It’s another scorcher in New Orleans. Yesterday was in the 90s, today’s forecast looks the same. I couldn’t be happier, though, because I’m walking up Royal Street towards CafÃ?Â© Du Monde to get an order (maybe two) of the best beignets in the world. And I’m back in the city for “Tales of the Cocktail”, an event that many respected authors and mixologists refer to as “The most important yearly cocktail festival in the country.”
Let me make this clear right from the start: it’s impossible for me to keep a high level of objectivity when writing a piece like this, because I LOVE the city of New Orleans. I’ve loved her for years. In fact, I’ve flirted with the idea of living here more than once. Every time I’m here I feel like I’ve entered a different world, one where desire and the pursuit of sensual pleasures always triumphs over practicality, logic, and common sense. There’s some kind of spirit that sweeps you up in its arms and tells you that everything is permitted; all will be forgiven. And if you’ve never done anything in New Orleans that you might regret later, you haven’t really been to New Orleans.
That being said, although I was elated to be invited back to experience 2006’s “TALES OF THE COCKTAIL,” I was more than a little nervous. I had attended the 2005 “Tales,” which happened just one week before Katrina hit the city. Right after returning home to Miami with a head full of happy, vibrant memories, I had to watch the TV with heartbreak as New Orleans sank. I hadn’t been back to the big easy since that fateful day Katrina came to town, and I had read varying reports about the state of affairs in the city, everything from “It’s just like Baghdad” to “The French Quarter looks the same.” I knew the city wouldn’t be as big, but would it be as easy? And what about the state of “Tales of the Cocktail?”
“Tales Of The Cocktail” not only survived Katrina, but it actually GREW since last year. Even though the city is still far from “normal”, TOTC was just as swinging as ever. I have to admit, I was afraid that TOTC would not be as big, as celebratory, or as fun as last year. And I was more than happy to be proven wrong on all counts. This year’s title of “Sip for the city” is an obvious toast to New Orleans post Katrina, but judging from the rollicking attitude of everyone involved at the seminars, dinners, and parties, you’d think that NOLA never even slowed down for a second.
That’s largely due to the tenacity of Ann Rogers, the “Tales of the Cocktail” mastermind and chief organizer. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Rogers and her small but mighty crew of cocktail & culture preservationists is that not only did they produce “Tales” again this year, they did it bigger and BETTER than last year. AND they pushed the start date up a month from Late August to mid-July. AND Rogers herself still hasn’t slept in her own house since August 29th 2005. To me, that’s nothing short of amazing. I get the feeling that even if New Orleans was still completely submerged, Rogers still would have found a way to make “Tales Of The Cocktail” happen.
It was simply not possible to attend EVERY event at TOTC (which is a problem that’s good to have), so I had to pick & choose wisely. Most of the more “educational” seminars occurred during the daytime (like the Bartender certification course and the Bourbon Academy), but the night schedule was all about the party. A few of my personal favorites included the “Spirited Dinners,” “Sippin on 7,” and the “Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour” which Ann Rogers founded. The “Spirited Dinners” is one of “Tales'” signature events, and took place at 17 different distinguished restaurants simultaneously across the city. Each restaurant prepared a special fixed menu for the evening, with a “Tales” author or mixologist on hand to determine the cocktail selection that would go best with each dish. The only problem with “Spirited Dinners” was that you could only attend one, since each restaurant had their dinner on the same night at the same time. A possible improvement to the formula would be to have every restaurant do a different spirited dinner for each night of “Tales.” That way, we’d all get to eat five times as many decadent meals (like we need that.)
I had my dinner at Brennan’s, a legendary New Orleans landmark restaurant. The Brennan family is New Orleans’ most prolific clan of restaurateurs, and they seem to put the Midas touch on everything they open. I had the pleasure of dining at Brennan’s in the capable hands of Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, mixologists and authors of the books “Shaken Not Stirred,” “Champagne Cocktails,” and “Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail.” The menu consisted of Seafood Okra Gumbo, Brennan Salad, Tournedos Chanteclair, and Bananas Foster. The meal was outstanding (of course), and the drinks? Well, I’m not accustomed to drinking a Margarita right after a Bloody Mary right after a Martini, but they sure went down easy! Actually, the hardest part of staying “on top” of all the events at “Tales” was trying to taste all of the drinks offered without getting wasted (once again, not such a bad problem to have.) But after all, this is “Tales of the Cocktail,” not “Tales of Moderation.” My continued state of inebriation was a necessary requirement to achieving the full TOTC experience.
The “Sippin on 7” event was a very innovative event that took place on the 14th floor of the Monteleone, where designers literally took over 12 suites and designed each one differently with a theme to aesthetically match the cocktails that were created for the suite. Some suites were whimsical, some more subdued, others totally outrageous. My favorite was the edible room, which came complete with a chair made of French bread and another chair covered completely in fruit roll-ups. Other rooms included a massage chair (and a masseuse!), disco balls, half-naked men & women, and LOTS of drinks. Basically, all the things you need to make the party a success.
The Mix It Up on Magazine Street celebration was great while it lasted. The 2200 block of Magazine St. in the lower Garden District was barricaded off to create a “block party.” There was a DJ on the sidewalk spinning LOTS of cool old funk, soul, & disco records. Many of the retail shops on the block had their doors open for business, and once again, there were a multitude of drinks to be sampled before a torrential rain downpour forced everyone to make an early exit. It’s too bad the rain came in, because it seemed like everyone would have been happy to hang out in the street all night. Hopefully, next year Mother Nature will decide not to crash the party.
Probably the most enjoyable daytime event I attended was the “Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour,” the tour started by Rogers, and the tour that actually inspired “Tales of the Cocktail.” The Cocktail tour is a 2 Ã?Â½ hour walking tour that stops at some of the most historically significant bars in the French Quarter. We walked all over the quarter, had a lot of drinks, and discovered the secrets behind places like Napoleon House, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, and Tujagues, just to name a few. My guide was Joe Gendusa, a lifetime New Orleanian who seemed to know everything there is to know about the city. Most exciting moment of the tour- drinking REAL French absinthe at Tony Seville’s Absinthe CafÃ?Â© & Bar. This tiny little bar is located on Pirate’s Alley, right next to St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Even though drinking Absinthe is technically illegal, you can still get it at Tony Seville’s. Why? Don’t ask why, just enjoy it.
It’s impossible to write anything about New Orleans right now without holding up a mirror to reflect the city pre and post Katrina. When something of that gravity happens to a city, it galvanizes it’s people. Ordinary people do amazing things in the face of incredible adversity. Just like New York rallied post 9/11, New Orleans has rallied post Katrina. The Big Easy may be down, but she’s never out. Even though the horror Katrina inflicted on New Orleans has been well documented by now, it feels like the city has moved on from anger and pain into a period of guarded optimism about the future. Most New Orleanians seem to share an increased sense of immediacy. These people understand the fragility of their city, and when you know that the next Katrina might be on it’s way tomorrow, you live every day like it’s your last.
Every local I talked to expressed a sense of the city feeling like a big “blank canvas,” ripe with possibilities for renewal. Some folks seem skeptical, others hopeful, but one thing is unanimous: people here are ready to move on. Even Rogers herself said she’s tired of Katrina talk. “We definitely have Katrina fatigue, but we’re really tired of rehashing that and looking back all the time,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who are still displaced or living with friends, but it is what it is. We don’t want to talk about it all the time.”
There were a few noticeable changes in the French Quarter, the one area that escaped the flooding which inundated the rest of the city. One thing that saddened me was the relative lack of street musicians. There were still a few lone performers on street, but nothing like last year, where it seemed like there was a brass band blowing on every corner. Also sorely missed were the milieu of fortune-tellers, mystics, and self-appointed voodoo priestesses that held court in Jackson Square, happy to tell you your future for a fee. Sure, it was campy, but that kind of vaudevillian showmanship was one of the things I always loved so much about the city.
One afternoon I decided to visit the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. It was very hard to not well up with tears while I viewed the museum’s current exhibit “Survivors: stories of those who stayed.” To see all the photos of the people who stayed in the city through Katrina made me feel outraged at our government’s handling of the disaster, but profoundly humbled at the same time. I personally have never experienced anything that comes close to the kind of horror these people had to endure, and the fact that they lived through it largely without the help of their own government makes their stories even more incredible. There was one image that stuck in my mind more than any other: A lone woman standing defiantly tall on her rooftop, next to large, spray painted letters which read “THIS IS NOT AMERICA.”
The only negatives I can report about this years’ “Tales of the Cocktail” are really positives- I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that having a hard time deciding which events to attend, or which cocktails to drink, or having too many people crowded into a rocking hotel-suite party- is actually a good thing.
In the end, my experience at TOTC this year was amazing, but bittersweet, too. The sentiment that all the locals conveyed to me, in a nutshell, is “We’re coming back, but we need your help.” Even though New Orleanians want everyone to remember the horror that Katrina inflicted on their city, they don’t want to wallow in sorrow, either; they’re already moving on. New York City will never be free of the ghosts of 9/11, but that’s not going to stop them from being New York City. And that’s what I feel is happening in New Orleans right now. The shock and the terror are over, now it’s time to rebuild. And “Tales of the Cocktail” will no doubt grow bigger and better every year, as long as Ann Rogers is in charge. She’ll keep on finding simple, yet ingenious ways to reinvent the festival, and make sure that none of us will ever forget about the Sazerac. Next year will mark Tales’ fifth anniversary, and I can’t wait to see what kind of new events they’ll stir up. The date is already set (July 18-22, 2007), and you can get more info on the web site- www.talesofthecocktail.com
Finally, I’m grateful to report that yes, the essence of America’s most important cultural city is STILL intact. Even after Katrina’s wrath, the city that invented the cocktail still knows how to throw one hell of a party. The thing that no storm, no politician, no destruction, or no redevelopment can take away from this city is its’ SOUL. And that’s because that soul is EVERYWHERE. It’s not in any specific neighborhood. It’s in all of the people, the culture, the architecture, the river, the soil, the very air itself. And as long as there is a spot on the map called New Orleans, it will be a hopeless romantic, a perpetual underdog; passionate, fragile, and impossibly beautiful.