My hometown, Lake Charles, is about three hours west of New Orleans. It’s an easy drive on I-10, winding travelers across Louisiana’s southern plain and past towns like Butte la Rose, Henderson, Breaux Bridge, Ramah and LaPlace. My sister and I always started to lose it as the interstate signs announced proximity to Butte la Rose- “Butt la Rose” we’d howl, tears of laughter streaming from our eyes.
As you near Baton Rouge, you have the option to pull off for a stop at Coffee Call. It is always wise to do this because there you can get the best beignets and café au lait outside of New Orleans and Café du Monde. If I’m being honest, and not just nostalgiac, Coffee Call has even better beignets than CdM but let’s just call it a draw for now.
Last time I drove from LC to NOLA, I stopped at Coffee Call and in the parking spot next to me was an old car with a giant statue of the Virgin Mary buckled into the back seat. That is SO Louisiana, I thought, with complete love and joie de vivre.
Even with the sweet treat that is Coffee Call, my favorite part of the drive is cruising across the Atchafalaya freeway which stretches eighteen miles across the Atchafalaya Swamp. The Swamp, also but less romantically known as the Atchafalaya Basin, is a muddy convergence of delta and wetland where gators swim, egrets dive, fisherman putter, and Cypresses, both dead and alive, soar, Spanish moss hanging from their boughs. It is possibly the most gorgeous part of Louisiana; it is one of my favorite sights in all the world.
NOLA is one of a kind, and I love it. Part of my spirit resides there, even though I never have. It would be hard to live more freely –in all senses of that word- than many New Orleanians do. There is mystery and local color around every corner, hundreds-years-old Oaks offering their mighty limbs to the sky but also to the earth, suggesting you sit a spell and rest a while. It’s awfully hot, they seem to say. Sit in my shade.
Mardi Gras beads, caught by branches when tossed high from the floats during the parades, hang in trees year round. Porches so deep you can’t believe it front most homes and make perfect meeting points for early evening cocktails. The sidewalks are gauntlets, so cracked and split they’ve been by the trees determined roots.
Everything is slightly askew and in that, slightly perfect.
My family has a Christmas Eve tradition. It’s not a regular one though I often wish it were. Dressed to the nines, we meet my cousins, aunts, uncles and nieces at Galatoire’s for réveillon. Réveillon hails from French tradition and derives from “waking” or staying awake before Christmas Day. It starts at lunchtime, but lunch is a deceptive moniker because what we actually do is meet at 1p for a lunchtime meal that proceeds to last until dinnertime. I don’t know many cities or restaurants that treasure patrons sitting and eating and drinking for six hours. That is New Orleans and réveillon for you.
The waiters are veterans, they wear tuxedos. The main floor of Galatoire's is one enormous room, with big plate-glass windows looking out over Bourbon Street. The ceilings are so many feet high and twirl with fans circling at a languid pace. The walls are papered in a rich green and gold except for the huge five foot mirrors which cover a band running around the room from roughly hip height. The lights sparkle, bourbon milk punches pour like water.
It’s loud inside Galatoire’s, with laughter and convivial conversation reaching decibel levels and staying there. Everyone is happy, festive, full of seasonal and libational spirit. Kids nosh on baguettes as tall as they are, oysters sit nestled in salted ice, as does a perfect mignonette in a tiny silver bowl.
Soufflé potatoes arrive, all golden and puffed. I can never get enough of them. Shrimp remoulade and crabmeat maison vie for my attention and love. I cheat on one with the other, back and forth, on a heady loop.
Oysters Rockefeller look like spinach-topped presents, and taste even better. There are two types of gumbo, made with a roux so chocolatey brown that you can’t see beneath the surface and you don’t care. What’s in there will be divine.
There’s creamed spinach and Brabant potatoes, trout and red drum, sauce meuniére and amandine.
If you can stomach it, black bottomed pecan pie and eggy bread pudding wait to sate your sweet tooth. Chicory coffee can help cut your feelings of fullness.
All the while, you smile and laugh, clink and toast. Someone’s passed out jingle bells on velvet cord, and everyone’s wearing his or her necklace. Coats have long since been shrugged off, ties loosened, lipstick gone.
The lights never dim and when you finally stagger outside the front door, you can’t believe that the sun has bid you adieu.