You’re sitting outside on a warm Sunday morning after enjoying a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast.
As you reflect on the shrimp, grits, and chicory coffee you just finished, it hits you: the sound of trumpets playing in the distance.
The music gets louder and closer and faster. You can feel the drums in your chest and it’s like they’re lifting you up from the inside. You rise to your feet and can’t help but smile as a fleet of musicians in bright suits, hats, and sashes turn the corner. Before you know it, you’re in the middle of an all-out parade.
Second line is a New Orleans, Louisiana tradition that began in the 19th century, back when fraternal societies and neighborhood organizations would host parades to celebrate the lives of community members who passed away. Today, these parades aren’t tied to anything in particular, but continue to spread that uniquely New Orleans ethos: take time to celebrate life. Jazz singer, Robin Barnes (also known as New Orleans’ Songbird), describes it best: “New Orleans is a celebration of life, of what's to come, of just being here. We're here today. We’re happy to be here. Let's enjoy it and live like there is no tomorrow.”
If you do have the pleasure of encountering a second line, you’re more than welcome to join in---as long as you can keep up with the pace. (And given the toe-tapping sounds of a New Orleans brass band, that shouldn’t be a problem.)
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is the perfect place to share artistic expression. Its streets, shops, and venues are home to mimes and contortionists, card readers and fortune tellers, painters and dancers and, of course, musicians. Very few places are as welcoming, diverse, and celebratory as New Orleans. Robin explains, “New Orleans is one of those places where you can wear a tutu on a Tuesday and no one would look at you twice.”
“Jazz is symbolic of freedom,” Robin points out. New Orleans jazz today is a unique blend of traditional African tempos, European brass, and Cuban habanera. It’s a direct reflection of the trade routes and communities and has a sound completely unique to New Orleans. But New Orleans doesn’t limit itself---a quick stroll past the music clubs in the French Quarter will give you a taste of Dixieland, zydeco, blues, and Irish folk music, to name a few.
A street performer in the French Quarter
A Taste of the Melting Pot
If the United States is a melting pot, New Orleans is gumbo. New Orleans was originally ruled by the French and Spanish before the United States acquired the territory in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In the 19th century, the city was the largest port in the south, meaning there was a near-constant exchange of new goods, ideas, and spices. Before its first major bridge was built in 1958, New Orleans had more canals than Venice, and its locals were just as likely to get around by boat as they were streetcar.
One of the best examples of how cultures melded together in New Orleans is YaKaMein, a local cuisine seldom known about outside of the city. Locals consider this beef-based soup (sometimes called “Old Sober”) the ultimate hangover cure, and they consider Ms. Linda to be the best person to make it. Robin explains over a bowl, “Ms. Linda is this warmth that you get from a grandmother. It’s instant love and hospitality. This woman wants to feed you. She wants to give you a hug. It's genuine New Orleans hospitality and love.”
YaKaMein is a soup that blends Chinese and African American spices, but its exact origins are unknown. Some believe the recipe was passed down from Chinese immigrants brought from California to build railroads and work in the sugar plantations. Others believe it was introduced by African American troops who fought in the Korean War and returned with a taste for the noodle soup they had in Korea.
Although locals may not agree about how the recipe for YaKaMein came to be, they can agree that they’re glad the comfort food has stuck around.
Robin Barnes discussing New Orleans cuisine with a local chef
Welcome to New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana is a party with no guest list. They work hard and celebrate harder. It’s a small city that reminds you that the world is big and bold and beautiful. Robin smiles, “We hug strangers. We hug people we haven't seen in years. We hug people that we met five seconds ago. There’s a family culture that we have in this city.”