A sign showing two crossed baguettes topped by a skull welcomes me to Killer Poboys, a New Orleans hole-in-the-wall known for its renegade version of Louisiana’s state sandwich, the po’ boy. The eatery is crammed into a back room of the Erin Rose, a pub sitting just a stumble up from the 24/7 party known as Bourbon Street.
Few of Bourbon’s revelers will find it; fewer still will know to squeeze past Erin Rose’s regulars to the tiny kitchen area, where crusty French loaves bulging with Gulf shrimp seasoned with coriander or sliced pork belly flavored with rum are being assembled by the New Orleans-born team of Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow.
Killer Poboys could be a metaphor for Louisiana, I think as I place my order. It’s an outlier in a place that has slowly standardized itself. Its front room—the boozy, convivial Erin Rose—could be in any bar. But behind it, like a furtive pirate’s hideout, sits a little piece of real Louisiana, homegrown, eccentric, and bursting with the flavors of the land.
I’m in Killer Poboys to meet with Charles Chamberlain, a Ph.D. in American history and local History Man. Ten years a historian at the Louisiana State Museum before setting up his own company, Historia, to provide outsiders insights into the Pelican State, Chamberlain knows Louisiana. His clients have included academics, producers of the supernatural FX series American Horror Story, and, now, me. Chamberlain, I figure, is just the guy to explain why Louisiana is so different, even a little cray cray—and I don’t mean the fish.
“Louisiana couldn’t be anything but,” he declares as we share a bag of Zapp’s Voodoo Potato Chips, a favorite Louisiana foodstuff. By the time Thomas Jefferson bought the land from Napoleon in that 1803 geopolitical fire sale, he explains, this French colony was well populated with French and Spanish immigrants, refugees from Haiti, and Congolese slaves, all of whom had seeded the land with their cultures, foods, and traditions. (Fun fact: Louisiana state law still refers to the 19th-century Napoleonic Code.)
“If you’re looking for different,” he tells me, laying out an itinerary, “start here in New Orleans. You can see how we turn our quirkiness into art by visiting one of the recently formed New Orleans krewes that parade at the start of Carnival’s two-week celebration. Tourists wait for Mardi Gras, which is at the end; almost no one comes for the beginning, but that’s when you see something really crazy. Then follow the French settlements up to the Cane River. That’s where Creoles of color built their own world. On your way back to New Orleans, explore the Atchafalaya, America’s biggest swamp, by getting out on the water with the local Cajuns. You’ll be glad you did.”
As we emerge from Killer Poboys, blinking, into the French Quarter’s afternoon light, Chamberlain adds, “Louisiana is another country. But you better see it soon; who knows how long it’s going to last.”
The reality is that Creoles and Cajuns, cowboys and costumers, shrimpers and planters—really, all who make life and art out of this watery land—are threatened as their world is digitized, outsourced … and submerged. Literally. Low-lying Louisiana loses a football field an hour to, among other things, rising seas.
New Orleans: Living on—and loving—the outer edge
A breeze rattles the palm fronds and nags at the curlicued brackets that grace traditional Creole cottages in Bayou St. John, a New Orleans neighborhood ignored by most travelers. Little do they know that here lies a secret world inhabited by south Louisiana’s Mardi Gras krewes, the private organizations responsible for the colorful Carnival parades.
Inside a house on St. Philip Street, two dining-room tables have been pushed together and piled with glue guns, glitter, and lunacy. Eight middle-aged men and women work as intently as a Guangdong factory line cutting, assembling, and pasting little things such as miniature smartphones, candy sticks, and tiny comic books (which Ziggy, a black cat, is attempting to eat).
“What can I say, he likes my work,” artist Caesar Meadows, who wrote and illustrated the micro-comics, remarks.
Meadows and his wife, Jeannie Detweiler, are my hosts at this party, gathered to make the keepsakes, or “throws,” that krewes toss out along their parade routes during the pre-Lenten season. In any other city in any other state, these librarians, teachers, and bartenders would be talking property values. Here, they form the Krewe of ’tit (for Petit) Rəx, which distinguishes itself from New Orleans’ hallowed Krewe of Rex with the upside-down ə, or schwa, to avoid confusion.
Not that that would happen. Even in the demimonde of Louisiana’s Carnival, the ’tit Rəx krewe is considered a little out there. Each year its members create an entire Mardi Gras parade—in miniature. Floats barely reach the length of shoe boxes; thumbnail-size throws challenge even the adroit. Maybe it’s the small scale of its work, but the ’tit Rəx krewe remains largely unknown outside New Orleans.
It, along with the Star Wars-themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus and the bawdy Krewe du Vieux, generally parades two to three weeks ahead of Fat Tuesday, well before the world focuses in on Mardi Gras. Its route takes it through the Faubourg Marigny, a once forlorn neighborhood downriver that has blossomed recently into a Brooklyn with bougainvillea, attracting artists and the avant-garde.
“Toss in the palm trees, the day drinking, the gays, the girls, and the sense of eccentricity here, and you have one of the most deliriously creative communities in the U.S.,” says Kevin Farrell, who, with his partner, Nick Vivion, opened Booty’s Street Food, an eatery now considered a staging ground for a new culinary sensibility in a state where gumbo still rules.
I glance out the window and spot a woman in silver boots and a sparkly red tutu skittering into a secondhand store across the street. She illustrates his words perfectly.
A few weeks later, ’tit Rəx’s 26 floats and three marching bands gather on oak-shaded St. Roch Avenue. The marchers sip tequila and kombucha tea as they admire their tiny assemblages. The theme this year: “Wee the People.” Each float is a witty set piece on contemporary society, from selfies to senatorial sex scandals. Meadows and Detweiler arrive together but won’t march together. “Some couples have separate bedrooms,” says Detweiler. “We keep separate floats.”
Suddenly, a “pace marshal,” in a blue sash, shouts, “Let’s roll!”
One band starts in with an all-brass version of a Beastie Boys song. Haltingly, the floats’ tiny wheels begin to jounce along the pavement. The route is lined with smiles, but Chamberlain is right: The spectators are locals, not tourists. They’ve set up dioramas of their own as homages to the minuscule march. One depicts a Lilliputian Velma, Scooby, and Shaggy.
“This is so AWESOME!” a boy shouts. It is.
The sun begins to set as the floats trundle along, glowing like neon signs with their LED lights. The parade ends at the side door of the Allways Lounge & Theatre, a cabaret bar serving as the site of the post-parade ball.
“Welcome, y’all, to my place,” booms proprietress Zalia Beville in her best Liza Minnelli voice as footsore marchers head for drafts of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Guest marcher Curt Schulz, an Oregon schoolteacher, marvels at the gathering.
“In Portland this would be sanitized and sponsored by an organic sports-drink company,” he says. “The garbage would get picked up and the sharp edges shaved down. But here it’s all about sharp edges, and ’tit Rəx—raw, sexy, colorful, on the edge of falling apart—fits in just fine.”
Two days later I’m lunching with friends and describing the march through the Marigny twilight, the happy crowds, and the tiny homages lining the route.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parade like that,” I say. “Ever.”
“You missed the Chewbacchus krewe, with its twerking Princess Leias,” someone replies. “That was something else.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
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If the Bywater neighborhood is New Orleans’ bohemian district, Booty’s Street Food is its mess hall. The restaurant, all wood and metal, serves street food inspired by the world travels of owners Kevin Farrell and Nick Vivion and their staff. Also on tap: a menu for “day drinking.”
In fact, some say that drinking rivals dining for popularity in the Crescent City. Barrel Proof, newly uncorked in the Lower Garden District, pours more than 140 bourbons and whiskeys, along with 60 types of beer.
Jazz fans and gourmands gravitate to Little Gem Saloon, a music and supper club on the same block where native son Louis Armstrong played.
For lodging, the French Quarter W distinguishes itself with guest rooms that channel New Orleans through wall-size prints and mod lighting.
Birds of a different color, the seven luxe Audubon Cottages offer bedroom suites, with butler, around a courtyard pool; in the 1820s, namesake naturalist/artist John James Audubon stayed in Number 1.
National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Nelson (on Twitter @andrewnelson) teaches at Loyola University in New Orleans. The city also is a home base for photographer Kris Davidson. This feature first appeared in the magazine’s October 2014 issue.