Tennessee to Mississipi
We left Chattanooga on another sunny morning, after another fine breakfast at Greyfriar’s. It took us about 35 minutes to cut through a corner of Georgia and enter Alabama, where we got to set our clocks back an hour to Central Daylight Time. Our drive through Alabama, down I-59 and around Birmingham on the I-459 bypass, was an easy one under mostly sunny skies. In the northern part of the state we saw a few mountains — the petering out of the Appalachian chain — but most of the time nothing was visible from the highway except trees. One could almost imagine Alabama to be uninhabited, apart from the very gracious woman who gave me a map at the welcome center where we made our first pit stop.
It was only half past one when we reached Meridian, where we had reservations at the Best Western motel. The motel had a rather down-at-the-heels restaurant, the Red Hot Café, attached to it by a roof. A sign on the restaurant door announced that shirts and shoes were strictly required, but the first thing we saw inside was an old guy in a dingy undershirt and a baseball cap, eating his lunch. Four farmers, one in bib overalls, were vigorously discussing crop prices at another table. The menu was uninspiring in the extreme and the salad bar was being used to store containers of ketchup, mustard, and such, so we gulped a lemonade and left.
Rain, heavy at times, began not long afterwards. While doing a couple of errands at a nearby Wal-Mart, we heard it making an impressive roar on the metal roof. We had jackets and umbrellas, and fortunately the rain lightened a bit when we were leaving the store, so we got back to the car without drowning.
It was early, but we decided to get our evening meal before going back to the motel. We ventured onto I-20, bound for Boyette’s Fish Camp, a catfish restaurant in Chunky, MS, 15 miles to the west. I had learned of its existence on the Road Food forum, though the person who mentioned it said he had never been there. The restaurant is on US-80, which runs parallel with I-20 and was the main road before the interstate was built. We had phoned and gotten directions, which were perfectly good, but the restaurant sign was nearly hidden by small trees that had been allowed to grow up all around it. I saw it too late to make the turn, as we had three or four impatient local citizens behind us and couldn’t go less than the 55-mph speed limit. (Fortunately the rain had let up, or I wouldn’t have seen the sign even at 35 mph.)
We found a place to turn around and went back to the restaurant, which is invisible from the road. Somewhat to our surprise after seeing the sign, it appeared neat and prosperous. Boyette’s occupies a pleasant grove beside the muddy Chunky River, which we could see through the window at our table. As I suppose befits a fish camp, the style was rustic, with lots of bare wood.
You order dinner by designating a main course and one side item such as french fries, fried okra, or fried corn (on the cob — ye gods!); then you make up the rest from the salad and dessert bars. (The salad bar includes cole slaw and pickles.) Before taking our order, the waitress brought us two baskets of hot hush puppies, plain and jalapeño, and when she saw that we had finished them she brought a refill. Dorothea got broiled catfish filet, and I had mine deep-fried; for side dishes we both ordered Cajun potatoes — boiled baby reds with butter and a little (but not very much) hot pepper. Though she liked them well enough, Dorothea ate hardly any of hers, having given her heart to the hush puppies instead. They served iced tea both sweet and plain, so I ordered a 50-50 blend, and found it about right. The tea and Dorothea’s water were served in quart-sized plastic glasses, and I finished all of my tea, plus a bit of Dorothea’s catfish. Chocolate layer cake from the dessert bar was good but unexceptional. A chocolate chip cookie was better — it tasted home-made. Dorothea saved hers for the next day, but I wasn’t having any of that.
Rain, Trolleys, and Beignets
The next day started out dry as we left Meridian, seeing the land become flatter and flatter as we headed toward the Gulf. But in Hattiesburg we ran into rain, and it stayed with us all the way to the Ramada Causeway Motel in Metairie, a suburb adjacent to New Orleans, though it’s in Jefferson rather than Orleans Parish.
The rain put a literal damper on our plans to get around New Orleans by public transportation, but there we were. We had picked the motel last fall at least partly because of its free shuttle to the French Quarter, but they had discontinued the shuttle in the meantime. It was only 12:30 when we checked in, so we decided to take our chances with the buses and trolleys anyway.
Miràcolo! The weather cleared while we walked the block to the bus stop, dodging puddles, and a bus arrived just as we did. We bought two passes (good for a day on all public transportation in Jefferson and Orleans Parishes) and in less than ten minutes reached the end of the bus line near the cemeteries in New Orleans. This location also happened to be one end of the new Canal Street trolley line, which had begun operation only a few days earlier. We had a long wait there before a car came along, and some light rain fell, but the shelter had a plastic roof to keep us dry. All around us were cemeteries and shops dealing in gravestones. (I noticed that one of the latter was named Gately’s, and speculated on whether the owner’s friends ever called him “Pearly.”)
The trolley ride took a long time in rain-frazzled traffic. The rain grew quite intense during the ride, but had almost stopped by the time we got to the end at the French Market, which is at the southwest corner of the Vieux Carré — the French Quarter. We hiked back along North Peters and Decatur Streets to the Café du Monde, where we joined a long line at the entrance to its big green tent-roofed pavilion. Our umbrellas sheltered us from the rain that had begun to fall again until we got inside and found a table in the midst of the mob scene. We were at the edge of the tent, and had to sit as far as possible from the open side to stay dry. Once again it rained heavily while we were inside, but lightened up by the time we left, heavier by several of their delicious beignets.
The service (in our case by a young Asian woman) was amazingly efficient and fast. We were less amazed when, before leaving, we stood waiting in a long line for the rest rooms and saw the assembly line in action. Each waitress pushes her tray along a cafeteria-style shelf, filling it from a stack of plates, a pile of beignets, a sprinkling can of powdered sugar, a stack of cups, and a row of faucets for beverages. The menu is limited to beignets and three or four beverages, and in a way you could fairly describe the place as a factory — but, my oh my, those beignets are wonderful!
For a couple of hours we wandered around the French Quarter until our feet were sore. The buildings, with their filigree railings and colorful flowers, were pleasant to look at, and the occasional voodoo shop was interesting in a funky way, but most of the shops were pushing cheap souvenirs and candy. Some bars had music pouring out of the doorways, but to my disappointment hardly any of it was traditional jazz. As Dorothea pointed out, a lot seemed to be the kind of sound you hear at a traffic light from the SUV or pickup next to you.
Dinner at Elizabeth’s
We had a dinner reservation at Elizabeth’s Restaurant in Bywater for seven, but because the public transit system was running slowly in the wet weather, we decided to begin looking for a bus to Bywater as early as six, even though it wasn’t a long trip. As luck would have it, we caught a bus the minute we arrived at the stop, right on the dot of six, and were let off three blocks from Elizabeth’s twenty minutes later. The staff greeted us cheerfully; either they accepted our explanation or perhaps it didn’t matter that we were so early.
Elizabeth’s is a funky little restaurant in a small white house in Marigny/Bywater, a neighborhood that has seen better days and is on its way to seeing them again. I found the restaurant mentioned on the Frommer website, and a search on the name turned up several raves. Ordinarily it’s open only for breakfast and lunch, but during the two weekends of the Jazz and Heritage Festival (this was the second) they were serving dinner. So I made the reservation on the restaurant’s own site. The chef is named Heidi Trull (actually Elizabeth Heidi Trull, but she only uses her first name for the restaurant — it is also the name of a well-known restaurant in Charleston, SC, where she has worked). The menu she serves is a combination of New Orleans and general southern, and the restaurant's motto, “Real Food, Done Real Good,” is thoroughly appropriate.
We had a superb meal, beginning with a complimentary eggplant marinade on melba toast slices, followed by the appetizers we ordered: seafood gumbo for Dorothea, and “Beer-B-Qued Oysters” for me. These were fried oysters in a Creole barbecue sauce that was mild, vinegary, and delicious. Beer was somehow involved in the sauce, so I had a bottle of Abita Amber, a nicely dry lager brewed in Abita Springs , LA, to go with this. For a main course, Dorothea ordered Tchoupitoulas Chicken, smothered in tasso and mushroom sauce (it was Paul Prudhomme’s recipe, the menu said). I had “lamb sirloin”: a gamier part of the beast than the tenderloin, the waiter told us, which had been thoroughly slow-cooked with red wine and infused with the taste of garlic. Both entrées were accompanied with mashed potatoes and slow-cooked greens. I drank two glasses of an excellent cabernet sauvignon to go with the lamb. Dorothea drank water, abiding by her resolution to refrain from alcohol during the trip. Her dessert was Creole chocolate cake — which I know was delicious because I finished it — and mine was chocolate fig pound cake. (I am seldom able to resist figs.) Both desserts also included home-made coffee ice cream. The whole bill was $64, the best bang for the buck we’d seen so far.
Once again we had missed a rainstorm by being indoors at exactly the right time, and we found the sky almost clear when we came out. This time we had poorer bus luck and had to wait more than half an hour before we were picked up. Some of the houses near the corner where we waited looked grimly dilapidated, and we could hear a fierce-sounding watchdog whooping it up inside one of them whenever anyone passed. But the folks who came by all greeted us in friendly fashion. I had read that people have been discovering the neighborhood, moving in and fixing up houses — but obviously it isn’t yet gentrified to the point of stultification.
Back in the French Quarter, we headed for Preservation Hall and joined a long line outside. Dorothea went up to the box office and learned that the first set was due to end in 15 minutes, at 8:50, when they would let in as many people as possible, depending on how many of those already inside chose to leave. As it turned out, not enough did. We didn’t want to stand there until the next set began at ten, especially since we had stood so long on that corner in Bywater. We strolled around the Quarter for a while, but didn’t find the crowds very interesting or attractive. Too many people were acting like drunken idiots, and the natives present included a high proportion of hustlers of various kinds. So we decided to end the evening while still high on our good dinner. We took a taxi back to the motel, getting into its back seat just in time to escape another rainstorm.
Crescent City Saturday
Saturday was mostly sunny, deis gratias. We took it easy in the morning and didn’t get on a bus until after eleven. This time a Canal Street trolley was waiting for us, and we reached the French Quarter in about half an hour. We got off near the Moonwalk, a short promenade on the levee dedicated to the memory of the late mayor Moon Landrieu, where we strolled for a while, looking at the wide, gray-brown river and its traffic. We were hustled by a fast-talking young black man who promised to clean my shoes free if he could tell me correctly where I got them. Of course he did: “You got ’em on the bottoms of your feet.” Without pausing, he then gave each of us a light shoe cleaning (one squirt of paste and a quick rub) and then tried to collect either $10 or $20 — I’m not sure which because I don’t know if the price was supposed to be for each of us or both. I said no way, and he finally offered me $2.00 in exchange for a five, which was the smallest I had. I discreetly accepted this “deal.” (At the end of a long day, our shoes were still looking better than they had in some time.)
Leaving the levee, we revisited the Café du Monde, a bit less crowded today, for a repeat of yesterday’s order, though this time we only got one order of beignets: two for me, one — at her wish — for Dorothea. After that we tried the Riverside “tourist” trolley line, but found this disappointing — for most of its length you are down between buildings and can’t see much, and the part of the tracks from which you can see the river are shared with the Canal St line, so we had already been there. From the far end of the line we returned as far as Poydras St., where we got off and walked up to Mother’s for lunch. We stood in line for a few minutes to get in, then found ourselves at the end of another line heading for the cafeteria counter where you order your food. The people behind the counter amused themselves by loudly and cheerfully insulting each other as they worked, so we were entertained while we waited. The line moved pretty quickly, and when we found a seat we had a huge roast beef po’ boy to split, plus an order of greens for Dorothea and red beans and rice for me (with an Abita amber to wash everything down). Mother’s was crowded and noisy but fun, and all the food was great.
Another Trolley Ride and a Walk