Back in 2008, when I really began my love affair with New Orleans, the city was only three years past Hurricane Katrina, and signs of the devastation were everywhere. While everyone remembered the French Market, what a lot of people didn’t know is that there had once been numerous public markets in New Orleans….such as the St. Bernard Market which had become the Circle Food Store, and the St. Roch Market at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch. The obviously-historic building stood in the middle of a neutral ground on St. Roch, but the market was boarded up and abandoned. I wasn’t sure, but I imagined that it had been boarded up before Katrina….the oil bust in the 1980’s had devastated the economy of New Orleans, and the city before Katrina was one of the poorest in the United States.
So I was amazed to see the St. Roch Market beautified, restored and opened for business on my recent trip to the city. My musician friend and I visited and found that, rather than a market, it has been turned into a food court, with many different food, dessert and drink options. After a chocolate cupcake from Bittersweet Confections, I had a breve mocha latte from Coast Roast, the New Orleans branch of a Long Beach, Mississippi coffee roastery. We had only recently eaten breakfast, but there were many food options, including both Thai and Haitian cuisine. The fact is, the St. Roch Market has something for nearly every palate, as long as you’re willing to be adventurous.
St. Roch Market
2381 St. Claude Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117
The only thing worse than being cold and starving is being cold and starving after parading for about 7 miles from Audubon Park to Canal Street, so when I finally made it back to my car, the only thing on my mind was getting food and coffee. I had seen the day before that Who Dat Coffee Cafe had been bragging that they would be open all day on Mardi Gras Day, so I decided to try to get from Uptown to the Marigny neighborhood, not an easy task on the holiday, what with all the parades. But I managed to get up to I-610, and from there to Franklin, and once I was on Franklin it wasn’t hard to get to Who Dat. But when I arrived, although they were open and crowded, they told me that they had shut their kitchen down. So I headed back out west to Jefferson Parish, but almost nothing out there was open at all, not even Dot’s Diner. Finally, in desperation, I stopped at the little Tic Toc Diner at I-10 and the Causeway, which was open and crowded. I felt sorry for the people that had to work, but they were fairly cheerful about it all the same, and the bacon and cheese omelette, hash browns and biscuit seemed like the best I had ever had. As I enjoyed my late afternoon brunch, floats were roaring past outside on the Causeway, on their way back to storage from one of the Metairie parades. Warmed and filled, I set out to meet back up with my friends in the TBC Brass Band under the bridge on Claiborne Avenue downtown.
Not only is Mardi Gras a legal holiday in Louisiana, but so is Lundi Gras, the Monday before, and kids are out of school and a lot of people off from work. Finding places to eat can be more difficult than usual, so I was thrilled to see that my favorite breakfast spot, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe in the Marigny neighborhood, was open with a full menu. Thus fueled for the day, my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band and I headed uptown to check out the parade route along St. Charles Avenue, on a day that was gloomy and overcast, yet a balmy 73 degrees. This was my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and I soon learned some interesting facts. People will start showing up at 5 in the morning to stake their claim to neutral ground or sidewalk space along St. Charles Avenue, using either lawn furniture, or elaborate, decorated ladders that seem designed uniquely for the purpose. The latter had brightly-colored wooden boxes at the top, presumably for catching beads or doubloons thrown from floats during the parade. A few people had set up tents, and some people were already sitting in their chairs along the route, even though it was only around 11 AM, and the parades were still five hours away, their start times moved up an hour due to the threat of rain. I also learned about “bead trees”, small trees along the parade route covered with beads instead of blossoms. I actually wasn’t sure whether the trees “catch” the beads as they are tossed from floats, or whether people throw beads into them on purpose, but either way, they are beautiful. Almost no tree along St. Charles Avenue was completely devoid of beads, and homeowners along the route had used them to decorate their wrought-iron fencing. Most houses were thoroughly decorated for the holiday as well, suggesting that Mardi Gras has the same importance as Christmas in New Orleans. A few of the larger groups along the parade route had set off their locations with tents, and one of these had a rudimentary brass band of a sort playing on the neutral ground. Darren and I walked all the way to the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, and then made our way back to a spot just outside the Krewe du Brewe coffee house, where we posted up for the start of the earlier parade, known as Proteus.
Of course, the highlight of the night for me was getting to see my absolute favorite New Orleans brass band, the TBC Brass Band at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street. These young men, most of them from the 9th Ward, had only recently come together prior to Hurricane Katrina, and for a time it seemed that the storm might have brought the band’s brief existence to an end, with members scattered to other cities. But the To Be Continued Brass Band beat the odds and came back together in New Orleans, and is a group that brings a rough, defiant, hip-hop attitude to the world of brass band music. So I was somewhat amazed to hear them start their Blue Nile set with a couple of tunes from the traditional brass band and jazz repertoire, something I had never heard them do before. Their reading of “I Found A New Baby” was joyful, upbeat and flawless, with a skill that belies their youth, and was a tribute to their versatility as a band. Eventually the set moved into their usual more contemporary material, but I left at the end of their show with a whole new respect for the TBC’s musicianship.
I had no problem finding free legal parking on Esplanade, and when I made the short walk over to Frenchmen Street, I was surprised to find a large brass band playing on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres, opposite the Praline Connection, and the old corner where brass bands used to play, which was now occupied by a building under construction. I was somewhat surprised, because over the last couple of years, police have made a point of harassing brass bands on Frenchmen Street and running them off the street for lack of the appropriate city permits. Tonight they seemed to be playing to their hundred or so fans unmolested, and I could only assume that the current tolerance was due to two factors, the current mayoral election, where Mitch Landrieu is running for reelection, opposed by a couple of African-American candidates, and the city council’s current efforts to pass a restrictive noise ordinance. Mayor Landrieu probably would not want to strengthen his opponents by heavy police crackdowns on predominantly-Black brass bands, and with the city council trying to secretly pass a new noise ordinance, and already drawing opposition from musicians and community advocates, they would hardly want to animate the opponents by police harassment of the bands either. I even saw a brass band on Bourbon Street near Canal, the first one allowed to stay there in two years! At any rate, the brass band playing under the brightly-painted eaves of Yuki’s building proved to be the Young Fellaz Brass Band, a band closely associated with Frenchmen Street, where they first came to public prominence. They are really a lot of fun.