Tennessee to Mississipi

Click to enlarge this route mapWe 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.

Catfish Dinner

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

Click to enlarge this route mapThe 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.”)

On the Canal St trolley -- click to enlargeThe 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.

No larger version availableElizabeth’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

Excursion steamboat -- click to enlargeSaturday 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
in the Garden District

After lunch, we walked a few blocks to the nearest stop on the St Charles streetcar line, which, unlike the Canal St. line, isn’t new — it’s been running continuously since the tracks were laid down. We had to wait 45 minutes for a car, which was of course too full to board, since they’re supposed to come every ten minutes. But the logjam was breaking up, and we found plenty of seats on the fourth car that came along.

House seen from the St Charles trolley -- click to enlargeI took a few pictures at moments when the car was standing still, but the delay between pressing the button and getting the picture made it almost impossible to take a decent picture when we were moving. The trolley ran along the edge of the Garden District and out past Loyola University and some city parks — a pleasant ride in the warm weather. At the end of the line we got right back onto an inbound car.

Houses in the Garden District -- click to enlargeWhen we came to the Garden District again, we got off the trolley and, after refreshing ourselves with a lemonade at a pleasant little café, walked around admiring houses and trees and taking more pictures, including some through the gates of the Lafayette cemetery. The Garden District was founded by the first generation of Americans who arrived after the Louisiana Purchase, eager to get rich in the slave trade and similar edifying pursuits. The French and Spanish elite refused to welcome them into the Vieux Carré, so they established their own neighborhood a little way upriver. Several styles of 19th-century American architecture from Federalist to Stick Style are represented, and the abundant New Orleans vegetation makes the area very attractive. This is where we took the most pictures.

Dinner at the Café Atchafalaya

By six, we were too done in to keep going in the muggy heat, so we phoned the Café Atchafalaya, located in one corner of the Garden District, to find out if we could come now instead of at eight. They said sure, so we set out on a 15- or 20-minute walk, hastened by what looked to be a developing storm. We made it, but the storm did develop while we were eating.

I had an Abita Amber — well, two Abita Ambers — to go with an appetizer of shrimp fried in a coating of ground pistachios and served in a sweet dipping sauce. Dorothea, thinking hush puppies, ordered corn fritters from the vegetable menu as an appetizer. Though not very much like hush puppies, they were good, as were the shrimp. For a main course, she had Shrimp Creole and I had a double-cut pork chop with cornbread-andouille stuffing and an apricot-Jack Daniels glaze — actually a sauce. It was a delicious dish, but so copious that I had to struggle to finish it and actually (a rarity for me) left some stuffing on my plate. For a vegetable I had ginger cabbage, which works better than it sounds. I drank a glass of chardonnay with this. Dorothea accompanied her shrimp with collard greens. She loves those southern greens and never missed a chance to order them. We finished the meal with bread pudding with cognac sauce, which we certainly didn’t need but were determined to try, bread pudding being the classic New Orleans dessert. It was wonderful, especially with coffee (decaf) to cut the intense sweetness now and then.

No larger image availableAlthough it’s a bit larger and a bit upscale from Elizabeth’s, the Café Atchafalaya is also in an old house, and like Elizabeth’s it emphasizes a Southern and not merely New Orleans component in its offerings. It, too, has a motto: “Slightly sophisticated — rather Southern.” The presiding spirit is a thin seventyish woman with a deep bass smoker’s voice. After the meal, while we waited for our cab, I heard her answer the phone “Café uh-CHAFF-uh-lye-uh.” I had thought it was “ATCH-uf-fuh-lye-uh,” but as she is the only native of Louisiana whom I’ve ever heard pronounce it — and she apparently owns the place — I assume that the error was mine.

A downpour was in progress, but to our surprise, a taxi showed up at the door within five minutes of Dorothea’s call. He was there, as it turned out, to drop some people off, but after he squared everything with the dispatcher we got our ride back to Metairie right then. Despite the weather, we had had a lot of luck dodging climatic disaster during our visit, and this was no exception. The driver was a young man from southwest London, whose accent Dorothea found easier to follow than those of most Louisianans. (So did I, when I could hear, but between the pounding rain and my diminished auditory equipment that wasn’t often.) Asked what he was doing in New Orleans, he answered in a manner appropriate to the Big Easy: “I’m just existing on the face of the earth.”

Cajun Country

Click to enlarge this route mapSunday dawned cloudy but dry. We set out around eleven, following US-90 through Cajunland, or rather through the swamps that lie between New Orleans and there. It was still short of noon when we arrived at Spahr’s Seafood in Mathews, just beyond Des Allemands. The restaurant, highly praised in Road Food, was located in a former gas station in Des Allemands, but that burned down a couple of years ago, and while they rebuild they are renting space in another gas station — this is actually restaurant space in a kind of “travel plaza” conglomeration named Jester’s Court.

Even though we had eaten the motel’s continental breakfast at 9:30 or so, I ordered a large bowl of seafood gumbo, which came with great potato salad. Dorothea had a cup of gumbo, plus an order of hush puppies, but she didn’t like them as much as Boyette’s. She ate a few, cautiously applying slightly increasing amounts of Cajun Chef Louisiana Hot Sauce. The gumbo, we both agreed, was wonderful.

We got to the Comfort Suites motel in Lafayette by midafternoon. Still tired from New Orleans, we spent the afternoon (now clear and sunny) reading and sacking out.

We presented ourselves at Prejean’s Restaurant at half past six, having been told on the phone that it might be harder to get a table after seven when the music started. We found more empty tables than full ones, however, and that never really changed while we were there. The musicians, Gurvais Matte and the Branch Playboys, started right on schedule — four guys as old as myself on fiddle, accordion, guitar, and drums, with the guitar player (Gurvais himself) announcing the numbers and the drummer doing most of the singing. Though not spectacular, their music was absolutely The Real Thing, and we both loved it. Quite a few customers were paying no attention, however, including a couple who sat right up front with both their backs turned to the band.

Prejean’s came highly recommended, but the food turned out to be a mixed bag, its quality declining as the meal progressed. We started with a superb gumbo made with smoked duck and andouille. Then we each had a combo plate of crawfish etouffée and crawfish pie. The etouffée was good, if a trifle reminiscent of seafood Newburg, but the pie was dominated by its sweet, deep-fried crust, and the filling (so far as we could taste it) was a good deal like the etouffée. The salad, in Dorothea’s judgment, came straight out of the fifties, and the strawberry shortcake I ordered for dessert was a candied embarrassment. They served nondairy creamer with the coffee, too. But the music made up for all defects.

The band finished its set as we were about to leave. While I was absent in the men's room, Mr. Matte stopped at our table to tell Dorothea that he had noticed us listening to and enjoying the music, and to thank her for coming. When she told me this I felt slightly embarrassed, because I had passed the other musicians on my way back to the table and had shyly spoken not a word. So before leaving we went over to where they were, said thanks, and shook hands. They seemed pleased.


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This section last updated 12-13-2004

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