Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man Of Mine...

Settling into our new life together is a work in progress, but a month after moving, Justin and I are starting to settle into a new sense of normalcy in our lives. Things are calming down for us; though our weekends are still mostly filled with home improvement projects, organizational tasks, and cleaning, we've also started returning to some of the old mainstays of our relationship -- watching movies on the couch, trying new restaurants, and going to the theater. We'll still be doing the restaurants and theater to a lesser extent than we did before, now that we are house-poor, but tonight we were the beneficiaries of some generosity from Justin's parents, who had extra tickets to see Show Boat at the Lyric Opera.

Show Boat seems like kind of an odd choice for the Lyric, considering it's not an opera, but it was one of the very first musicals in the sense that we think of them today. It combined spoken and sung dialogue, dance, and a serious dramatic plot rife with controversial themes such as miscegenation and racial prejudice. Before Show Boat, American musical theater was dominated by revues, or collections of songs unrelated to any unifying plot, and dancing was not used to advance the narrative action but to showcase attractive women who would have been considered scantily clad by the standards of the time. Therefore, this revolutionary work by Kern and Hammerstein provided the template for the modern musical.

I've seen Show Boat once before, when I was almost too young to remember it, but I do recall that the last production I saw was a more traditional version. The Lyric's version, while brimming over with elaborate costumes and sets that one doesn't typically see with traveling Broadway productions, featured a strange combination of singing talent. Don't get me wrong, some of the performers, such as Morris Robinson, who played Joe (singer of the work's most famous song, "Ole Man River"), were absolutely brilliant. However, the cast seemed evenly divided between people singing in a traditional Broadway musical style, and people singing in the bel canto style associated with classical opera training. Given that Show Boat isn't an opera, the bel canto singing was distracting to me, and at times, it even made the characters seem a little ridiculous.

By all means, Show Boat was an enjoyable night at the theater. The music and lyrics may be a bit old-fashioned, but the plot and issues at play therein remain remarkably relevant today. Plus, after seeing many sad, stripped-down traveling productions of some of Broadway's greatest works, like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, it's refreshing to see a show produced with its proper pomp and grandeur. Distracting vocal inconsistencies aside, the Lyric's version of Show Boat is musical theater as it was meant to be seen.


Bite Me...

Apparently, this is my week for terrible health care-related experiences. Today, when I went in for a routine teeth-cleaning at the dentist where I've been going ever since I had teeth, my regular dental hygienist was giving me her standard overly-vigorous flossing treatment when she pulled out the wire connecting the permanent retainer that I've had bonded to my lower teeth for over a decade now, effectively breaking it. It was quite obvious that she had broken it, because the now-loose wire was jabbing me in the tongue. 

What happened next angered and disappointed me. The hygienist was quick to assert that the appliance was already loose, and that it would have broken the next time I flossed. She repeated this opinion to the dentist, who backed her up, as did the dentist's assistant, and the receptionist who made the appointment for me to come in and get it fixed later this week. Never mind the fact that I lived with the retainer in my mouth on a daily basis for years, and was adamant that it was in no way loose, and that I use a much gentler hand when cleaning around it than the hygienist usually does. There is no doubt in my mind that the culpability for its breaking was completely on her shoulders. 

Now I have come back and shell out a couple hundred dollars to have the retainer repaired, in what will doubtlessly be a painful procedure. All of this could have been avoided if the hygienist hadn't been so rough, and now I'm going to be the one suffering the consequences. What irks me even more is the way the dentist's staff closed ranks and protected their own instead of demonstrating some sense of value for me as a customer. I've been their patient longer than that particular hygienist has worked there, and given the sheer volume of dental work they've done for me over the years due to the congenital defect that left me without eleven of my adult teeth, I've more than lined their pockets.

Ideally, they would have offered to repair the problem for free, considering it was the hygienist's fault that it broke in the first place. At a bare minimum, I feel like they owe me an apology. I wish I could take my business elsewhere at this point, but I have such a unique case that I feel I should stay with the dentist who already has years of experience treating me. Curse the health care system this week!


Jagged Little Pill...

Learning how the other half (or in this case, the other 16%) live is a humbling experience. The 16% I refer to in this case is the percentage of of Americans living without health insurance, and though I am lucky enough to have it provided through my employer, I got to experience first-hand today what it is like to navigate the health care system without it. 

Yesterday, from the beginning of the day onward, I noticed that I had to pee almost constantly. About every half hour or so, I needed to go to the bathroom. I suffered through getting my hair cut, going to a movie, and having dinner at a restaurant with my dad and Justin -- all activities that made it inconvenient to be rushing to the restroom over and over. Still, I didn't think much of it until late last night, when I started having severe pain as if someone were squeezing my bladder with all their strength. It suddenly dawned on me that I had a urinary tract infection; I've had them before, so I knew the symptoms. 

At that point, it being a Saturday night, my options were limited for what I could do about my predicament. My regular doctor's office wouldn't be open until Monday, and I might not be able to get an appointment even then. Going to the ER would be cost-prohibitive, and would likely take forever, given my non-critical status. The only remaining option would be to find an urgent-care center that would accept my health insurance. It would cost $75 -- more than twice the cost of an office visit to my primary care physician, but less than half of the cost of the ER. Unfortunately, my misery insurance company only covered two options within a ten mile radius of my apartment, despite the dozens of urgent-care centers I pass on my way home from work every day. One was far away in the suburbs, and the closest wasn't exactly in the most reputable neighborhood. Nevertheless, we decided to go with the closest option.

Once there, it became very clear that I was not their target constituency. The receptionist seemed taken aback when I told her I had health insurance, and when I attempted to pay my copay with a check, she informed me that they didn't accept them. Exasperated, she asked if I didn't have a credit card or cash, before giving me a long, hard look that seemed to say, "Hmm, she's white, she's got a full time job, she's got insurance... okay, maybe her check won't bounce." The reverse racism was palpable. 

Justin and I were virtually the only people in the waiting room, where the television was tuned into Univision, the Spanish-language channel. After we'd sat there for a while, the receptionist called out to us, "Hey, you can go ahead and change that, you look like you don't speak Spanish." Actually, as a matter-of-fact, I do recall enough Spanish from high school to get the gist of what was happening onscreen, but I decided to change the channel anyway.

When I finally got called in to see the doctor, I was confronted with a physician who barely spoke English. They gave me a cup to give them a specimen, minus any of the hygiene instructions I usually get at my regular doctor, and dispatched me back to the waiting area to use what was apparently their only restroom. I then had to carry my cup of pee back through the reception area and into the lab myself; there was no little door in the wall to leave it in. I hope they don't offer drug testing at that facility, because at that point, that urine could have come from anywhere. 

The doctor, after telling me that I was very good at self-diagnosis, finally gave me the prescription for Cipro that I had been expecting. While I was there, I asked her to listen to my chest, as I've been experiencing a vicious cough for the past several weeks. Her response? "Why? I give you Cipro. It kill whatever in there!" I practically had to beg her just to humor me. After all, I had paid $75 to be there. She gave my chest a half-hearted listen before announcing that I needed to use my asthma inhaler more. Very helpful.

As I was packing up my things, I happened to overhear a conversation between the doctor and a nurse in the hallway outside my room:
Nurse: "Should we send away her urine to be cultured?"
Doctor: "She have health insurance?"
Nurse: "Yes."
Doctor: "Sure, go ahead and send it in!"

Needless to say, even if I got the antibiotics I came for, I will not be returning to the Peterson Urgent Care Center. Still, my experience there was a sad commentary on the broken state of health care in this country. I only got a test because I had the health insurance to pay for it, and the doctor felt comfortable ordering that expensive battery of tests because a large, anonymous corporation would be paying the cost. I'm not a politician; I couldn't begin to provide a solution for the health-care crisis our country is facing. All I know is that I'm thankful to have health insurance for now, and I hope I don't ever reach the point where experiences like the one I had today define my interactions with the health care system on a regular basis.


The Vow...

I am a little behind on my movie-going this year. I saw one of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (once the nominations are announced, I like to rush out to the theater and see as many of them as possible before the award ceremony, but this year I was too busy with our new house), and I hadn't been to see a single movie all year so far until today. Hence, when I got a message from Taryn inviting me to see The Vow, I jumped at the opportunity for reasons beyond the excitement that comes with the chance to see a treasured friend.

For well over a decade, Taryn has been my go-to date for seeing the most unapologetic, tear-jerking, eye-candy-filled chick flicks that have come to theaters. I will never forget the summer evening we went to see The Notebook; we were home on break from college, and had agreed that the film looked like "our kind of movie." We went, and wept through the end of the film, sobbed through the walk to the car in the parking lot, and had to sit in the car crying our eyes out until there were no more tears, just so one of us could drive home safely. To this day, Taryn and I still laugh about that epic sob-fest we shared together so many years ago.

That's how we knew we needed to see The Vow together. Sure, it looked corny. Channing Tatum can't even begin to emote, much less act convincingly, but at least the trailer seemed to indicate that his perfect abs would be featured prominently. Rachel McAdams will always be Ali to me, after seeing The Notebook. I went into The Vow expecting not to enjoy it very much, and I wasn't disappointed. But the quality of the film didn't matter so much as the act of going to see it with Taryn.

Even if the movie was bad, we could still wipe away a few tears together, and then commiserate about the film's unsatisfying ending. We could elbow each other when we spotted locations we recognized (the movie was filmed in Chicago). The shared experience of seeing a less-than-stellar film with a friend can make sitting through the movie worthwhile. Would I recommend The Vow? Probably not, unless you have a go-to friend for seeing chick flicks of questionable merit. Then by all means, schedule a girls' night out.


Constant Craving...

Generally speaking, I'm a salty snack person. I know people who don't trust themselves to have candy in the house, knowing that they'll devour it in the span of a few hours. Ever since I was a kid, however, my mom would throw away my leftover Halloween candy months later, and I can keep candies in a dish on my end table for weeks at a time without touching it. One or two pieces, and I'm good. I also have friends who can eat half a cake in one sitting, or a whole batch of unbaked cookie dough before it even makes it into the oven. I always have to come up with a strategy for disposing of my baked goods; I love making them, but I lose interest in eating them after a couple servings. 

On the other hand, I can scarcely allow myself to walk down the snack food aisle at the grocery store. I can polish off half a bag of Cheetos or Doritos within minutes of bringing them home from the store, and that's only after years of practicing self-control. I used to be able to eat the whole bag. Now I try my best to only buy them on special occasions. 

About once a month, however, I develop a certain predictable craving for chocolate. It becomes all-consuming, until satisfying my taste for it is all I can think about. When the urge to consume massive quantities of chocolate hit me earlier today, I knew exactly what I wanted to make to quell it -- brownies. I quickly looked up my Pinterest inspiration board for desserts, and was reminded of a recipe from Alice Medrich that made the cover of Bon Appetit around this time last year. 

Alice Medrich is somewhat of a chocolate guru, and I've made several of her recipes in the past with good results. I've still never found a single transcendent brownie recipe that I want to make again and again, so I'm always up for a new variation on the theme, and this one included brown butter. As I've written before, I don't really understand the brown butter craze that's gripping the baking world right now. I've yet to find the recipe that allows the fragrant aroma of browned butter to shine. I hear browned butter frosting for cakes and cupcakes is the way to go, and perhaps that's true, but I found that it wasn't worth the effort of going through the extra step of browning the butter with these brownies either.

That's not to say these brownies weren't delicious -- they were fudgey, chewy, and intensely chocolaty. They certainly satisfied my chocolate craving, and I think they would make a garden-variety chocoholic very happy. However, I think they would be equally good with regular melted butter, as the distinctive nutty scent of the browned butter was completely lost here. Chocolate is a fairly assertive flavor, and it totally drowned out the browned butter. 

These brownies more than sated my appetite for chocolate for this month, but my quest for the ultimate brownie recipe continues. Stay posted -- I'll be sure to let you know when I find it!

(Photo by Justin)

Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts
adapted from Alice Medrich

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. natural unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, chilled
1/3 c. plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 c. walnut pieces

Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 325°F. Line 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan with foil, pressing foil firmly against pan sides and leaving 2-inch overhang. Coat foil with Pam. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of pan, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; immediately add sugar, cocoa, water, vanilla, and salt. Stir to blend. Let cool 5 minutes (mixture will still be hot). Add eggs to hot mixture 1 at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition. When mixture looks thick and shiny, add flour and stir until blended. Beat vigorously 60 strokes. Stir in nuts. Transfer batter to prepared pan.
Bake brownies until toothpick inserted into center comes out almost clean (with a few moist crumbs attached), about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on rack. Using foil overhang, lift brownies from pan. Cut into 4 strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 4 brownies.


Sausage Fest...

True to my pledge to experiment with more new recipes in 2012, I tackled a simpler meal this evening that I had spotted on my favorite food blog, Serious Eats. Every weeknight, they feature a column called "Dinner Tonight," that showcases a recipe that can be prepared reasonably quickly by the average working foodie. This particular recipe caught my eye ages ago for combining two things that I love -- Italian sausage and grapes in a savory application.

My love affair with grapes in my dinner stretches back many, many years to when I was first teaching myself to cook back in college. I came across a recipe from Rachel Ray (don't judge; I was young, and her simple recipes are helpful for those without many culinary skills) for chicken with grapes in a mustard cream sauce, and the sweet/savory combination was spot on. That dish quickly became one of my signature meals, and I made it whenever I was trying to impress someone with my budding kitchen prowess. My appreciation for grapes in main courses only increased with last year's chicken pesto pizza with grapes, and I've been biding my time, waiting for the right moment to give this new recipe a try.

Dominick's had both Italian sausage and grapes on sale this week, and I had some polenta lurking in the dark recesses of my cabinets, so tonight I was finally able to rescue this recipe from Pinterest purgatory. Aside from the fact that I don't really like polenta all that much, and felt that the sausage would have been better on top of a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, I really enjoyed this recipe. The sweetness of the grapes paired well with the spicy richness of the meat, and the crisp skins of the sausages played against the softened fruit. 

My only real complaint is that this recipe really didn't fall under the category of a simple weeknight meal. I'm still adjusting to life with my new stove, but each step took significantly longer than the recipe stated, and it was almost nine o'clock by the time it was ready to eat. I'd definitely make this again, minus the polenta, but it would have to be on a Saturday or Sunday.

Sausages in the Skillet with Grapes
adapted from Serious Eats 

1/4 c. olive oil
2 1/2 lbs. hot Italian sausage (about 8 links)
1 1/4 lbs. red seedless grapes

1. In a large (12-inch) skillet, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic cloves and, when they begin to sizzle, add the sausages in one layer. Cover the pan and cook gently, turning the sausages and moving them around the skillet occasionally, as they begin to brown and release some fat. Cook approximately 20 minutes, until the sausages are golden all over. Tilt the pan and remove all but a few tablespoons of the fat.
2. Fish out the garlic cloves and add the grapes to the skillet, stirring to coat them well with the pan juices. Cover and cook until the grapes soften and release their juices, 7-10 minutes, then remove the cover and turn the heat to high. Reduce the pan juices, stirring and turning the sausages and grapes often, until they are glazed and caramelized.
3. Serve the sausages over garlic mashed potatoes with the grapes scattered over them and the pan juices drizzled over the top.


Going The Distance...

From time to time, I find myself stricken by the urge to undertake a serious project in the kitchen, something completely impractical that will provide a true challenge to my cooking skills, and force me to learn new techniques that will expand my culinary skill set. I haven't really tackled any recipes of that magnitude since moving, but today I found myself with a day off for Presidents' Day, and virtually the only person I knew who didn't have to be at work. Since I couldn't make plans with anyone, I decided to stay in and tackle a cooking project that I'd been contemplating for quite a while now -- posole. 

Posole is an ancient Mexican stew with roots in Aztec cuisine, that most commonly combines pork and hominy in a rich, chili-infused broth that is subsequently topped with a vast array of garnishes, including, but not limited to: avocado, sour cream, queso fresco, chopped onion, radish, lettuce, fried tortilla strips, and lime wedges. I had a particularly delicious bowl years ago in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago's Mexican community, but I very seldom get over there, and I've been wondering ever since if I could possibly recreate it at home. I found a recipe, saved it to my "to-do" list, and bided my time.

Prior to the Super Bowl, I spotted some country-style pork ribs on sale for $1.99/pound, and thought back to the posole recipe I had bookmarked. I promptly bought them up and stashed them in my freezer. Finally, with the arrival of Presidents' Day and a whole day off to dedicate to the project, it was time to track down the rest of the necessary ingredients and try my hand at authentic Mexican cuisine. I found the hominy at the local Dominick's, but it took a trip to the pan-ethnic grocery store by my parents' house to find the guajillo and ancho chiles. Soon, I was ready to go.

The process for making the posole was unlike anything I had ever attempted before, which made me glad I attempted the recipe unto itself. First, I had to simmer the pork ribs with onion, garlic, and other spices for at least two hours, or until the meat was tender, thereby creating a rich, pork-y broth. The meat then gets removed from the pot and shredded, and the onions and garlic are pureed and returned to the pot. Meanwhile, I had to seed the dried chiles, use my brand-new cast iron skillet to toast them, then soak them in boiling water to soften them, puree the softened chiles, and then fry the chili puree in oil, before combining mixture with the rest of the soup.

The frying step of this particular exercise proved to be the most laborious; though the recipe warned "It will spatter," it should have warned that your entire kitchen will look like a crime scene. The chili puree spattered everywhere. It was all over my backsplash, all over the walls, all over the cabinets, and all over me. Thankfully, I had an apron on over my sleeveless pajamas (standard apparel for cooking in my house), but when I looked in the mirror later on, I found spots of chili puree all up and down my arms, all over my face, and even in my hair! I spent much of the afternoon cleaning the kitchen, and myself. Clearly, I need a spatter screen before I ever attempt to make posole again.

I do think I'll be trying my hand at posole again someday. Even though it took me between five and six hours to make it, I think it was worth the effort. The soup itself needed a little extra acid to balance the richness of the broth, but a splash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime solved that issue. Otherwise, the complex broth was populated with chewy bits of hominy and meltingly tender chunks of pork, and was spicy without being too hot. Justin, in particular, was a big fan of the dish, partially due to his fondness for DIY topping bars. He loves to customize his food with various combinations of garnishes and sauces, always striving to attain the best possible combination of flavors. In the case of the posole, the garnishes on top were absolutely critical for adding textural and flavor variety to each bite.

It may take me a while to recover from the trauma of scouring my brand-new kitchen, but I'm happy that I took a risk and tried something completely outside my comfort zone. My current sense of accomplishment will be enough to last me a while, but I'm looking forward to tackling years of crazy kitchen projects in my new space. Stay tuned to see what I come up with!

adapted from Gourmet

4 lbs. country-style pork ribs
10 c. water
26 cloves of garlic (about one and half heads), peeled
1 white onion peeled and quartered, plus another 1/2 onion chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
5 whole black peppercorns
2 oz. dried guajillo chiles, wiped clean
1.5 oz. dried ancho chiles, wiped clean
1 whole clove
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 (15 oz) cans hominy, drained and rinsed

1.Bring pork and water to a boil in a large pot, skimming froth, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add 20 garlic cloves, quartered onion, oregano, peppercorns, and 2 teaspoons salt and gently simmer, uncovered, until pork is very tender, about 2 hours. Strain broth through a large sieve into a large heatproof bowl. Return broth to pot. Transfer cooked onion and garlic to a blender with 1 1/2 cups broth and purée until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Add purée to broth. Discard bones and coarsely shred pork into broth.
2.Meanwhile, slit chiles lengthwise, then stem and seed. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot, then toast chiles in batches, opened flat, turning and pressing with tongs, until more pliable and slightly changed in color, about 30 seconds per batch. Transfer to a bowl and pour 2 1/2 cups boiling water over chiles. Soak, covered, until softened, about 30 minutes. 
3.Puree chiles with 1 1/2 cups soaking liquid, chopped onion, remaining 6 garlic cloves, clove, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in cleaned blender until a smooth paste forms, about 2 minutes. 
4.Heat oil in cast-iron skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then add chile paste (it will spatter) and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 5 minutes. 
5.Add chile paste and hominy and simmer 5 minutes. Season with salt.


Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Day Five

The limited availability of flights that American was willing to give us for free through their frequent flyer program meant that we had nearly an entire day left in New Orleans before we had to head home. Though we pondered a variety of breakfast options to begin our last day in town, we decided to be honest with ourselves and admit that we really just wanted to go back to Cafe du Monde for more beignets. They're really that good -- if you find yourself in New Orleans, you absolutely must eat them!

Though the timing of our trip allowed us to get a taste of Mardi Gras season without experiencing the insanity first hand, we decided to delve a little deeper into the annual celebration by doing the single most touristy thing of our entire trip: going to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. Despite its name, Mardi Gras World is not, in fact, a Mardi Gras-inspired theme park, but rather, the production and storage facility of Blaine Kern Studios, the company responsible for designing and manufacturing some 90% of the floats used for the Mardi Gras parades. It's open year-round to tourists, and it offers the additional perk of providing shuttle service throughout the French Quarter and parts of the Central Business District. All you have to do is call them, and they dispatch a shuttle to come get you. The cost is surely built into the outrageous admission fee, but it's convenient nonetheless.

A visit to Mardi Gras World includes a piece of king cake, the coffee cake-like confection of yeasted dough wrapped around a cinnamon-sugar filling, topped with sanding sugar in the green, purple, and yellow colors of Mardi Gras, along with a brief video explaining the Mardi Gras culture, and, most significantly, a tour through the float production facility. The tour itself was pretty lame, and not particularly informative. Our specific tour was made all the worse by the inclusion of a pre-school group, which required a general lowering of the level of discourse for the outing. However, the real draw behind Mardi Gras World is that after the tour, they allow visitors to basically wander the warehouse unsupervised, for as long as you care to stay.

The king's throne from the floats of the krewe of Tuck's.
From a safety standpoint, it's hard to believe they allow people to interact with the space in this way. After all, forklifts laden with bags of beads are zipping around as workers make their last minute preparations for the parades. It may be less hectic further away from the actual Mardi Gras season, but I'm surprised that they allow visitors so much freedom at the height of their busy season.

Props from the krewe of Zulu , an African American troop that has been reclaiming traditional stereotypes in their annual parade since 1916.
Nevertheless, it was cool to be able to wander at our leisure, and see the floats from up-close; even the parade-goers don't get to stand that close. More amusing, however, was the haphazard way the props and components were jammed into the space, leading to numerous incongruous pairings. One had to wonder whether some of them were unintentional (such as Alien looming over a couple sharing a romantic moment), but either way, the disorganization led to some interesting photo ops. Overpriced as it was, I'd still say Mardi Gras world is worth a visit, especially if you're not in town during the actual Mardi Gras season.

Conveniently, after they had picked us up outside of Cafe du Monde, the Mardi Gras World Shuttle dropped us off right on Jackson Square, steps from where we had planned to have lunch at Stanley. Named after the role Marlon Brando made famous in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is the sibling restaurant to the fancier Stella! down the street, which serves an elegant dinner menu. Stanley is better known for their brunches and lunches, and, according to the guidebook, some of the best burgers in the city of New Orleans. As I was starting to reach the end of my tolerance for Southern food, a burger was sounding pretty good to me, and I wasn't disappointed. 

Plus, ordering the burger at Stanley meant sampling a piece of local history -- Stanley was one of the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, opening before residents were even officially allowed back into town. They served this burger to emergency workers and the media, despite the challenging conditions, and I was glad to be able to give it a try.

Not wanting to stray too far from the hotel with the time until our flight rapidly dwindling, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to how to spend the afternoon. The museums we were interested in were too far away, so we decided to stroll through the French Quarter again. We stopped by a small shop on Royal Street that we'd walked by a dozen or more times during our trip that featured a large collection of Limoges boxes, small, hand-painted porcelain decorative boxes from France that my mom collects. Justin and I had long been looking for the right way to thank her for all the help she's given us with our new condo, so we popped in to pick one up for her.

Aimlessly, we wandered down Bourbon street again, noting that the atmosphere was starting to shift. Things were getting more wild, and it was clear that we would be leaving town just at the right moment, before the true revelry and debauchery of Mardi Gras kicked in.

We made one last stop at Pat O'Brien's, the famous bar whose hurricane mix can be purchased at every souvenir shop in the city. Justin and I had spent much of the trip debating whether we wanted to sample the enormous concoction of passion fruit syrup and rum, and while I still had visions that I'd end up vomiting into a gutter afterward, Justin decided that he wanted to give the hurricane a try. Thankfully, Pat O'Brien's had a list of non-alcoholic drinks as well, and I was able to order a sunrise -- a layered combination of orange juice and passion fruit syrup that was surprisingly tasty. During the middle of the day, the scene at Pat O'Brien's is surprisingly laid-back, and we spent a rather lovely interlude on their outdoor patio, complete with gurgling fountain.

Desperate to soak up as much of the city as we could in our final hours, we lingered along Royal Street, taking in the performances of a variety of street musicians. My favorite was a group called Yes Ma'am, which was composed of local hipsters playing a sort of blue grass-inspired music on homemade instruments. There was a fiddler, a banjo, a drum made out of a suitcase, a washboard, and, of course, a wash-tub bass that called to mind the plot behind one of my favorite holiday movies: Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. I really enjoyed listening to them (and ogling their sweet, sleepy old dog), but it was soon time to make our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags and leave for the airport.

We did make one last, quick stop on our way there. Across the street from our hotel I had noted what I thought was an interesting synagogue, though it turned out that the unusual part-Spanish, part-Eastern European style architecture belonged to the Jesuit Immaculate Conception Church. Not expecting much, I tried the door to the structure and was surprised to find it open on a weekday.

Once inside, we were greeted by an interior that far surpassed the comparatively plain St. Louis Cathedral. Stunning stained glass windows lined the nave, and unique wrought iron pews echoed the balconies seen all over New Orleans. I've never seen pews like that in any other city, and I think it's safe to say that I've seen quite a few churches in my day. My favorite part of the church, naturally, was a pair of mosaics located at the back of the building. Each combined familiar religious iconography with images from the city's history, including the 1789 fire that destroyed most of New Orleans, and triumphant American soldiers during the Battle of New Orleans.

Having satisfied that last whim, it was time for us to collect our possessions and catch a taxi to the airport. We were sad to leave, but I am confident that we will be returning to New Orleans. Not only is it a foodie's dream, the city will always hold significance for us as a place that we dreamt so long about seeing, and as the first major trip we took together. We were so fortunate to be able to take this vacation, and I am very grateful to my father for giving us his frequent flyer miles, hooking us up with a deal on our hotel, and picking up the tab on some of our meals. There would have been no trip without his generosity.

All of the amazing experiences aside, this time together was exactly what Justin and I needed. After all the stress of the move, and the arduous but necessary task of learning how to live together, it was so good for us to have some time away from it all and focus solely on each other. I'll be returning home perhaps a few pounds heavier than I was when I left, but definitely renewed in my love for Justin, and the life we're building together back in Chicago. I can't wait to see where our next adventure will take us, but until then, I'll have nothing but fond memories of the time we spent in New Orleans.


Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Day Four

For the first time on this trip, the weather turned against us so we spent the majority of our day inside, trying to escape the intermittent rain and miserable humidity. We started our day with a long hike to the far side of the French Quarter, site of Croissant d'Or, a bakery recommended in the guidebook as having authentic French pastries, and, not surprisingly given their name, excellent croissants.

My love affair with croissants dates back to my early childhood, when my parents took me to San Diego on vacation. According to them, I allegedly ate a croissant and a side order of bacon for breakfast every single day of our stay at the Hotel del Coronado. Mom often bought chocolate croissants for breakfast on special occasions, so the pastries have always been dear to my heart.

A deteriorating shotgun house in the French Quarter.
 In terms of food, I'm not sure that it was worth the walk to Croissant d'Or. The pastries were good, but not as good as I've had elsewhere. The atmosphere, however, was superb. The interior of the cafe boasted a beautiful wall mural, but we chose to take our breakfast outside on their covered patio, which featured a soothing fountain and a collection of exotic tropical plants. A local sitting nearby fed bites of a sausage-filled croissant to her whimpering pug/pit bull mix, and the tableau was enough to put both Justin and I into cuteness overload.

Duly fortified, we walked over to Jackson Square to go to the Presbytere, a branch of the Louisiana State Museum. The guidebook had recommended it based on the strength of its Mardi Gras exhibit, which it proclaimed one of the top attractions in the city. It did shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the season, such as the balls staged by the krewes behind closed doors for an exclusive guest list, and the courirs of Acadia, the Cajun region of Louisiana. In this event, revelers in rustic costumes ride horses from door-to-door begging for food and pulling pranks. The gifts of food that they accumulate are later used to make a communal pot of gumbo from which the entire neighborhood will eat. In my opinion, however, the exhibit seemed pretty tired and dated. Most of the artifacts looked like they came from the late 1980s to early 1990s.

Much stronger, I thought, was their exhibit entitled, "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond." This exhibit combined artifacts with a powerful collection of oral histories to immerse the audience in the experience of New Orleans' residents during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It was deeply affecting, and very emotionally and politically charged. The exhibit then showcased a series of cleverly-designed interactives to help audience members understand the principles of levy and flood control engineering. Not being the most mechanically minded, it was helpful for me to learn by doing, and I think they would help illustrate such complicated topics for school children. Overall, I would highly recommend this section of the museum to anyone looking to understand the past, present, and future role of hurricanes and climate change on the Gulf Coast region.

Street musicians in Jackson Square.
After lingering in the museum for a few hours, it was time to feed ourselves again, so we stopped by Johnny's Po-Boys, a French Quarter fixture with a daunting variety of po'boy options including the typical meat and seafood alongside more experimental options like french fries. That's right -- a french fry sandwich. This time around, Justin and I decided to go the fried seafood route -- me with fried shrimp and Justin with fried crawfish. I think his was a little tastier, but overall, we liked these sandwiches more than those at Mother's, though I think my preference is based largely on the presence of pickles on mine. Given that I sometimes eat a sometimes bowl of pickles as a meal when I'm not very hungry (don't worry, my blood pressure is so low I'm on the cusp of needing medication to raise it), the pickles on Johnny's po'boys won me over.

For our afternoon, we had planned to check out the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, in hopes of taking in some lighter entertainment than our morning spent dwelling on the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. We hopped on the St. Charles streetcar and headed over to the Central Business District, where many of the city's museums are located, only to discover that the Ogden would be closing in a mere hour in order to let their employees go home in advance of the Mardi Gras parade that was scheduled to pass their way that evening. Only going for an hour seemed like a waste of money, but we needed to stay in the area because we had a dinner reservation at 5:30 just down the street. As a compromise, we decided to check out the nearby National World War II Museum.

Initially, we had decided to skip this museum, not only because of its outrageous entry fee ($19 per person, $24 per person if you want to take in their "4-D Experience"), but because Dad had been and proclaimed it a bit of a let down after seeing the actual D-Day landing sites and accompanying museums during our 2007 trip to the Normandy coast. But, since it was convenient and open all the way until 5:00, we decided to give it a go.

I'm glad we decided to see the World War II Museum, as the exhibits were excellent, if a bit overwhelming. We definitely did not budget enough time to be there; we easily could have spent the entire day there. As it was, we got to thoroughly see the floor dedicated to the D-Day invasion, had about a half hour to spend on the Pacific theater, and only a couple minutes to breeze through the section on the home front and the role of New Orleans in manufacturing the landing craft employed on D-Day. Given that the last two sections were actually the most interesting to us, and we already knew the most about D-Day, we didn't plan our time there very well at all.

Still, I enjoyed seeing the various artifacts, and I was particularly impressed with their use of oral history to tell the tale of the war. Every so often, there would be a listening booth where visitors could sit down and listen to a series of two-minute oral histories from both veterans and civilian participants in the war effort. Considering my line of work, it's always nice to see oral histories in action, especially when integrated into a museum exhibit. Mostly though, I came away from the museum with a strong urge to go home and re-watch Saving Private Ryan.

Fried alligator in chili aioli at Cochon.
We got kicked out the museum just before 5:00, so we walked a couple blocks over to Cochon to experience my most highly-anticipated meal of the trip. I first became aware of Cochon after reading a Thanksgiving feature in Saveur that gave different regional menus for the holiday. One was a Cajun-inspired line-up, and they had interviewed Chef Donald Link for the article. His turkey recipe caught my eye, and inspired me to do some research into his restaurants. After reading up on him, my inner foodie was convinced that I had to sample his food when I finally made it to New Orleans.

Initially, Justin and I were just planning on having lunch at Cochon Butcher, the sandwich/butcher shop that provides all the homemade charcuterie for Link's restaurants. It was really all we could afford, and the blogosphere proclaimed its sandwiches to be some of the best eats in the city. I was a little sad that we wouldn't be able to try out Cochon itself, but I would survive.

Then, before we left, Mom interceded and offered to pay for one meal while we were gone. I knew immediately what I would pick, and I was very fortunate to be able to get a 5:30 table. They book fairly far in advance, and all the more desirable times had been long-since claimed, especially with Valentine's Day and Mardi Gras falling so close to each other. I was very excited!

Thankfully, the food did not let us down. In fact, even if it wasn't the fanciest or most expensive meal we ate during our trip, it was definitely my favorite.We started off the evening with two appetizers to share: the fried boudin balls and fried alligator in a chili aioli. Ever the devotee of encased meats, I'd been dying to try boudin -- a Cajun sausage consisting of pork, liver, and rice -- ever since we arrived in New Orleans, and I was glad I waited to try Donald Link's version at Cochon. Simply put, it was incredible. I don't know where I'd be able to find boudin in my neck of the woods, but when I get home, I'm going to make a valiant effort. Furthermore, the alligator was far and away the best I've ever had. There was no trace of toughness, which has been a problem with alligator I've had in the past, and the spicy sauce that accompanied it was a perfect foil.

Louisiana cochon at Cochon.
The entrees, however, were where Cochon really shined. My rabbit and dumplings were completely spot-on; the rabbit was moist and tender, while the dumplings had a perfect consistency and a gentle herbaceous presence to them. The whole dish basically tasted like the most delicious chicken pot pie you'll ever eat. Justin went with the "Louisiana cochon" a dish consisting of impossibly juicy, roasted pulled pork, formed into a patty and seared for crispness on top of a bed of root vegetables and apples, with a garnish of a shatteringly crisp pork rind. The entire thing was pure, unadulterated porcine heaven. 

Really, the only weak link in the meal was dessert, which, for us, consisted of a lackluster piece of carrot cake. My only regret about the meal was not ordering a charcuterie plate in lieu of dessert -- I'm sure it would have been much tastier. If you take away one piece of advice from my experiences in New Orleans, let it be this: go to Cochon! As for me, now that I've eaten his food, I'll be tracking down a copy of Donald Link's Real Cajun cookbook when I get home.

Justin and his friend, Stephen, in the lobby of our hotel at the end of our evening.
Right after dinner, we met up with Justin's friend, Stephen, again. Stephen took us on a mini-bar crawl through New Orleans, stopping at some of his favorite spots and pointing out others. Drinking isn't exactly my favorite pastime, but Justin got to spend some time catching up with his friend and I got to spend some more time getting to know him better. We ended the evening at the hotel's Sazerac Bar, where Justin sampled its eponymous cocktail, which has a long and storied history in the city. Its combination of absinthe, bitters, and a whole lot of whiskey did not appeal to me in the least, but at least Justin seemed to enjoy it.

Slightly inebriated and tired from our long day of museum-going, Justin and I bid adieu to Stephen relatively early, before turning in for our last night at the Roosevelt. At least we didn't have far to go...


Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Day Three

Dads' continuing generosity gave us our start on Valentine's Day, as he sent us to breakfast at Brennan's as a Valentine's Day gift to the two of us after learning that our budget would prevent us from going on our own. Apparently, in his eyes, breakfast at Brennan's is a must while you're in New Orleans, and far be it from us to turn down a free meal, especially one as fine as that.

Our meal was indeed epic: Brennan's offers a three-course breakfast and highly recommends you start the meal with an "eye-opener," or cocktail. Mine was a delightful concoction known as the "Mr. Funk of New Orleans," named after one of Brennan's longtime bartenders, which contained champagne, cranberry juice, and peach schnapps (which I must shamefully admit, might be the only type of alcohol of which I am fond.)

For my meal, I opted for a bowl of Creole Onion Soup, which was thicker and creamier than regular French Onion Soup, Eggs Bayou Lafourche, a sort of Cajun spin on Eggs Benedict with andouille sausage instead of the traditional Canadian bacon, and another helping of bananas foster. At Arnaud's we hadn't been aware that bananas foster was invented at Brennan's, so I felt compelled to try it from the masters. Although they didn't flambe it tableside, but rather at a safe distance, it tasted far better than the night before, and was absolutely excellent. I'm glad I gave it a second try.

The problem with starting the day with all that food, however, was that we ended the meal badly in need of a nap. We were so wiped out that we ended up going back to the hotel to sleep off the food coma for the rest of the morning, and only dragged ourselves out of bed to go out for the cemetery tour we'd pre-booked through Haunted History Tours -- the only activity for the entire trip that we'd managed to plan in advance. I realize that some people might think it's a little strange to go visit a cemetery with their significant other on Valentine's Day, but I guess we're not your average couple. I love cemeteries, history, and architecture, and Justin loves learning new things and a good photo op, so for us, this was a perfect afternoon.

I was a little bummed when I booked the tour that I would not be able to give my business to Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit organization in New Orleans that offers tours as a means of supporting their efforts to restore and care for the city's historic necropolises. Sadly, they didn't have a tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (the one I was most interested in seeing) while we were going to be in town. The majority of other tour operators in the city seemed to be primarily focused on ghost lore and the mysteries of voodoo, which didn't really appeal to me, and the name and website of the company I ultimately went with didn't inspire much confidence. I picked it because they said that this particular tour focused on historical information and was very accurate, and I ended up being very pleased with it. As it turned out, our guide is a volunteer for Save Our Cemeteries, and Haunted History Tours is just her paying gig.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest surviving Catholic cemetery in the city, dating back to 1789. Contrary to popular belief, the predominately above-ground burial methods employed at St. Louis Cemetery are a combination of form and function. Yes, they keep the dead from rising back to the surface given the low elevation of the area, but the cemetery's builders were heavily influenced by the growing trend in France toward vaulted burials. As a result, a few different styles of burial were developed and can still be observed today in the cemetery.

The first technique, wall vaults, can be immediately noticed as you enter the cemetery. The exterior walls of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 consist of rows of stacked tombs where bodies were interred for a period of a year and a day. Given the intense heat and humidity in the city, bodies would decay rapidly, and after this initial period, the simple casket that had been used could be discarded, the bones would be pushed to the back of the tomb, and it could be reused by another person in the same family. A similar method was used in the family vaults, those these structures are free-standing and resemble modern day mausoleums.

For those individuals whose families could not afford a vault, they had the option of joining a society with burial privileges. Men could avail themselves of the facilities of military groups or fraternal organizations, while women could join a society based on religion or other mutual interests. On the other end of the spectrum were copings, or tombs made of raised dirt, enclosed in a retaining wall. Since these could only be used once and land was at a premium, these tended to be reserved for the wealthy.

I was excited to see the cemetery not only because of my preexisting interest and the fact that it's incredibly picturesque, but because it was used as a location for Easy Rider, a film that I watched numerous times in college while I was studying the counterculture of the 1960s. In the film, the main characters take a road trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and cavort through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 with prostitutes while under the influence of various psychedelic drugs. Legend has it that nobody was, in fact, acting during that scene. After witnessing the debauchery they captured on screen, the Catholic Church forbade any other filmmakers from filming there.

Justin and I in the French Quarter. Apparently, we both decided to go the polo shirt route for Valentine's Day.
After a few hours spent walking in the hot sun, we found ourselves more informed about New Orleans' burial practices, and in possession of memory cards full of fantastic images. I seriously can't recommend an official cemetery tour enough if you find yourself in the city. The tour deposited us back in the French Quarter, and we spent some more time wandering around, searching for streets we hadn't yet seen, and plotting a course in the general direction of the Central Grocery.

Having fulfilled one of my two objectives for the trip by going on a cemetery tour, it was time to pursue the other -- eating delicious things. The Central Grocery is an old, Italian deli known for creating the muffuletta, a sandwich of Italian cold cuts (usually capicola, salami, and mortadella), cheeses, and an olive and marinated vegetable salad on a large, round, sesame-studded roll. Their version launched a thousand imitators, and the muffuletta is now considered to be one of the iconic meals of New Orleans. 

Justin and I decided to take one to go (one is easily enough to feed two people), and picked up some sodas from Walgreens -- the cheapest option in the area -- and took our haul back to our hotel, where we sat cross-legged on the bed and had an impromptu picnic. It may not be the fanciest meal that was ever eaten to commemorate Valentine's Day, but it was, in its own way, very romantic.


Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Day Two

On our first full day in New Orleans, we voluntarily woke up bright and early to head over to Cafe du Monde, the famous purveyor of the French donuts known as beignets, for breakfast. Having seen the epic line outside the building the day before, we were determined to beat the crowds, and when we showed up at 8:30 in the morning, we were able to stroll right in and have a seat.

If you are in New Orleans, Cafe du Monde is an absolute must, if you ask me. They do one thing (beignets and their slightly bitter, chicory-laced coffee), and they do it very, very well, after many years of practice. The beignets are fried to order, and arrive on your table piping hot with a liberal dusting of powdered sugar on top. Beware of inhaling while you eat, and if you're smart, you'll try to situate yourself so that the wind in the open-air patio blows the powdered sugar away from you and not all over your clothes.  There are few things more delicious than a freshly-fried donut (I believe this is the basis for the success of the Krispy Kreme empire), and the ethereal beignets at Cafe du Monde are no different. I can't conceive of a better way to start your day in New Orleans.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped by St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, given my interest in ecclesiastic architecture. A Catholic church has stood on this site since 1718, though the current building dates back to the 1850s. It may be the oldest continuously operating Catholic cathedral in the United States, but it was far from being the most impressive church I've seen, architecturally speaking. The interior was quite plain, and it had some nice, but not particularly unique or impressive stained glass windows. The exterior has a distinctly European sensibility, but the interior lacks the flourishes and craftsmanship of its brethren across the pond.

Sculpture by Jaume Plensa in the Bestoff Sculpture Garden.
After our brief visit to the Cathedral, we hopped on a streetcar (a mode of transportation that is quaint, albeit not terribly efficient) and headed out to City Park, the vast green space on the northern edge of the city, not far from Lake Pontchartrain. Its proximity to the lake meant that it was almost entirely inundated following Hurricane Katrina, and the flood waters did extensive damage. Hundreds of centuries-old oak trees did not survive, and the New Orleans Botanical Gardens were completely wiped out. The park is administered by the state, which has made tremendous strides towards redeveloping the land, and the traces of the flood are all but invisible today.

The park is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art (which we decided to skip after reading several unfavorable comparisons to the Art Institute of Chicago), the aforementioned Botanical Gardens, an amusement park with a historic carousel, a fairytale-themed park for children, and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Of all these attractions, however, we only got to see the Sculpture Garden, as every other thing in the park (besides the art museum) was closed on Monday. Like I said, I really came into this trip unprepared in terms of advance planning.

The Besthoff gardens were pleasant enough though, even in the winter, though I'm sure their plants and flowers are even more lovely in the summertime. As it was, there seemed to be a preponderance of picturesque Spanish moss, which is apparently native to this part of the country. There was a decent variety of artists represented, including Claus Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, and even Jaume Plensa, the artist behind the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. When Dad and I visited Barcelona in 2005, we visited Plensa's studio via an introduction through one of Dad's friend's with some serious art world connections, and he just so happened to be developing the idea for the series of sculptures that was represented in New Orleans. It's amazing how life unfolds, isn't it?

After walking through the park long enough to ascertain that all the other attractions were closed, we caught a streetcar back into the heart of the city and sought out lunch at Mother's, a hole-in-the-wall counter service joint with plenty of history and atmosphere. We went there on the advice of Stephen and his wife, and decided to go the po'boy route, ordering their famous Ferdi Special, a sandwich that features baked ham, sliced roast beef, and "debris." The love for debris, the scraps of meat that fall off into its accompanying juices when it is sliced, is most definitely a New Orleans thing. Neither Justin nor I were impressed with the roast beef and debris, and would have preferred a ham-only sandwich, though the sandwiches were tasty and filling nonetheless, though the debris-laden gravy made them exceptionally messy to consume.

Still without much of a plan, we improvised an agenda for the rest of our afternoon by hopping on the St. Charles streetcar with the intention of heading towards the Garden District to do a walking tour that was featured in the guidebook. I was bummed, as it was after 2:30, the closing time for Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, which is located in the historic neighborhood. As luck would have it, however, the city's somewhat lackadaisical approach to time frames meant that the cemetery's caretakers hadn't shown up yet to close the gates when we walked by, so we were able to walk around it a bit, albeit cautiously.

Justin was more concerned about being mugged, after reading that thieves like to hide in the labyrinthine walkways of the city's cemeteries and prey on tourists, but I was more concerned about keeping an eye on the gate at all times so we wouldn't get locked in if the caretakers showed up. Much as I love an atmospheric cemetery, I don't want to spend the night in one before my time! 

Following our brief turn through the cemetery, we embarked on the walking tour of the Garden District recommended by the guidebook. The Garden District developed largely between the 1830s and 1900, and attracted wealthy Americans who were drawn to the city's prosperity, but who didn't wish to mingle with the city's existing Creole population over in the French Quarter. The area where the Garden District was located also had the advantage of being at a slightly higher elevation, providing a natural defense against flood waters. As a result, the historic antebellum mansions of the historic neighborhood survived Hurricane Katrina with only minimal damage from its associated winds. 

We sauntered past the well-maintained "gingerbread" Victorian houses, and took in the elaborate landscaping that gives the area its name. We noted the houses that were for sale and tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one, if we had the means. Frankly, I think the upkeep would be too much of a pain, but I suppose if you could afford one of those houses, you could afford to have someone else paint, repair, and do your gardening for you.

By the time we had seen all there was to see, I had started to receive a string of text messages from Dad, who was keenly interested in our dinner plans for the evening. Given the size of our lunch, we were considering just grabbing a light snack in lieu of another big meal, but Dad wouldn't hear of it. He tried convince me that we needed to experience one of the city's famous historic restaurants in the French Quarter -- Antoine's, The Court of Two Sisters, Galatoire's, or Arnaud's -- that are known for their authentic regional and French-inflected fare, but I was resolute in my conviction that our travel budget couldn't support an outing to any of those places. Eventually, he ended up offering to pay for our dinner, minus the cost of what we would have paid for dinner if we'd chosen our own restaurant. 

I took him up on his offer, and we ended up at Arnaud's, where we enjoyed a very fancy meal in truly romantic surroundings. Given my failure to plan ahead for this trip, I'd been unable to get us reservations anywhere for Valentine's Day itself, so we decided to consider Arnaud's our big Valentine's Day celebration. There was surprisingly delicious turtle soup, an assortment of baked oysters for Justin, and I had a very delicate piece of fish topped with scallop mouse, wrapped in puff pastry that was whimsically decorated to look like a fish. When I ordered it, the waitress tried to warn me that it was "a lot of puff pastry." As if that's a bad thing!

We finished our meal with bananas foster, flambeed tableside. Flaming food is de rigueur in New Orleans, so we felt that it would be an appropriate way to end our evening. It ended up being a little too boozy-tasting for my palate, but Justin enjoyed it, and the show alone made ordering it worthwhile. Overall, I believe it was one of the most romantic dinners I've ever had, and it was a perfect segue into Valentine's Day...


Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler - Day One

For as long as I can remember, Justin and I have talked about visiting New Orleans. We talk quite a bit about the places we'd like to travel together, but for the most part, it's all just dreaming and hoping for as long as we're working our current not-particularly-lucrative jobs. We talk about experiencing exotic locales all over the world together, and exploring places closer to home as well. New Orleans, however, has always been on the table. For one, Justin likes it there -- he went a couple years ago for a friend's wedding and enjoyed enough to want to go back. Furthermore, I hadn't been there since I was a very small child and my mother and grandparents took me there on a trip that I can't begin to remember.

If you recall, last year I even signed us up for a New Orleans-themed cooking class as a surprise for Justin, because our hypothetical trip was so dear to our hearts, and at the time, there was no way we could afford to go. Things changed, however, in November, when my dad discovered that he had a massive surplus of frequent flyer miles that were about to expire. Being the sort of person who likes to delegate his menial chores to others, Dad told me to figure out how to dispose of his miles. Suddenly, a free flight to the Big Easy was in the cards.

I booked it with an eye towards taking a romantic getaway over Valentine's Day, and as it turns out, Dad has a client with connections at the very elegant, exceptionally well-located Roosevelt Hotel in the city who was able to help us get a special deal on a room that would otherwise be well outside our meager means. All thanks to Dad's generosity, we were well on our way.

Since American's frequent flyer program restricts your flight options in exchange for giving you free airfare, we were stuck with a 7:30 am flight. When we got to the airport, we discovered that that our departure time had been changed without us knowing, and it was actually leaving at 6:30. Thankfully, I manage my travel-related anxiety by getting to the airport ludicrously early, so we still had sufficient time to get through security and hike across the never-ending expanse that is O'Hare in time to board our flight.

We arrived on the day of Barkus, the canine Mardi Gras parade that spoofs the name of the super-krewe known as Bacchus. As a result, the French Quarter was swarming with dogs in cute costumes and their fair share of beads.
Justin's friend, Stephen, was kind enough to fetch us from the airport at the ungodly hour at which we arrived, and he and his wife took us out to brunch at Elizabeth's, a quirky neighborhood restaurant popular with locals for its incredible brunch menu. The two college buddies were able to catch up over such delicacies as praline bacon, but our four in the morning alarm was having a marked effect on me, and I was fading fast. After brunch, Stephen and his wife dropped us off at the hotel so we could check in and take a much-needed nap. 

Mardi Gras beads adorning a doorway in the French Quarter.
Feeling better-rested, we strolled over to the French Quarter, a short distance from our hotel, and meandered around. Since we had been so busy with our move in the weeks leading up to our trip, I had done a completely uncharacteristic lack of planning for our time in New Orleans. As Dad will attest, I usually go into my vacations with a rigorous schedule of sight-seeing in mind, determined not to miss any opportunity to see everything of interest. However, with this trip, I merely had a vague goal of seeing some of the city's scenic cemeteries, and eating delicious food. Neither would be difficult to accomplish given the abundance of riches in both departments, but as a result, we spent a lot more time wandering around and soaking in the local atmosphere than I usually do when I'm out of town.

On the recommendation of the foodie blogosphere (basically the only research I did for the trip before we left), we stopped for a snack at Meltdown, a popsicle shop with unique and truly magnificent offerings. Justin sampled their Mexican chocolate ice pop, and, predictably, I went with salted caramel and it blew my mind. Originally, Justin and I had planned to split our popsicles so we could each have some of both, but as soon as I tasted mine, all plans for sharing went right out the window. Come summer, I will be trying to recreate that frozen delight, I promise you.

We spent our afternoon wandering through the faded splendor of the French Quarter, taking in the wrought-iron balconies, sprawling potted plants, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Much of the appeal of the neighborhood is in its elegant dilapidation, and I found myself wondering if people ever make the effort to restore things to a state of newness, or if they try to keep everything in a state of charming disrepair on purpose.

For dinner, we stopped at Cafe Maspero, a restaurant located on the tourist-centric Decatur Street not far from Jackson Square. The guidebook recommended it on the basis of having cheap and plentiful food, and while it wasn't the most delicious meal I've ever had, the heaps of fried shrimp and jambalaya fortified us after a long day.

Since partying and boozing it up isn't really our style, we decided to turn in early for the night, but not before walking back to our hotel along Bourbon Street to take in the debauchery. We did not partake, but we observed the seemingly endless procession of strip clubs, sex shops, and bars serving frighteningly large portions of alcohol being consumed in the streets by an interesting mix of young revelers and couples pushing strollers. It was still early, but it's disconcerting to see people toting babies around while sipping from a super-sized daiquiri. Even if it wasn't our scene, Bourbon Street is not a sight to be missed...