Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Notes from NOLA (Variation on a Theme, Week 9)
Home again, I'm only now beginning to realize how refreshing and exhausting the conference was. In a way, it was exactly the break I had been longing for; there were many simple pleasures: some nice meals out, long walks with my camera, flavors that proudly show their southern allegiance (fried alligator! pork with brown gravy and shrimp--surprisingly tasty! chicory ice cream!). Although a work event, I generally felt relaxed and happy.
This is perhaps because, besides my own panel on Thursday afternoon, I generally steered clear of the conference. One friend even asked me why, given my panel apathy, I had bothered to go to New Orleans at all, but I felt this was a bit of an unfair question. Any conference experience can be whatever you make of it: from networking to exploring the city in which you find yourself. At some conferences, I've gone to too many panels--only to regret it later. At others, I've done my own thing, breathing non-Slavic air and seeing people I don't always get a chance to see-- and I've had a perfectly pleasant time.
This was one such time, especially since the sun was shining, the gorgeous architecture beckoned the lens of my camera and there was a whole street of antiques--kitchen and/or otherwise--that was calling my name.
I must have looked a bit mad--I'm more than a little sure of it--with both my camera out and my penchant for stopping almost on each and every block to take pictures of southern-style porches and lampposts and faded brick walls. There were so many gems to be photographically had, however, that I really didn't care. I've discovered that the older I get, the less I care about my weird tendencies. Maybe Berkeley has performed its zen magic on me, but to each his/her own.
My various wanderings took me all along Magazine Street, which is home to many fine restaurants and shops. I started the morning off right at Surrey's Cafe and Juice Bar, which was just the thing I needed. Being at a conference, you're eating out constantly and, as much as I love New Orleans and its food, the simple truth is that a girl starts to crave food that is not fried and that might contain either fruit or vegetables. My love of the meaty muffaletta aside (the capicola, salomi, pepperoni and provolone speak to my Italian side), it can't be all about salty stacks of meat tucked between two slices of sesame bread. There's got to be room for juice. And, quite frankly, room for warm buttermilk biscuits and cheesy eggs with chopped vegetables (when on vacation, you do what you can on the vegetable front. Save the kale smoothies for your triumphant return).
After stuffing myself at the juice bar, I found myself at two antique stores that really made me long for a higher salary. The first one, Aux Belles Choses, was full of beautiful French tablecloths, holiday decorations and various edible treats. For the most part, I restrained myself, although I did buy a picture for the kitchen: an ode to confitures (spoon sweets have awakened my inner fruit preserver) that I thought would brighten up one of the bare white walls. The other store, Passages Antiques, was full of eighteenth-century copper cake pans and oyster plates. Amazingly, I also found the one kitchen thing that I had been searching for, from Finland to Tahoe, for months: a soup tureen. I was quite proud of myself, too; of all the places in the world, it had to be at a conference. I suppose this will make this particular conference all the more memorable.
Besides my shopping adventures in the lower Garden District, I made time for all of those New Orleans traditions in which one simply has to partake (and even though I had done some of them before) to get the "real" experience: beignets and a cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, fried green tomatoes (our restaurant of choice was the cozy hole in the wall, Elizabeth's Restaurant) and praline shopping at the Southern Candymakers on Decatur (a NOLA souvenir for the Greek and his parents).
But I also did a few things that, to me at least, felt a little off the map. When I'm in a new city, I love to search for new places to eat; this is the kind of thing that really excites me and that, to a certain extent, I feel that I have an eye for. I look at menus and I consult reviews; in a way, it's my research training being put to work in a really useful and productive way. Thanks to my NOLA research, I ended up at two lovely places with two good friends; both were some of my favorite moments from the conference. The first involved drinks at Iris and the second brunch in the garden at Cafe Amelie. A lot of my pictures of food (besides the iphone/Instagram photos that are interwoven into this post) turned out badly; I think my hunger/impatience/desire to focus on the moment rather than to capture the moment played a role in this. Even though there is no photographic proof of my eggs and grits or my friend's vibrantly colored catfish sandwich, the chocolate lava cake with chicory ice cream that we shared turned out to be my crispest image--not to mention one of my fondest food memories from the trip.
While the conference was generally a really nice time, I was, by the time I rolled out of bed at 6 CST on Sunday morning, more than ready to come home. I wanted to be back in my own bed and to get back into the holiday, rather than the surreal semi-conferencing, spirit. I also kept thinking of all the work I needed to do--both in and out of the kitchen--and of the projects that are still waiting to be completed before the end of the semester, which, is now less than a month (a month!) away. But, as I must remind myself sometimes in a stern voice, one project at a time. For now, it's all about green beans and turkey and tarts. I'll save my other worries for Black Friday.