City and Swamp


the view from our room at the Monteleone
As a kind of valentine to my Mom, I traveled to New Orleans and Baton Rouge to visit relatives on her side of the family, mainly my colorful uncle Tommy, her little brother. They had different fathers; Mom had the wild irish railroad man, and Tom had grandmother's second husband, a well-known bookie and gambler. My uncle(s) and cousins have carried that tradition on as they are all professional card players. Banned from most north american casino black-jack tables now, they can only play poker against other players - never the house. They are card-counters and work in teams, bankrolled by some outfit in New York. They have to leave the country to play the house and even that has become difficult. This was a source of endless fascination for V, which was good because life at my uncles can be boiled down to a few things: LSU football, food, drinking and cards.

The first night I planned for us to be in New Orleans where we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. It is known for this famous carousel bar:

The seating rotates around the bar offering patrons views of the French Quarter, the opulent hotel lobby, various Frenchy works of art and of course other drunkards. I didn't go for the typical Nawlins drinks, I stuck with my usual "deer and a beer":

deer and a beer
A high school friend picked us up and gave us the million dollar tour of the city. It was a low humidity evening and the streets were lively. As cities go, New Orleans is unique in having a very distinct look and culture. It is steeped in history and beautiful architecture; that is a given. But the people themselves are a cohesive population, bonded by their love of the city itself, by surviving Katrina, and of course, LSU and Saints football. Its probably the most racially integrated city I know as well, with everybody in the restaurants and clubs eating, drinking and partying their asses off to great music everywhere you looked. I like New Orleans, always have. It's livable. Walkable. And the best thing is, it has an identity. It has grit (literally). Its a little dirty but combined with lush sub tropical foliage and fragrant blooming flowers it works. It doesnt look like the generic american city dotted with chains and strip malls. (Im sure there are areas like that -but I didnt see them and prefer to remain ignorant of them)

We had a great meal at Jacques-imos cafe where I had another glass of Cazadores and pan fried drum which was delicious. It was fun to be with an old friend and his lady, to see how well he turned out and to be with somebody who knew how to show some out-of-towners a good time. After dinner we headed to his side of town, "the bywater" where we went to his office aboard a massive ship anchored in the Mighty Mississip'.

looking at the city of New Orleans from the ship
Later we saw a great performance by Kermit Ruffins at local dive-ish bar, Vaughns. He was an excellent performer but he kind of got famous for driving around a cadillac retro fitted with a grill so he could cook barbeque between sets. There were a lot of Mad Men looking chicks in the club: vintage dresses, cat eye glasses and pearls. The men looked scruffy. I tried to take an iphone movie of the band but wondered who in the hell was in the picture when the man standing behind me said "wait! that's me". grrrrrherhahahha. *a cazadores moment* Damn iphone I couldnt figure out how to turn the camera the other way and never got the video but had a grand time. We went home on the early side which of course is what old-married-middle-aged-overstuffed-intoxicated-whitebread-people want.

The next day we had breakfast at the famous Cafe du Monde for a sugar rush of beignets and coffee with guess what? Chicory! I snapped some hard working city birds while we packed on the pounds:

Just a few hours later we were stuffing our faces again with barbeque shrimp at Mister B's. I give that dish a solid 10. It's so messy, they tie a bib on you before they bring it out. When we raved the server brought out a cookbook with the recipe. Only 3 sticks of butter for a two person serving! When you finish eating, instead of mints, they bring out pipe cleaners so you can ream out your arteries and heart valves. ;-)

We drove to Baton Rouge. I was entertained by the ever changing sky. The clouds were the kind you only see over flat land with lots of water. It was like the clouds over Okeechobee Florida; high rising cumulus clouds sure to form thunderheads by afternoon. You do not see this in the north georgia mountains. Ever.

We arrived at Uncle Tommy's and took a tour of the massive LSU campus. I spent a lot of time watching him; desperate to see some sort of family resemblance to my mom. Now and then there would be a little expression that would remind me of her. Mostly, they talk alike, both having expansive vocabularies and a unique sense of humor. Tom is funny because in this mega Catholic family, he is the president of the Southeast Louisiana Freethinkers Society, an atheist group. He is a lot of fun and I adore my aunt as well. I saw my favorite cousin and the other ones I haven't seen in decades. I know my Mom was pleased.

Saturday is all about college football. Festivities began promptly at 7:30 a.m. (A.M.!) for a game that was to start at 7 pm. The day was an unhurried journey of drinking and football with a parade of friends and family coming and going. The afternoon was spent preparing lebanese food -kibby and stuffed grapeleaves. We ate then settled in for the big game. The entire living room is set up to watch football on a massive 83" screen with no couches just lots of individual swivel chairs. It was cool but it was all day. When I realized it would be the same on Sunday for the Saints game, I got on the internet and booked a tour of the Atchafalaya Swamp. When I informed V that we were going to the swamp, he smirked and snorted, which means "not interested". I said, "that's cool. You can hang out and watch the Saints game tomorrow, but I must have nature or I will die!" So we went to the swamp. Here's some photos:

The tour was 3 hours of looking for birds and enjoying the landscape. Our guide was a good-looking cajun guy who talked literally all three hours. But I liked him. He found a nest of baby alligators and caught one for us to meet. I felt a little guilty about it. He kept crying out for "mama" with that muffled little sound from down in his throat, but he was returned to the water after a few minutes and he rejoined his family. The cajun loved the swamp and its creatures and had spent his life exploring it. He did a nice job of keeping it fresh and exciting even though I knew he had done this trip a million times.

We saw Ibis, Egrets, Herons and Hawks, but not as many birds as you would see in the spring, many of them have migrated on. We did see plenty of snakes and turtles though.

The best thing about the trip though was seeing my Mom again in the landscape; or remembering her when I would smell green decay in water, highlighted with a hint of sea salt. It was me and her against the world for five years in southern mississippi while she went to grad school and I slogged it out in high school. Now I am back at Chickory on the first round of cold evenings. Last night the low was 37.
I just checked the thermometer, it read 40, so I decided that was cold enough to go out and turn the heat lamp on for the chicks. When I checked on them, I discovered a baby possum in the coop! Guess I know what tomorrow's first chore will be.

But for now, I am content under a crisp starry night and low-hanging half moon, looking forward to another day in the country in the best month of the year.


  1. (1) Your shots are beautiful as always, and I'm sure you put that Sunday to good use. Unfortunately, for most guys like me, NOTHING comes before football in the fall.

    (2) The Monteleone has such a great history. I researched it once when writing a story set in The Big Easy.

    (3) My father would love to hang out with your uncle and other related card sharks.

    (4) New Orleans, if memory serves, comes from the middle French word meaning "great music." Glad to see you got to enjoy some.

  2. Nawleans: what a place. The most European city in America.

    I used to visit a friend who lived in the Garden District, just off the St. Charles trolley.

    Ex-inlaws lived in Morgan City. Spent a lot of time on the waterways in the swamp.

    That guide shouldn't have picked up the baby gator!

  3. I've never been, but I hope to. I love this post, chick. You are a very good writer, and reading this was like putting on an old favorite sweatshirt, which means I got to come along for the trip and meet your family while relaxed. ;) xox Pam

  4. the MITM's people are from NOLA, so i hear you, sister. they're creoles, so i know the city from history and visits. we almost moved there instead of savannah. i think i see a another visit there happening soon! i loved this post, sugar. xoxoxo

  5. OMG, baby possum! Almost as cute as baby otter! Possum don't get no respect, but I love them . . .

    How wonderful that you made this trip. Thanks for the virtual tour. I love South Louisiana in a way that nearly matches my love for the desert southwest, which is totally bizarre because they are two completely different places. Prior to Katrina, S.B. and I would take at least one trip a year to New Orleans, either for Jazz Fest or just to party, listen to music, and wander the French Quarter with friends who live there and whomever else could meet us there for the duration. I miss it.

  6. xdell: i didnt post it because I heard when i post movies the loading of my page is too long. But I have some footage of a street band playing around 9:30 am. the lady singer was incredible - while in the middle of this performance she received a cell phone call. SHe flipped it open, noted the caller, finished the phrase, nodded to the trombone and took the call while he soloed with the tuba. Never missed a beat. another day at the office in Nawlins. Id like to read your Big Easy story. The Monteleone is an excellent setting. Football saturdays. It really does define fall (for some)

    VonLX: I grew up in Hattiesburg, home of Univ. of SOuthern Miss GOlden Eagles!! in high school -all the boys would leave for Morgan City to work the rigs. Obama put an end to that town now. New Orleans is excellent and I could live there (if i had too). The garden district is spectacular. My cousins lived through Katrina - they did not leave their homes even during the flood. crazy ass cajuns. the baby alligator: yeah, i know.

    yoborobo: thank you thank you! High praise. I always worry about posts that are "and then we did this, and then this happened...." I just want to get back to short posts about chickens and the country. grherha.

    savannah: interesting! we had a mini discussion about what is "creole" my understanding is a creole is a first generation frenchie born in north america. Others believe it refers to a mixed race kind of thing. One thing I am sure about: creole food is the bomb. If I lived in NOLA i would weigh 300 lbs. Savannah actually does have an identity too - its so beautiful and southern it makes my heart swell.

    Moi: you know I saw a lil bit of SB in that good lookin' cajun guide? I needed that open space and floaty land. the TV is blaring at Uncles almost 24/7. On monday morning they were re-running the LSU game again for the 4th time. not joking. My friend invited us down for Jazz fest and wed like to go 'cept leaving the dogs and chicks is a logistical horror show.

  7. We all made a point of attending a family reunion in my my Mother's home state the year after she died; I wanted to spend time with her sisters and I'm glad I did. They look like (and sound like her which was bittersweet) and I'm forever glad I made the trip.

    I spent a few days in New Orleans in 1984. We went to the Worlds Fair and back then I ate meat and OY! did we eat/eat/eat. There's some about that part of the country that stays with you and after reading your post it makes me want to go back.

    Lil Possum was cold?

  8. p.s. cool back story on your uncle and the card playing.

  9. well,
    forget the city...

    i'd get me a place somewhere
    in or around that beautiful swamp(!)

    and a couple o' gators for perimeter patrol ;)

    × × ×


  10. Nawleans isn't among my top 500,000 favorite places, but you make it SOUND good. Good writing!

  11. Good to learn that someone at least plays cards!

    I hope all this is good to you.

  12. Your family sounds like a fun and fascinating bunch! Hope you didn't try to play cards with them. Never been to New Orleans, but feel I must go, if for no other reason to eat and listen to music. As for tomorrow's a little crib for baby possum??? I guess not...

  13. Aha! I got my answer to "How was NOLA"? Thank you for such a detailed description. Beautifully written, beautifully photographed. Are you the sole fine artist in the entire clan?

    Also, what did you do with the little possum and was he up to any mischief during his stay?

    Love your stories.

  14. I love LOVE this post. What an excellent trip. Would love to go back to Narlins as an adult. I remember on that previously blogged post about our vacation to Florida -- we had a stopover in New Orleans. Even though I was young -- 15 or so?-- it was the first time I ever felt like I knew a place without ever having been there. If that makes sense. Loved it. But never been back. If I ever make it there again, I will have a printout of this post and will be retracing your steps. Such fun!

  15. Boxer: i found where the possum got it! if he could make it so could a weasel! SO i repaired the breach yesterday. That little possum was so cute -and very small to be on his own...I let hem out of the coop and he disappeared into the night. I agree with you -being in my moms geography...helped. I miss her. More now, its sinking in.

    /t: I saw the place for you! I floating hunting shed. I added it for you to this post.

  16. Troll: high compliment. thank you! I can see why you would say that, but it does have a very vibrant, and resilient, personality.

    63Mago: i am not a card shark. I didnt get that gene. I cant remember a phone number, much less what passed thru a four decks. does "spades" and "hearts" count? I loved those games as a child and played them with my grandmother often.

    debora: no...the chore was repair the pen. Its actually time to redo the who thing..move the little coop to a sunny locale perhaps. I have my eye on some double loop fencing but I just cant afford it. gah! finances are driving a wedge between me and my dream farm.

    nina: i am the sole artist..of our sort. There are writers, and a designer. My mom did illustrations for Masion Blanche a big department store in New Orleans when she was young. NOLA was still in recovery. In my friend's neighborhood, there were still the famous X's on the houses where the indicated the date it was inspected and if any bodies were found. This was about 3 blocks from the levee. thanks for reading, its always nice to see you here.

    Pam: well if nothing else you will eat well. you really cant go wrong. ANd that hotel. that was a big splurge as a surprise for V. He hadnt planned on going with me originally - it was going to be a road trip, my co-pilot faded and so it turned into a mini trip for us. It was nice -and so is Nawlings, but theres no place like home. thanks for the kind words!

  17. Never been to New Orleans but I suspect once I step foot there, it would be hard for me to leave without sampling a whole lotta food. Thanks for the digital visit.

  18. What a wonderful post - on so many levels. I've only been to New Orleans once, sadly, and definitely did not get my fill (of the food, the culture, or Jazz Fest). But one of the highlights was a swamp tour, which your post brought back to mind so vividly. Our guide was a Cajun who'd gone up north to agriculture college, then returned to his beloved homeland. A fascinating, and informative, talker he was. After the boat ride, we asked him to recommend a place for dinner and he directed us to a place further out in bayou country so tiny we almost missed it. But I will never forget that meal. The couple who owned the place were a delight. He went out fishing everyday, and each night she fried up that seafood in the lightest, most flavorful corn flour. Mmmmmmm.

    Thanks for sharing your trip!

  19. Golden Girl, I've been waiting for this post and it surpassed my expectations. Been to NO twice but never took a swamp tour. I love that city and plan to go back. Thanks for letting us go with you and V. What a family. I would love to meet them someday.Seems like the gamblers would make a great mini series. V really enjoyed the trip, and was glad he left football for the swamp.You are such a talented J

  20. Hi Chickory! Thanks for the great post about New Orleans. Everything you wrote, I've experienced myself. I am not from there or have any family there like you do, but something about that city just jibes with me. I get it and it gets me, I love it and have not been back there for way too long. So, it was nice to visit with your photos and words.

    I remember eating turtle soup at some roadside tavern outside of Nola proper and the waitress with her fabulous drawl asking me, "Do you want some sherry on top, hon? Ya gotta have sherry in the turtle soup!" Fabulous. Fabulous vibe, people, architecture, music, I need to get back and in fact, am planning a big birthday bash there for me and the DJ in 2013.

    There is only one part of your story I DID NOT GET: What's with the lebanese food? Is that part of your heritage? If so, interesting, I grew up eating that food too. And Aunty told me that it's part of her heritage too. Have a nice weekend, sweetie. xoxo

  21. Hi Shamy: you would have loved it. In the restaurants, service is a career like in Europe. The waitstaff at Mister B's was impeccable. The shrimp were so good - of course I kept crackin' how it was the Corexit that gave it the special flavor. grrrrhahaha

    Eggy! Its a culinary wonderland, no doubt about it. But i think the best thing is the people -we were blessed to be taken to local spots the first night so it wasnt in the quarter or touristy at all. Its a warm people. We went to a restaurant after the swamp - it was called Pat's they are famous for seafood. But we just had a couple of beers and catfish fingers. By then, we were feeling like beachballs and knew that in Baton Rouge we'd be eating a ton of food yet again. Now, I am paying the price. The Atchafalaya is beautiful, but it isnt as swampy as the Okeefenokee. If you ever want to see a truly mystical place, thats the place to go.

    Mom! hi! i think V did like NO. He didnt even mention he had never been until the last day. I wouldve have built in at least one other day in NO. But he really seemed to like the vibe at uncle tommys/ Thank you for reading my post, and you kind words about the writing. I love you!

    La DIva: i remarked that I thought they put Ecstasy in the water. Everybody was so easygoing and friendly.
    the Lebanese? My great grandfather came to this country from Lebanon -but he was part french. I know my grandmother is french-lebanese. They are good on that food -V loved it. Event he raw kibbe with pine nuts. The meat all has a ton of mint in it which i dont like that much. But -its a tradition. My aunts stuffed grape leaves are out of this world, though. You cant get better anywhere.

  22. The food, oh man, the food. The only good meal you can't get in NO is breakfast because everyone's still sleeping off the night before. Otherwise, I've never had a bad meal, and that includes the tourist spots. Even the fair food at Jazz Fest is good. I'll stand in line for an hour for crawfish boudin, you betcha.

  23. Found: Gray cat, not much hair on its tail. Slow moving, hisses a lot, not well house trained. Good points; clap your hands real loud once and it goes to sleep.
    Please reply, soon, as it has some kind of...odor.
    Worse than my feet, and THAT'S bad.
    Real bad.

  24. So fun to read! I love New Orleans! I think it's the best city in the country for food--including New York. Love Mr. B's shrimp, love the Hotel Monteleone, and love Jacqueimos! My dream trip, except for the baby possum which disturbed me, but I'm not much for nature. Wonderful post, Chicky!

  25. Wonderful reading about your trip to New Orleans, it sure sounds like a great place.
    Your photos are amazing, those swamps look so beautiful with the trees and sky reflected in the water. Those little birds at the Cafe du Monde are really cute.
    Nice to hear that you are back at Chickory, how is your home in Atlanta? I hope all of the damage has been repaired.
    While you were away you missed two of my best posts, hope you will catch up with them sometime. :)
    xoxoxo ♡

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