so celebrated by educators who went to college and who ostensibly were trying to make us better people. I found football uniforms excessive and ridiculous--these supposedly manly men wearing tight, shiny, capri pants. In college, I began to associate the game with boorish alcoholic frat boys, and later, lazy, alcoholic husbands of friends and cousins. Football hasn't held a warm place in my heart for a long time, even if I did occasionally enjoy the high school ritual of attending games on a Friday night.

But that ill will has changed as of late. To be accurate, it changed once I moved to New Orleans, a place in which it would be sacreligious not to believe in the power of Saints. But don't assume I regularly become a sports fan of any local team. Afterall, I hated the Yankees with a passion when I lived in New York City, frequently characterizing them in public as the big tobacco of baseball. But with the Saints, there's a runt flair about them--and about this town--that you gotta love.

Five years ago the New Orleans Saints finished a football season of three wins, and thirteen losses. It was the year of Hurricane Katrina--the year that their home stadium was used as an emergency hospital, a shelter, and a morgue, amongst other things. In 2009, they won the Superbowl.

The Saints were born in 1966. The team was a brainchild of back room dealings involving a sports entrepreneur, a Congressman, a Senator, and an NFL Commissioner, making a bunch of agreements to do things they probably weren't supposed to, with a certain Louisiana flair. One of the team's first majority stockholders was a Louisiana oilman, and by no coincidence the colors of black and gold were chosen to commemorate oil, the black gold of Louisiana. (An interesting choice of colors for a team whose hometown is a hot swamp.) On November 1st--All Saints' Day--the team was born and named in honor of the famed song "When the Saints Come Marching In." Supposedly the local Archbishop approved of their choice of name, saying that "the team was going to need all the help it could get."

Like true comeback kids, the Saints enjoy a noteworthy and lengthy past of defeats. They existed for two decades before celebrating their first winning season. In 1980, the team lost its first 14 games, and were dubbed the "Aints". Heartbroken fans were known to wear paper bags over their heads.

Even today, some of the current team's hotshots were far from NFL shining stars before becoming a Saint. By the time he finished college ball at Purdue, concerns about Drew Brees' relatively short stature (6'0") and supposed weak arm made him the second quarterback selected in the 2001 draft by the San Diego Chargers. Following a series of injuries, the Chargers dealt the final insult in his fifth year by offering a contract based on performance incentives. It was then that he turned to the Saints, and won the Superbowl just a few years later. But even after a stellar performance in his 2009 season, Brees is still known for working up to 14 hour days, some of which consist of him running plays by himself on an empty field.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey enjoys an equally infamous relationship with his NFL alma mater, the New York Giants. Despite his athletic abilities, the former high school honor student frequently mouthed off to coaches and other players, and generously shared his not-so-warm and fuzzy feelings with the media. After suffering a number of injuries, in 2008 the Giants finally traded him to the Saints for second and fifth-round picks in the 2009 draft.

In true New Orleans style, the Saints have persevered. And in true New Orleans style, the locals eagerly celebrate their people.


It was a sunny Friday afternoon when my co-worker and I met Clarence during lunchtime, sitting in his streetcar. Clarence, is a black man with a salt and pepper beard, neatly dressed in a starch white shirt and black vest. Now in his sixties, Clarence has been driving a streetcar for twenty-some years. Like everyone in New Orleans on this day, he is eager to exchange opinions on the upcoming Saints game. Clarence describes his new scoreboard system of tracking the Saints 2010 record. "I've attached 16 Saints flags to the outside of my truck. If the Saints lose a game, I'll take a flag down. Otherwise, they all stay up."

That same day, the public parking lot under the highway overpass near the Superdome is packed with tailgaters who have set up their grills and radios at 1pm on this game day. During away games, New Orleanians line the streets to welcome home their boys and an impromptu parade ensues. In the evenings of game days, the typically bustling streets of the Big Easy are empty, and the bars have tucked away the usual crowds of loiterers who instead are perched around televisions as if drawn there by a magnetic force. Heartbreaks and heart attacks were spared that night; the Saints have won.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the few things in this world that are able to unite masses of people without hatred, even if I don't have a strong affinity for the thing itself. Soccer is one of those events. Mardi Gras is another. And now football. It almost seems like anything that can make so many people so happy, especially in a hard luck town like New Orleans, can't be all that bad, even if shiny capri pants are involved.

Though it's not my first choice of pastimes, like many things about a new place, it's one I strive to understand better in order to learn and respect this community in which I am a guest. And the Saints, with all their baggage, are lovable louts, playing hard for a damaged city. So now I watch football. When the Saints go marching in, how I long to be in the number.