Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cultural Gumbo: New Orleans!

The heart and soul of the French Quarter,  Preservation Hall was founded
in 1961 to "honor and protect" New Orleans style jazz
New Orleans: what a mix! Obviously, we can't stop exploring new places just because we're back in port! After Mother's Day weekend together, Ron started off on a cross-country adventure traveling by motorcycle, astride his huge Harley Road Glide touring bike. Ally flew back to college and I flew to meet Ron when he reached New Orleans on Tuesday. (This after he spent Monday in Gulf Shores, AL at Lulu's at Homeport Marina--- a great beach bar restaurant and grill owned and operated by none other than Lucy Buffett, Jimmy's sister!) Ron's having a great time on the road, and we both are having a fabulous time in New Orleans! The last time Ron was  here was about 30 years ago, when he was working as a merchant marine on a supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico, and as for me, this was my first trip! What a fabulous, fascinating place!

I love history, and the history of New Orleans is amazing!! We spent our first day walking the graceful old streets, literally for miles, soaking in the beauty and charm of the place. The city dates well back into the late 17th century when the Mississippi River was first charted by the French explorer, LaSalle. During its diverse history, many flags flew over New Orleans, beginning with the French when in 1718, a gentleman by the name of Bienville founded the strategic port city. Life back then centered around the Place d'Arms (now Jackson Square) in the French Quarter and Vieux Carre (Old Square). French in spirit and soul, the city was given over to Spain in 1762 by Louis XV, and while Spanish rule lasted barely 38 years, Spain left an indelible imprint upon the city. During this time and well into the 19th century, New Orleans was the dominant port city in Caribbean trade, an active destination for island crops like rum, sugar cane, tobacco and fruit. Thousands of refugees arrived from the Caribbean  as well as Africa during the late 1790s due to the unrest of the Haitian revolution, both white and "gens de couleur libres" - free people of color. Creole society coalesced as islanders, West Africans, slaves, free people of color and indentured servants poured into the city along with a mix of French Aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, freed prisoners and nuns. The French once again took control of the city until Napoleon, who was strapped for cash and nearing the end of his reign, arranged the sale of the Louisiana territory (in French, "Vente de la Louisiane") to the United States in 1803. 

Thomas Jefferson agreed to the purchase since he felt uneasy about France and Spain having the power to block American trade in the vital city of New Orleans, but in reality, the purchase was for much more land than just Louisiana, some 828,800 acres. The huge Louisiana Purchase area encompassed some or all of 15 states and two Canadian provinces as well, effectively doubling the size of the United States and encouraging migration into the new territories.  After the sale the city grew rapidly yet again, with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles, Irish, German and Africans. Adding to the growing numbers was the large slave labor force needed to cultivate the huge sugar and cotton commodity crops of the large plantations outside the city. Americans inside the city itself were unwelcome in the Creole enclave of the French Quarter, so they settled across Canal Street in the areas known today as the Central Business District and the Garden District, bringing in their own styles of architecture and influence. 
French and Spanish used simple wrought-iron railings
Americans brought in the more intricate, but much heavier cast-iron railing
and thus the need for the cast-iron supports beneath the porches 
Most French Quarter Creole homes have quiet interior courtyards
away from the noise and bustle of the streets 
I could go on and on, for there are so many interesting facets to the city! In any event, New Orleans truly became a "melting pot", where centuries-old European traditions blended with Caribbean and African influences, then seasoned with ruggedly independent American attitudes. Street names are in French, Spanish and English, the architecture is a colorful melange of styles and workmanship, and the French, Haitian and African Creoles developed an exotic, spicy cuisine that is the stuff of legend! Truly cross-cultural and multilingual, this unique blend was instrumental in the development of jazz and zydeco, voodoo and unique celebrations. All magical!!

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