Many don’t realise that in addition to the city’s French roots, New Orleans owes just as much of its character to Spanish colonists. Though Spain ruled for less than 40 years, it was during this period that 1,000 buildings were lost to two massive fires. Many of the city’s oldest and most iconic buildings are Spanish Colonial as a result, even in the famed French Quarter.
Shortly after regaining the territory for France, Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase and New Orleans became part of the United States. The decisive American victory of the War of 1812 took place just a few miles from the French Quarter in the Battle of New Orleans, securing the city’s place in the history books. The 1815 success owed to the unlikely collaboration of General Andrew Jackson’s American troops with Jean Lafitte’s band of pirates, as well as a host of frontiersmen, militia, and former Haitian slaves. The same diversity behind that military triumph drove New Orleans’ development as a prosperous cultural centre.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the European Creoles in the French Quarter suddenly found themselves surrounded by Americans, Germans, Italian, Irish, and Haitians as new residents from around the world flooded the city. This diversity created a great deal of tension in the years immediately following the transfer of ownership, but as the 19th century marched on, New Orleans became quite liberal for its day and this mingling of cultures created the uniquely vibrant city we know today.
The French Opera House along with a number of chic restaurants and shops turned New Orleans into one of the U.S.’ largest and wealthiest cities. Its antebellum heyday saw it as the South’s largest port, exporting cotton and other products to Europe and the northern states. Its status as a Union stronghold spared it much of the Civil War destruction experienced elsewhere in the South, but the city still had its troubles. Race riots, epidemics, and floods were all part of New Orleans’ story as much as any of its proud moments.
All the storms it had weathered in the past, however, seem to pale in comparison to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The failure of New Orleans’ levee and floodgate system has been condemned as “the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.” 80% of the city flooded in a catastrophe that claimed over 1,800 lives and billions of dollars in damages.
Still recovering from the devastation of Katrina, New Orleans is no longer just a city of heritage or culture. It is a city of survival and perseverance. It is a testament to what heritage, culture, and community can help us overcome.
Culture of New Orleans
With one foot in the American South and one in the Caribbean, New Orleans has a spirit and soul all its own. One of the United States’ most unique cities, the cultural capital of Louisiana owes much of its history and flavour to its tremendous diversity. Europeans, American, African, and Latin cultures all have a hold in the bayou and together they’ve created some of the world’s most iconic food, music, and festivals.
Food and drink are central to any culture, and New Orleans enjoys many a trademark dish. Creole and Cajun cuisines are not identical or interchangeable, contrary to popular belief. The former is generally considered city food, while the latter is country food. Both, however, have brought the United States spicy staples like jambalaya, a mixture of andouille sausage and vegetables stewed with rice, and gumbo, a stew frequently made with seafood and okra. How do you tell the difference? Creole stews use tomatoes, while Cajun ones typically do not. Sandwiches run the gamut from Italian muffulettas, layered with cured meats and tangy olive salad, to po’boys, local French-style bread filled with anything from fried shrimp to roast beef. Located on the Gulf, seafood doesn’t just play prominently in stews and sandwiches. Crawfish and oysters often stand alone. For a sweet treat at the end of the meal, try a beignet, a fried doughnut-like pastry dusted with powdered sugar.
New Orleans is widely lauded as the birthplace of jazz. At the turn of the 20th century, cornetist Buddy Bolden pioneered a new style of bluesy, brass-driven music. He inspired a generation of local musicians including Sidney Bechet and the legendary Louis Armstrong. The new jazz genre spread like wildfire and later helped develop another new style, rhythm and blues, at the hands of New Orleans-born Fats Domino. Cuban influences like the tresillo and habanera rhythm shaped New Orleans’ music, but at its heart jazz was primarily an African-American genre. (This is why the northern-imposed term ‘Dixieland’ has been so strongly opposed by musicians. ‘New Orleans jazz’ is the preferred term.)
The only thing that may be more synonymous with New Orleans than jazz music is Mardi Gras. A last hurrah before the season of Lent begins, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is an explosion of colourful debauchery on the streets of the French Quarter. The exact dates vary from year to year but typically fall in February, with parades beginning in January, each filled with richly decorated floats designed and built by a krewe. Traditional flambeaux torches often open a parade, with strings of purple, green, and gold beads and other trinkets thrown out to the audience. Sweet braided king cakes, often filled with cinnamon and sugar, crown the displays of bakeries across the city. Stemming from Christian Twelfth Night traditions, each cake has a small plastic baby figurine inside. Whoever finds the baby in their slice hosts the next king cake party.
Whether you get to revel in the larger-than-life Mardi Gras festivities or simply dance the night away to a classic jazz band on an average weeknight, you’ll have no trouble discovering why New Orleans is the ideal place to ‘laissez les bons temps roulee.’