A funny thing happened to my palate when I moved to the States. Being south Indian, I was raised on fire-breathing spicy food, the masala practically glowing in the dark. I came here armed with a sheaf of my mom’s recipes, but had forgotten that Indian cooking is labor-intensive. It was faster to eat out or whip up quick Western meals, which has softened my palate and made me over-sensitive to spices. Nothing like a plate of seafood jambalaya at Pere Antoine’s on Royal Street—the only dish marked “spicy” on the menu, and when they do that, they mean business—to pull that palate out of hibernation and rev it up.
Some of the more unpredictable culinary adventures in New Orleans are to be had outside the French Quarter. A brisk half hour away from Canal Street on foot is Frenchmen Street, site of what they tell me is the best soul food in New Orleans, at The Praline Connection. I ordered filé gumbo and red beans & rice, only to discover that the portions were mountainous. Didn’t have room for dessert, and trudged back there for an encore the next day and a cuboid slab of thick bread pudding with bourbon sauce. But the beignets at Café Du Monde, so familiar from all the tour books, were—soggy and greasy—a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t seem to mind them much the last time; maybe it was the novelty.
The only bit of shopping I did was for CD's, at the Louisiana Music Factory, the best place to find local music. I walked out with a stack of rare Henry Mancini albums, and would’ve sampled some Dave Zoller discs I saw there if I hadn’t blown my budget so precipitously. In terms of live music, about half the jazz clubs I remembered from my last trip, pre-Katrina, were now closed. And the ones that were open were thinner on audiences. At Snug Harbor, what is probably the city’s foremost jazz club, I caught a double bill of visiting New York Cuban jazz artists, in the city to help revitalize the music scene with stints at local colleges and clubs. Meanwhile, many of the local New Orleans jazz musicians have hit the road because their homes have been destroyed or they've found it impossible to make a living in the city.
Even the main drag, Canal Street, looked half-abandoned, buildings stained and graffitied, businesses shuttered with hastily hand-scrawled signs pasted and fluttering on doors. One hears stories of Burger King offering $18 an hour and a $5000 signing advance, with few takers. If noise and neon are any indication, one business seems to be booming: the ghastly casino—“Largest in the South!”—on the Mississippi riverfront in the heart of downtown. One can get an idea of the temper of a time and place by simply reading the T-shirts, and the one I encountered most frequently here said, “The New Four-Letter Word Starting With “F”—FEMA.”