Tennessee Stout and Firecracker Shrimp

As I waited at the barbershop, I picked up a magazine.  The magazine had very few articles but instead focused on listing the “Top 5″s of New Orleans from the Top 5 nightclubs to the Top 5 places to get grits.

A bar called Parasol’s was listed as serving the #1 roast beef po’ boy in New Orleans.  This was a big claim to fame as the roast beef version of this iconic sandwich was the original, though now it was possible to get anything from fried oysters to alligator sausage on a po’ boy.

Parasol’s wasn’t too far from where I was staying in the Lower Garden District.  I walked into the tiny bar area to the raucous crashing of punk music.  The man behind the bar nodded to me as he poured a beer for another patron.

“How you doin’? What can I get for you?” he asked, his voice barely audible as the power chords thrashed to the galloping rhythm of the drums.

“What have you got that’s dark?” I asked.

“Not a lot, man,” he said, “We’ve got Guinness or we’ve got this one from Wiseacre that I like called ‘Gotta get up to get down’; it’s a coffee stout.”

“I’ll go for one of those, please, that sounds good.”

“You got it.”

The stout was smooth, cold, and with a strong taste of coffee.  It was an easy-drinker that could prove to be dangerous.  One minute you’re having your first sip, the next you’re 8 pints deep and about to go home; the fresh air hits you, and your legs forget how to function properly.

“Any food?” he asked.

“I heard you guys do a good roast beef po’ boy,”

“Yeah, we do,” he smiled, “But I’m afraid we’re sold out of the beef.  You want my recommendation?  Get the firecracker shrimp.  It’s spicy like how they do buffalo wings except we batter the shrimp then toss them in Louisiana hot sauce.”

I ordered it immediately.  As someone who loves both seafood, hot sauce, and the process of deep frying, I couldn’t resist.

When the sandwich arrived it was much bigger than expected.  Lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles dressed a French baguette that had been overfilled to the point of a fried shrimp avalanche.  The batter was tinted red with hot sauce though had lost none of its original crunch.  The smell of the hot sauce announced its vinegar base with a sharp stab to the sinuses.

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The spicy shrimp combined with the refreshing coolness of the lettuce and tomato, taking away some of the immediate punch of the hot sauce which instead gradually grew with every subsequent mouthful.

I’m an advocate of travelling light.  I had packed 5 t-shirts – all of which were black – and 1 light blue long-sleeve shirt.  I was wearing the long-sleeve shirt when I looked down and saw that I’d managed to get myself covered in hot sauce.  Oh well, I thought, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere and Parasol’s was my favourite type of bar; a dive bar. There were no tourists here (other than myself) and no pretence. Everyone seemed to know everyone and if they didn’t know someone (like myself) then they went out of their way to get to know them.

 

Plantations

Before coming back to the United States, I had it in my mind that I wanted to visit a plantation. I didn’t get the chance last time I was here so wanted to make a point of visiting more than one to make up for it.

I had read a number of reviews and blogs of different plantation tours and how their approach to talking about slavery could differ. 

I chose to visit St. Joseph’s plantation and the Whitney plantation. 

I was picked up at 8:30am by the tour company’s mini van and joined the small group of 6 other people. Over the next 90 minutes our driver discussed a range of topics from reasons why you should never swim in Lake Pontchartrain (bull sharks being my main reason to not take a dip), to celebrities that have found refuge in New Orleans, a city where there is a lack of intrusion into their personal lives; to the history of the city itself. 

When we arrived at St. Joseph we immediately headed for the big house which was bought by a family after the end of slavery. We were informed that very few families who owned slaves are still in possession of the plantations as many could no longer afford to pay the taxes on their homes and land after slavery was abolished. Instead, wealthy families bought the houses, sometimes employing newly freed people as sharecroppers (which from my understanding was not an altogether better situation from slavery as it kept people in debt to the land owner regardless of the success of their crops).

The house contained original pieces of family furniture, portraits, photographs, musical instruments, and toys. There was little talk of the life of the slaves who worked in the fields other than to say that many stayed after the civil war had come to an end. One surprising comment was that the two-room slave quarters, which were certainly not immune to the elements, were people’s homes up until 2001! This begs the question of why did these people decide to suddenly leave at that point and not sooner? I could understand that back when slavery was first abolished that the newly freed people didn’t know where to go and had little means of getting there even if they did know. But to stay until 2001 with little to no improvement on those shacks seemed strange. There was an air of disbelief amongst the group. I hoped it wasn’t true.

After the tour of the big house our guide left us to our own devices and told us that we could explore the slave quarters if we so wished but the quarters were not included in the tour itself.

“Careful when walking across the long grass,” our guide, an elderly woman, said, “there are fire ants in there – for those of you with your feet exposed.”

When we got to Whitney, the focus was on the men, women, and children who lived and died as slaves. Monuments had been erected in remembrance of these people including statues of the children who were known to have lived on that very plantation; the status were based on early photographs.

Some of these monuments listed as many names as had been found through research but a portion of the monument had deliberately been left blank in honour of the many who had undoubtedly passed through unrecorded.

The group had grown sizably and many had taken advantage of the free umbrellas available; permanent shelter from the sun. It was around 34° but with humidity close to 70%, the walking around temperature was close to an oppressive 42°. Many people in the group, young people, were struggling with the heat. The point was made by our guide that slaves were expected to do back breaking work in this heat: harvesting the sugar crops, stripping the cane, cooking the sugar down in giant bowls, maintaining the grounds, cooking for the master, and so on.

One exhibit in particular was set off to the side of the gravel path. It featured sculptures of 60 male heads impaled on spikes. They represented the 60 men who planned a slave revolt in the area, they were caught, and their decapitated heads put on spikes as a warning to others.

Whitney Plantation is a must for anyone travelling through Louisiana. It is brutally honest but also somber and respectful.

The drive back to New Orleans was quiet. Maybe it was because everyone was tired from being out in the sun, or maybe it was because they were reflecting on what they had seen and heard at Whitney Plantation. 

As I watched the numerous other plantations go by my window, I wondered how many of them were reluctant to talk about the realities of slavery, and how many, like Whitney, had decided to address slavery in an honest, educational way without attempting to play down the brutality that featured in the day to day lives of the enslaved.