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 colorful 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.’