In high spirits
Favoring a cocktail, finding his rhythm, bar to bar
In the famed French Quarter of New Orleans, visitors can sample a tart Vieux Carre at the rotating Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. (David Grunfeld for the Boston Globe)
With his dangling mop of white hair atop his lanky frame and dark glasses resting on the cradle of his nose, Wayne Curtis might easily be mistaken for a professor. When he opens his mouth to speak, the perception is prolonged by juicy tidbits of knowledge dispensed as if on a fast assembly line. You have to be quick to grab them, as Curtis segues rapidly from such disparate subjects as turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago architecture to West Coast wax museums to George Washington's trip to Barbados.
But tonight, the author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails" (Crown, 2006) holds court on arguably his favorite subject, alcohol.
"This is the epitome of what a classic cocktail should be," says Curtis as bartender Chris Hannah combines rye, ruby port, Amaro Cana, and dashes of Regan's Orange Bitters #6 into a pre-Prohibition era favorite called the Curari. "Before the palette was sweetened with the advent of soda," Curtis adds.
We're sitting across from the long wooden bar of French 75 in the heart of the French Quarter. It was January 2005 when Curtis, a native New Jerseyan then living in Maine, strolled into this bar, in town for the opening of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and realized that New Orleans was where he wanted to live. It wasn't solely the legacy of the city as a great drink town, home to the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, and the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival. No, it was the merger of many of Curtis's interests, from the various styles of distinctive New Orleans architecture like the shotgun and two-story double-gallery houses he bikes past, to the sounds of jazz heard everywhere in this city, from midday jams in the Quarter to the popular Frenchmen Street hangouts to neighborhood bars only a local could find.
So at a time post Katrina when people were fleeing the city in droves, Curtis, a freelance journalist, and his wife, Louise, a public defender, moved here, leaving town only during the sweltering summer to return to Grand Lake Stream in the upper reaches of Maine.
"I eat boiled pine needles when I return to Maine," says Curtis, 50, with a laugh, his antidote to the rich foods of New Orleans he dines on the rest of the year. After downing a fruity drink, The Monkey Gland, famous with the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd at Harry's New York Bar in Paris (the same place that created the Sidecar, White Lady, and, yes, the French 75 cocktail, which the bar we're in was named after), we're off to sample some Louisiana specialties at the crowded Acme Oyster House. This being winter, the oysters are fresh, whether on the half-shell or char-grilled and topped with butter and grated Romano cheese. They are immediately devoured and followed by the New Orleans medley, a sampler of gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and grilled smoked sausage. Knowing we would need a full stomach to endure a night of drinking with Curtis, we topped off the meal with dishes of dense pecan pie and bread pudding.
"And a Bottle of Rum" delves into the saga of the spirit and how it continually reinvents itself during the course of US history, with increasingly popular results. From rum's first appearance in the 1640s to the cocktails of the Revolutionary War to the daiquiris, mai tais, and mojitos of the 20th century, the lengthy story of demon rum is told deftly with wit and anecdote through 10 cocktails.
As we make our way to the third stop of the night, the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, I am hoping Curtis isn't going to give us a tour of his new city through a similar theme of 10 drinks. As the name implies, the Carousel Bar rotates, a feature that delighted patrons such as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Curtis notes that "after a few rounds, it's fun to go to the bathroom and try to find your seat when you return." We try their signature drink, the slightly tart Vieux Carre, but Curtis grows impatient, and we're off again.
As much as he admires a cocktail from yesteryear, Curtis becomes even more animated talking about the local jazz scene, whether it's gypsy, brass bands, or traditional New Orleans jazz a la Louis Armstrong. We're headed to the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street to listen to the Django Reinhardt-like sounds of a band called Vavavoom. When we pass a group of tattooed teens asking for money, Curtis mentions that those are just regular punks. "Last year, we had the circus punks who went around on unicycles asking for change."
We settle into the club, homey like the back porch of someone's house, and listen to two guitarists sing French ditties, backed by a cello and an accordion-playing pianist. A hat is passed, and the night comes to an end.
The next morning Curtis rides his bike from his house in Uptown, about 30 minutes up the Mississippi River, to meet us at Brennan's, the celebrated brunch spot. As he locks up his clunker, he speaks to a woman setting up her makeshift band on the street.
"Aren't you the clarinetist in Loose Marbles?"
"Sax," she responds.
"I have to get my musicians straight," says Curtis as we make our way inside and order our first drink of the day, Mr. Funk of New Orleans, a combination of champagne, cranberry juice, and peach schnapps. Soon afterward, the plates of poached eggs arrive, nestled atop Cajun andouille sausage in Eggs Bayou Lafourche or on artichoke hearts with creamed spinach and hollandaise sauce in Eggs Sardou. We save room for their specialty dessert, bananas foster, doused in, you guessed it, rum.
Food is such an essential part of the New Orleans experience that restaurants did their best to get up and running after Katrina hit in August 2005 to help alleviate if only for a brief lunch or dinner the pain felt all over the city. "It's therapy in these parts," says Curtis, adding that folks are serious about their favorites. "You run into someone on the street and ask them where they're going to dinner. The next thing you know, you're in an hourlong conversation debating which dish is better."
Yet everyone seems to agree that the quintessential New Orleans dining experience can still be found at Commander's Palace. Curtis is friends with owner Lally Brennan, who co-wrote a book on the local drinking scene, "In the Land of the Cocktails" (Morrow, 2007). She starts us off with shots of the Turquoise Monster, a mix of lime juice, pineapple juice, and coconut rum. Then it's on to turtle soup, spiked with sherry and rich with tomatoes, and an entree of large Creole spiced white shrimp sitting atop tender locally caught redfish. Brennan spent $6.5 million to renovate the restaurant after Katrina and the place looks better than ever, flanked by a courtyard of large oak trees. The service is impeccable as the waitstaff works as a team to deliver our dessert of Creole bread pudding soufflé, a big ball of sweet bread that would have satisfied Satchmo.
Curtis is excited about the night's entertainment, a club called Vaughan's in the blue collar Bywater section of town that on Thursday nights features the sounds of Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. Curtis knows that Kermit has the night off and will be replaced by a young trumpeter he likes, Shamarr Allen. We pay our $10 cover and amble in the doorway a little after 11. The narrow space is packed with locals and a group of Habitat for Humanity workers bused in to have a good time after their long day of hammering. It's easy to see why Curtis likes Allen when the place starts thumping to the sounds of "Nawlins" traditional jazz and the young man hits the high notes on old Armstrong standbys. The slide trombonist lunges into the audience with his instrument as the young women from the Habitat crowd cut loose on the dance floor like Josephine Baker at some 1920s Parisian speakeasy.
Curtis is no idealist. He knows this city is in for a long, tough overhaul if it's ever going to thrive. He had hoped that some neighborhoods like middle-class Lakeview, which was hit hard by the flooding, would have been leveled instead of letting a handful of homeowners back into a largely deserted community of overgrown yards and boarded-up windows. Yet the core of New Orleans, the French Quarter, Garden District, Uptown, Bywater, Bayou St. John, even the reemerging Ninth Ward (thanks to the generosity of Habitat for Humanity, celebrities like Brad Pitt and Harry Connick Jr., and hundreds of other anonymous volunteers), still feels vital.
When the sweat is pouring off a trumpet player as he plays a long note on some bold brassy song like the city's theme, "When the Saints Come Marching In," you know New Orleans is alive and kicking.
Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.