The US only has three great cities, San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland.
– Tennessee Williams (although, it’s never been confirmed he actually said this)
…it’s a must-see city because there’s no explaining it, no describing it. You can’t compare it to anything. So, far and away New Orleans [is my favorite US city].
– Anthony Bourdain
I’ve always wanted to go to NOLA. Crazy random memory, but I remember an episode from the Ghostbuster’s cartoon from when I was around 6 or 7 that featured a Satchmo-esque ghost stuck playing jazz for the rest of his ghost-life or something like that—I don’t know. Point being, I was a kid, it was a depiction of New Orleans, and that intrigued me for some reason. So much that I still remember it now. Over the years, NOLA continued to pop up in hoards of movies and books I consumed, but the most notable experience was watching the news coverage of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina changed my perspective of NOLA from a place just about jazz and food, to something much deeper. I can recall sitting on the couch in my college apartment and acknowledging how deeply tragic Katrina was, on multiple levels. However, as I watched, what became clear was people were not only mourning the lives lost and forever impacted, they were mourning the city itself.
Around that same time, I also started getting into Anthony Bourdain’s work with his early series A Cook’s Tour and more specifically with No Reservations. I never met Bourdain, but his authenticity made him feel as though he was a friend you’ve lost contact with but together shared some amazing memories. My whole approach to exploring a city, and even some of my style while traveling, comes from watching his shows and his interactions with not just food but the people and the culture itself; his philosophy of traveling within a culture versus around it in some sort of “Pope-mobile” (a direct quote of his) has been the foundation of my travels. But he was more than just a person who knew his way around the culinary attractions and cultural nuances a city had to offer.
Bourdain’s most popular book, Kitchen Confidential, details the evolution of his career up into the ‘90’s and vivid accounts highlighting his bouts with heroin and substance abuse in general. The book is so good I’ve used it in therapy sessions with both private practice clients struggling with substance abuse, and with university students trying to figure out what’s next in their budding careers. Seeing someone work through their issues while developing their career—which I would argue is a form of establishing one’s identity—is the essence of mental health. I first read Kitchen Confidential in 2014, a year I was feeling pretty uncertain about a huge leap I took concerning a new career path. Reading Bourdain’s life experiences made me feel comforted that someone I regarded so highly had their own demons, stumbling blocks, and career transitions—plus, he was honest and straight-up enough to share them the world.
Bourdain was that rare celebrity who felt like one of “us.” He was honest, open, loved a good drink, and gave a damn about people. NOLA felt just like this, in the sense that it’s an honest city in love with excess and embracing people for who they are. In sharing my recent experiences about the city, I could go on and on about the food (which is amazing), but that is just one aspect to this outlier of an American city. There is something much deeper that grabs you as you explore NOLA; something that holds you firm and never let’s go despite how many sazeracs and Vieux Carrés you down.
Walking around Frenchmen Street, Canal Street, the Lower Garden District, and MLK & Felicity, I noticed lots of natural hair, long swaying dreadlocks grazing the beholder’s lower back, and plenty of tatts. I observed people who had an underlying pain about them because the PTSD of Katrina was still in the air, but at the same time, they expressed a deep appreciation for living life on their terms. Tatts were everywhere—arms, hands, necks, black, white, brown. There was a varied mixture of accents and cultures from the Dominican cigar bar, to the Creole waitress who flirts with you and calls you baby, to the average looking white guy who relocated here from Massachusetts to get away from the influx of corporate bullshit and consumerism. This isn’t a city you visit to get shit done, it’s a city you come to just to be.
But it’s also a city too unique to last, which is how I always felt about Bourdain. Both have/had a feeling of being on borrowed time. For Bourdain, his past demons, his authentic and empathetic character, and just the weight of maintaining his “brand” signaled an early end, to me. And I don’t mean suicide necessarily, but more so this feeling that he would walk away from his show at any given time. While his suicide surprised me, the thought of Bourdain trading punches with depression is not a shock for any therapist worth their accreditations when looking at his context. But what do we see when we look at NOLA’s context?
This is a city that has been set on fire twice. It’s survived two wars and over 60 hurricanes. Despite this violence, NOLA persisted. However, what happens after the next big storm? How will the city be impacted by global warming? Is it simply enough to just drain the swamp?
In a 2015 interview with Wine Spectator, Anthony Bourdain said that he would like to be remembered as such:
Maybe that I grew up a little. That I’m a dad, that I’m not a half-bad cook, that I can make a good coq au vin. That would be nice. And not such a bad bastard after all.
Well, NOLA is a place that reminds you it’s okay to be who you are. People live here, people eat here, and like every other place people die here. We probably know what the fate of NOLA will be, but despite rising sea levels, the deep grime of the city, or the obnoxious tourists puking their guts out on Bourbon Street, NOLA is about embracing the human struggle and saying, “life is not such a bad bastard after all.”
*cover image is Doreen Ketchens, also known as "Lady Louis." Photo by: