Monday, June 20, 2011

Trade Winds on the Beach

"I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination."

- Jimmy Dean

One step outside and it hits you like a right hook in the gut. Heat. Sweltering, damp, oppressive heat, the kind that smothers you like a waterlogged, wool blanket. It's 96 degrees F, 85% humidity, and yes, it will get worse. You can't breathe, you can't think, it's so humid you can barely sweat--Instead of sweating, you just stick, as if someone had just applied a coat of gel on every exposed part of your sad, lifeless body.

Born and raised a Californian, my instincts in muggy New Orleans have driven me to search for a beach. Somewhere, anywhere I can catch a breeze and immerse myself in water to cool off. It doesn't even have to be ocean water. Just somewhere from which I can leave feeling crisp and refreshed, better-equipped to face an intemperately hot and humid climate. New Orleans is a city on the water, so much so, it has been a port city for hundreds of years, through which the trade winds pass. Its water is one of the reasons I moved here. So by all means, I should find my beach.

My first attempt was the mighty Mississippi River, just two blocks from my apartment. Within my first week here, I walked my dog along the levee, the "unofficial dog park" of the uptown area. He swam and fetched and frolicked in the water with other dogs. He ran with his big, goofy mouth agape, a smile hanging from his bowling ball-sized head. The water was pond-scum green, and instead of a breeze there was an aroma of barge fuel and trash. There was a homeless man swimming close by with sores covering his naked, sunburned body. It wasn't an ideal scene but I was happy to see my dog for the first time since our arrival relieved from the unforgiving swamp heat.

Common sense should have awoken me from my reverie earlier. The Mississippi flows about 2300 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana, serving as something of a sewage system for everyone in between, with New Orleans as its very last port of call. So it should not have been a surprise when my dog broke out into rashes, raised bumps and flaking skin over most of his body, leaving him almost incapacitated. He was cured only after I gave him enough antibiotics and other drugs to put out an elephant.

I end the night staying with my dog, the two of us on our balcony, overlooking St. Charles Ave. He lies on his side to cool down as I consolingly pet him, sipping the daiquiri I have picked up at the shop around the corner. We stay there for a few hours, both of us hoping his discomfort will leave as quickly as the antique street cars pass us by.

I change up my quest by replacing Mississippi River for Mississippi state. Less than an hour out of New Orleans, some friends and I pull over just past Waveland, MI. After a lunch of raw oysters and fried catfish at a beachfront bar, we walk on the white sand and over a large, unavoidable swath of oyster shells beginning on the wet sand and continuing into the water. I finally make it into the water. But once in, I realize immediately that something is not quite right.

I look around. The water, this Gulf of Mexico ocean water, is opaque brown. There is no hint of salt. It is warm. There are no waves. "Hey guys, the water is not salty," I point out to my companions, New Orleans transplants originally hailing from places like Kansas City, Chicago, and Atlanta. They all shrug their shoulders. But what do these people know of beaches?

It might have been bad karma for my California beach snobbery, but it was only me who suffered from itchy skin and rashes almost immediately after entering the water, lingering on for a few more days afterwards.

Son of a beach. Note to self: if it's tepid and you cannot see the bottom, neither myself or my dog should swim in it.

We return to my beloved New Orleans where I meet up with other friends that same evening for a glass of wine and live Gypsy jazz at Bacchanal, my favorite outdoor venue. It is a decent consolation prize.

As the temperature creeped into 100 degrees F last week, I decide to continue the quest and meet up with some friends at Lake Pontchartrain, along a little-used beach with sand. Forty miles wide and 20 miles long, with a depth of 14 feet on average, 65 feet in some spots, to the naked eye Lake Pontchartrain looks more like an ocean than a lake. And, as a brackish combination of both salt and freshwater with a small opening to the ocean, it is infinitely cleaner than the Mississippi River, as proven by fairly regular water tests. I know both Milo and I will be safe after a swim, and I decide to ignore the fact that bodies have died in this body of water without being recovered over the years. Salt. Remember the salt cleans everything, I remind myself.

But it was a hard fact to remember as my friends and I plop our belongings on the shore, only for one of us to state shortly after,

"I thing there's something dead right there."
"Right where?" I ask.
"Right there," My friend Clancy says, pointing at a mess of fur. Our friend Will walks over to aid in the inspection.
"Milo get away!!!" I shriek in undisguised disgust.
"It's either a dog or a nutria," they both decide.

Clancy and Will decide to push it on shore to bury it. In their quest to remove it by lifting it from the water with a big stick, the corpse splits in half mid-air, splashing back into the water. Eventually, the once vibrant creature is subterranean, marked with a cross made of driftwood.

Having lost my appetite for a swim, I wander onto a small peninsula comprised of broken up concrete and dirt, as dogs and friends frolic close by. The breeze is constant the entire evening, and I can almost smell salt. We dine on a picnic of grilled skewers and Japanese buckwheat noodles with fresh scallions, washing it all down with gin cocktails and light beer. The sun, so much less threatening now in the presence of a breeze, melts into the water, making pretty shadows through the concrete. Truth be told it is not a beautiful beach to look at but it all feels very pretty. The breeze changes everything.

I have a theory that if there were a white sand beach in New Orleans, I would never have to leave. But in truth, I'm not quite sure that is really what I want. In my travels, I have found white sand beaches, beautiful in their nature, and beautiful in their laziness; lazy music, lazy living, even the food is so lazy because it is so fresh, it is delicious without trying. But for a home I have New Orleans. I doubt I will ever find a white sand beach full of people as devoted to making good music and good food part of daily life as the people of New Orleans. It is a flavor of determined creativity homegrown in a swamp town like New Orleans. No antique street cars, no corner daiquiri shops, no outdoor Gypsy jazz, no Creole and Cajun cuisine will I find on the white sands of California, Florida, or anywhere else for that matter.

I am a person of the coast. Grew up in California, lived four years in New York City, six years in Anchorage, now in New Orleans. It is the port cities I enjoy. They all are places where things and people and ideas pass through, and sometimes stay, making this place a home. It is the movement and growth more than the sunbathing that captures me.

And, so, in the end, so long as I can catch a breeze on a lake, dead nutria and all, while I am perched on recycled concrete; and so long as I can continue my small time exploring every so often, I might end up doing fine as a swamp girl. A little bit of the trade winds may be all I really need from the beach.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Salad Days

A couple years ago I was riding my bike with my mother on the boardwalk in Long Beach, California. There was a fair going on at the time with various booths including one for a fresh produce delivery co-op. Staffing the booth was an attractive, healthy, blond woman with a pixie haircut, wearing yoga apparel. Leaning against the wall behind her was a high-end Italian-make bike with a basket on it, holding a floral print water bottle. After speaking to my mother at length of the virtues of organic delivery produce, she next focused her attention on me. I was living in Alaska at the time and explained to her that I didn't subscribe to that type of service which was in fact available in Alaska, but was too expensive having been flown in all the way from Oregon.

"Well, that seems useless anyhow. There's no point buying things not locally grown," she says, with an air of disgust.

I peered at her curiously, not bothering to point out that just about all produce and everything else in Alaska for 90% of the year is flown up due to the intemperate climate of the land. A lifestyle so unlike hers must have seemed unfathomable to her.

$2.00 tomatoes, $3.00 sprigs of fresh herbs, and and a waft of political self-righteousness in the air, these are the things I remember about farmer's markets I've visited in New York City, San Francisco, and Berkeley. So I was pleasantly surprised when I paid a visit to a couple of farmer's markets in New Orleans.

Like many major American cities, New Orleans has its fair share of urban accoutrements, but is too Southern to bother being, well, like other major American cities. I have never met so many meat-eating Democrats as I have in New Orleans. So, with a tradition of food as deeply rooted as New Orleans, fresh food markets in this town can have a noticeably more utilitarian flavor of their own.

Having been founded precisely for its strategic position on the Mississippi River, New Orleans once had streets paved with produce. The city enjoys a long history of open-air public markets, dating as far back as the late 1700's, when the legendary French Market was opened in order to sell wares which arrived at the port just footsteps away. By World War I, there were approximately 30 fresh food markets in the radius of a few miles. This, combined with wandering vendors who would sell their wares from the back of a pushcart by filling their streets with song, enabled New Orleanians to enjoy the pleasures of fresh food as a given.

Nowadays, the French Market primarily serves as a behemoth souvenir shop, though a small section is devoted to dry goods and some produce, with small eateries also, including the world famous Cafe Du Monde beignet stand. In other spots in town, on rare occasion, one might see a lone itinerant vegetable vendor, selling okra and other produce from the back of a pickup truck.

Outside the French Quarter, there are at least a dozen locations selling fresh produce in an open air market on a weekly basis, and even more on a monthly basis. A handful of elementary schools have begun food gardening programs, and non-profit organizations focusing in the creation of urban gardens have been sprouting like mint as part of the post-Katrina recovery efforts. New Orleanians clearly want to have their greens and eat them too.

On Saturday, I visit Sankofa Market, a weekly operation in the parking lot of an Episcopal church in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Once a vibrant, stable, middle class community with historic houses, Holy Cross was devastated by Katrina being so near to the Industrial Canal through which a barge passed through either causing, or following, a devastating breach in the levee. The neighborhood is slowly revitalizing and is at about 1/5 of its former population.

Sankofa is small but I see red potatoes, fresh herbs, heirloom tomatoes, squash, homemade jellies, corn, and pralines. I buy a pound of potatoes for $1.00, a small tub of okra for $2.00, a bag of fresh basil for $1.00, a few heirloom tomatoes, all of which is half of what I pay in a supermarket. I sip some freshly made raspberry tea and exchange hellos with the manager of the market, who I met just the day before at a fried chicken house party. And, like most of the Farmer's Markets in New Orleans, in the backdrop is a live music, a jazz trio with a standup bass, a saxophone, and a drum set. There is a truck selling pork and beef barbecue ribs and hamburgers. It is the taste of New Orleans.

For a taste of another country, I head East, towards one of the home bases of the Vietnamese community. Mostly a population of immigrants with a strong agrarian past, the Vietnamese of New Orleans are known for their green thumbs even in the most challenging of times. After Katrina, those who took shelter in federally-provided FEMA trailers distinguished their small, dirt trailer lots with produce and fresh herbs shooting straight up through the gravel.

In the Versailles neighborhood of East New Orleans in the wee hours of Saturday morning, one can see a rogue market operating just under the nose of the law, out of the parking lot of an unkempt strip mall. At 5:00-8:00am, Vietnamese women in conical hats lay out tarps and blankets, selling vegetables, spices, ducks, and chickens. Vietnamese radio is playing in the background. It is as if they had transplanted a modern day market from the old country right here to the banks of the Mississippi. Fresh herbs grown from their backyards go for pennies, and yet a profit is made. A seeming win-win for both vendor and buyer, the market recently has been the target of crack-downs by local officials. Yet the seriousness to which the municipal government wishes to shut it down remains to be seen, as it remains operational still.

When I return home, I learn that there are three other open-air produce markets operational on three different weekdays, and a handful more of ones operating solely on Saturdays. At this realization I am enthused, and make a point of visiting the Thursday one on my bike ride home from work, something I've never been able to do in other cities I've lived. When I get home I make a gazpacho with my Sankofa finds, and am immediately surprised at the difference, the pop, in flavor. It is a brave new world for me.

With a variety of farmers coming in from West Louisiana to East New Orleans, the Big Easy proves just how easy it is to buy local, buy affordable, and buy your barbecue too, with a little live music or little taste of Vietnam in the mix.

See for yourself:
For a list of farmer's markets in New Orleans with days and times of operation, visit

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Snowball by Any Other Name is not from Hansen's

It is often in our weakest, most vulnerable moments, when we least expect it, that we find what we love. Which is why it makes perfect sense that I discovered Hansens' after a grueling 2.5 hour meeting for work. As I walk out of the torturous conference room with my good friend and New Orleans-lifer, Charles, the construction manager on staff, he turns to me and says, knowingly, "Come on, let's go." One look and I understand that it's time for a mental health break from work.

In my golden olden days as a lawyer in Alaska, these words typically meant a bourbon on the rocks after a long trial or ugly dispute in court. For Charles, in my new world and new life, instead, the command meant a stop at Hansens. "We need a snowball," he says to me as we walk into the parking lot under a scorching 97 degree sun.

Snowball is New Orleans-speak for snow cone, but without the cone. Usually served in a cup, and well over half of the year, in a swampy existence like New Orleans, it's the next best thing to mobile air-conditioning. And of course, in perfect New Orleans form, the snowball can be over the top, served with sweetened condensed milk, gummy bears, or a lump of ice cream in the middle. One can find a snowball stand in a small corner store, or in a mobile truck outside a bar at 3am. Like a magical gnome appearing when you least expect it, the snowball stand is a regular feat of magic.

I naturally but mistakenly presume we're heading for one of our usual stops, the Red Rooster, a corner shack in the disinvested Central City neighborhood we work in that sells lovely hot plates like gumbo and fried fish. Instead, we drive uptown, zigzagging through the giant mansions of the Garden District, in and around less grandiose but equally historic blocks of the Irish Channel, until we arrive at a tiny, unnoticeable hole in the wall, faded paint on old stucco, barely a sign to be found. I have passed it many times driving down Tcoupitoulas on my way to Rouse's grocery, yet never did I notice the painted words Hansens Sno-Bliz.

"Huh? No Red Rooster?" Charles, in all seriousness, his dreadlocks blowing in the wind, turns to me and says, "No. Trust me. It's like a cloud."

We step through small, double swinging doors, with metal grates over both windows. Inside looks a set from a 1970's show, with wood-siding on the walls, every inch covered with photographs, bumper stickers, old t-shirts with funny sayings, newspaper articles, a large picture of a magistrate judge (the son of the original owners), and a hand-scrawled sign proclaiming, "There are STILL no short cuts to quality". The menu of flavors is extensive, posted on two plastic boards with changeable letters. Sizes are denoted with eight or nine different cups with prices underneath.

And the ice shaving machine is priceless. The only one of its kind, the original owners of the shop invented it and obtained a patent in the '30's. A combination of a sliding meat slicer and something kind of scary, it is operated diligently and carefully by a staff member holding a large piece of clear ice onto a sliding metal component which moves back and forth. Cups are jammed underneath and are filled in three stages, interspersed with generous helpings of homemade flavorings. The one in operation is only second generation from the original animal.

Around the same time he created the snow-shaver, Ernst Hansen's wife, a talented Italian cook, developed a line of flavorings from spring water. They opened shop in 1934, and moved to its current location 10 years later. It has been operational since, with a hiatus when first Mrs. Hansen, then Mr. Hansen died within a year after evacuating from Hurricane Katrina, both in their mid-90's by that time. The shop was reopened by the grand-daughter of the original founders. At 72 years strong, it has a loyal following, some of which have created a line out the door on this and many other days.

I order creme of almond, with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk in the middle and on top. After all is said and done, the snowball is the size of a wiffleball perched on a tin can, with a small crater filled with condensed milk on top. We pay the owner-operator, the last Hansen working the shop, who puts our money into the cash register which is comprised of only a wooden drawer in an old dresser. Charles asks where the tip jar is and the staff takes it out of a cupboard, explaining that they don't want people to feel obligated; they'd rather us come back for more with friends. The owner explains that her grandmother would have had a heart attack if she knew that a tip jar was on the premises. We drop off a dollar and head back into the burning heat to sit on the metal bench outside.

And then it happened. My first bite was something akin to almond-flavored, frosted cotton candy, a cloud, and a kiss on the forehead by a unicorn. I was dumbfounded. The ice is noticeably finer, fluffier, than the any of the dozens of snowballs I've consumed to date. Childhood memories crawl out from the crevices of my brain, of family vacation ski trips when my sister and I would take afternoon lunch breaks and purposely spill our cranberry juice boxes into freshly fallen snow.

I am not alone in my newly-minted addiction. While we are seated outside, we see a teenager in a school girl uniform hop out of an SUV as her mom waits for her with the engine running. At the same time a couple park a car and make their way to the door. The teenager looks at her competition with a side glance and speeds up her pace just short of sprinting. She opens the door to find the line spilling out, and dejectedly turns around back towards her mother, money crumpled up in her hand, head hanging.

On one of my many subsequent visits I was able to arrive exactly upon the opening of its doors at 1pm in the afternoon, on a Wednesday. But I was not the only one keeping track of Hansen's doors; of all the gin joints in the world walks in Ragin' Cajun James Carville, whose books and movie about his work on the Clinton campaign once played an influential role in my own brief career as a campaign manager.

Shaved ice and sugar. For 72 years these two elements properly executed have made frustrating and sweltering New Orleans afternoons more livable, more joyful--for school girls, campaign managers, construction managers, or even just small time explorers alike. Hansen's snow-blizes are proof that sometimes, the best things in life cost less than $5.00.