I feel sorry for Hernando de Soto. When he set out for Louisiana from Florida in 1540, there was no crawfish etouffe waiting for him when he got there. I will not have this problem when I arrive next weekend. De Soto was, of course, looking for gold. He did not find it, but he died trying. I am going to attend a literary festival that takes its name from the playwright who made the New Orleans streetcars famous.
The place De Soto arrived in lacked more than gold. It didn’t even have a European name until a hundred and fifty or so years afterwards, when La Salle left the Great Lakes and made his way down the length of the mighty Mississippi. He reached the Gulf at this time of year and claimed the whole of the Mississippi valley for France, naming it for King Louis XIV. It was supposed to become the center of a fur-trading empire. But what with distractions of war in Europe and with the local Natchez Indians, a major financial swindle, and yellow fever, things got off to a rather slow start. In 1762, Spain took over west of the river, with the Brits on the east. In the 1790s, the French changed their mind and came back. The deal they made was this: The King of Spain got the kingdom of Etruria for his son-in-law; the French got to reclaim their American land—on the condition that they never cede it to anyone else. Ignoring the agreed-to rules, Napoleon turned around a few years later and sold it in a sale that our American readers all know well —if they went to school before 1975—the Louisiana Purchase. Like a lot of big deals, the transaction went through despite the treaties and laws it broke.
Levees were built. A great port grew up. Refugees came—those expelled from French Canada, escapees from West Indian slave rebellions, and waves of immigrants from all over Europe. A wonderful city—more Old World than New—grew up, with theaters, churches, opera houses.
The Civil War hurt NOLA very badly, by destroying the slave-based economy that surrounded it. The silver lining for the area was that, in those days, no one had enough money to tear down the old buildings and build new ones. When the state and the city finally recovered, they had a stock of gorgeous architecture that became the centerpiece of its romantic air.
The territory nearby has antebellum mansions that recall days of bygone glory, sanitized by Gone With the Wind, a historical novel (and its much better movie twin) that managed to romanticize away the brutality of it all, even of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
The city of New Orleans has lovely old buildings of cypress and brick, with signature wrought iron galleries. Thanks to its ancient French roots, it has great food. And it has music. And I mean MUSIC. Just about everything we call American music bubbled up for the first time in New Orleans.
On the Crescent of the Mississippi, NOLA remains a place of paradox. Downtown is north. Uptown is south. The sun rises over the west bank of the river. The annual orgiastic observation of Mardi Gras marks the beginning of a religious period of austerity.
I used to visit New Orleans every few years but have not been there since the year before Katrina. I cannot wait to go back, have a beignet and a coffee, some crawfish and dirty rice, and revel in the warmth of its atmosphere.
I’ll report back next week. In the meanwhile, you can tap your foot along with this:
Annamaria - Monday