“Sir we don't have your reservation in our system” said the restaurant hostess with a touch of finality in her tone, as I continued to insist in vain that I had called them earlier to make a reservation for dinner. This was one of the best rated seafood restaurants on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and I had a party of hungry guests waiting politely at the door. My guests were standing at a distance, quietly witnessing this scene and some were observing carefully how I would manage to get myself out of this embarrassing situation.
It was a busy evening in the middle of October, it would be hard to find a suitable place at short notice on Bourbon Street. Besides it was already dinner time, and we were getting hungry every passing minute. I had to change my tone from a soft politeness to that of a loud commanding authoritativeness, as I asked to speak with the manager immediately. This tactic seemed to work as we were ushered to the bar area and asked to wait. Meanwhile I noticed that the restaurant was packed.
We ordered some drinks at the bar and waited. Ten minutes later the restaurant manager appeared and apologized profusely. The reservation had inadvertently been made for a different date. We would need to wait for another half an hour at least. And we could go ahead and order some appetizers that would be served in the bar area.
Oh well, this was better than having to go to another restaurant.
I asked for a jumbo seafood Gumbo as recommended by one of my guests. It took a while to arrive, but it was well worth the wait - in fact it was absolutely delicious! Gumbo is like a stew that is made from a combination of seafood such as shrimp and crab or from meat such as chicken, duck or rabbit. It is seasoned with a variety of onions, parsley, bell pepper, celery, bay leaves etc. Although this dish is over 200 years old, coming from a mix of culinary practices including African, German, Spanish and French, it is unique to New Orleans, and has become an art form. It often comes with rice at the bottom with the gumbo ladled on top, making it quite a heavy starter.
Later that evening as we strolled the streets after a heavenly dinner, I tried to figure what made the French Quarter, the oldest neighborhood of New Orleans, what it was today. It is arguably America’s oldest bohemia. The city evokes standard clichés like Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, swamp etc. Millions of tourists come here every year looking for entertainment, and perhaps some of the best food in the world. The annual festival Mardi Gras, dates back to the French colonial times, when people wear masks and costumes overturning social conventions. What makes it especially attractive to young artists, is the low rents that are no longer possible in big cities like New York or San Francisco.
Established by French colonists and named after the Duke of Orlean, the city is famous for its cross-cultural and multilingual heritage.
The tasty jumbo Gumbo I had for the starter, is perhaps a living reflection of this cross-cultural heritage!
The French Quarter has also inspired many writers.
French writer Chateaubriand, considered to be the founder of Romanticism in French literature, visited this place during the time the French Revolution broke out, and wrote his exotic novels: Les Natchez, Atala, and René. His vivid descriptions of this area at that time were written in a style that was very innovative for that period and it spearheaded what later became the Romantic Movement in France.
Although René is an excerpt of Les Natchez, it was published separately due to its great popularity. Its main character a passionate but unhappy young man much like Chateaubriand, is melancholic and decides to travel abroad. He explains his action as follows:
"I soon found myself more isolated in my own land, than I had been in a foreign country. For a while I wanted to fling myself into a world which said nothing to me and which did not understand me.”
So there we have a great piece of mumbo jumbo – one badly wants to be understood (and accepted) therefore one travels to a foreign land where one is not understood at all. This is perhaps a secret recipe for discovering happiness, a recipe about as simple as the N’awlins Jumbo Gumbo.