Thursday was a big day for us. We made plans to eat at Emeril's NOLA for our lunch break and our last "session" of the day was a service project at the Louisiana Nature Center. We were very excited when it was announced that the Honorable John Berry, Director of OPM (Office of Personnel Management for you non-feds) would be joining us on the project.
When we broke for lunch, Cheri and I quickly dropped our things in our hotel room and hopped on the streetcar for the French Quarter. There on Saint Louis Street, nestled among shops and restaurants was a yellow building, NOLA. We were seated at the Chef's Bar and were front row to watch as she made "Duck Confit and Fried Egg Pizza" and cooked the Drum (a red fish) in the wood oven. We asked for her recommendations and placed our order from a menu full of delicious foods. Cheri had the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast, I chose the Hickory Smoked Beef Brisket. We both agreed it was the best meal we'd had, and we were so glad we took the time to eat there.
A blurry phone photo, but let me tell you the pickled green bean in my drink was delish!
After our very filling lunch, we stopped into a tourist shop for a few gifts, and headed back to the hotel to get ready for our service project. I knew we'd be driving through some hard hit neighborhoods, but seeing houses destroyed next to houses standing was an eye opener to the stark reality that still exists in New Orleans. The nature center itself is still not "open." None of the buildings are functional, and there are very few trees that survived. Most of those that survived the wind were killed by soaking for several weeks in 8 feet of saltwater.
All of us, along with John Berry and Keith Willingham (the Director of CFC) got to work with gloves and loppers pulling giant ragweed from around the young trees planted a year before. The hope is that it will give these trees a fighting chance for the sunshine they need to grow.
We were tired and dirty after the project, but all of us were happy to have helped. That night Cheri and I decided that you cannot go to New Orleans without at least seeing Bourbon Street. So we walked down Bourbon Street, and found a drink she liked. The Hand Grenade. We had a light dinner at Ember's Steakhouse. Neither of us was very hungry, but it was nice to sit outside on the balcony and people watch.
Friday was our last full day in New Orleans. When Jennifer got the news that she wouldn't be able to make it, we purchased Plantation Tour tickets for Friday afternoon. I was sad to miss meeting her in person, but it's a great excuse to head South again! So Friday at the close of our session Cheri and I made our familiar trip on the streetcar. We had thought we'd eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde before we boarded the bus to Oak Alley, but the cafe was packed. Instead we ate brunch at The Gumbo Pot, which was really good. On the bus we enjoyed watching a video about plantations along the Mississippi. Then our tour guide/bus driver got on the microphone and began to point out all the plantations and tell us their history. When we arrived at Oak Alley, it was nothing short of amazing. The 28 300 year old Live Oaks lining the walk up to the house was spectacular.
The house tour is guided by someone in period dress, and you could tell he enjoyed his job. It was beautiful inside, though no photography is allowed, so you must take my word, or purchase the picture book (I got a signed copy at the gift shop!). We were all surprised at how small the house is inside. It looks huge on the outside, but it would actually be a cozy home inside.
After the tour of the home, we stopped at the snack bar right outside to purchase mint juleps and lemonades. Then we were free to walk the grounds. Of course it was during this time that my camera died, as some dummy tried to charge the battery by putting it in backwards, and didn't realize the mistake until it was too late. My phone was also going dead, as the same dummy didn't charge it the night before. And that is the reason I had to purchase the picture book. I also purchased a signed Oak Alley cookbook in the gift shop.
The ride back to New Orleans was longer for two reasons. First the tour guide drives the old hwy that follows the river and goes past many plantations. He would slow down for us to get a good look and tell us about each home. We also got to see a really old cemetery. So old that many of the crypts were falling apart. This part of Louisiana was so beautiful, and honestly reminded me a lot of the Valley surrounding my home. Of course we have hills and there wasn't a one in sight there. The other reason the drive back took so long is that something happened to cause a huge traffic backup as we were going into New Orleans. We watched some more videos, and eventually the driver resorted to telling us what he could about the area we were in and what happened in the days and weeks following Katrina.
We finished the evening with beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and taking in the French Quarter homes one last time. It was sad to pack everything up that night, although I was very ready to get home to Dana and the kids. I definitely want to return to Louisiana, and sooner is better than later.