I have been to New Orleans many times to cover sporting events. They include four Sugar Bowls, two Final Fours, a Super Bowl (the only one the Bears won, a 46-10 drilling of then-hapless New England in 1986), and a Saints’ playoff loss (heartbreaking for them and me).
The Saints’ playoff loss, on Jan. 3, 1988, was heartbreaking for them because, after a 12-4 regular season, they had spoiled their first playoff appearance in the franchise’s 21-year history, getting whipped by Minnesota (9-7) by a whopping 44-10.
It was heartbreaking for me because I had been planning a fine week in New Orleans, advancing the Saints’ meeting with the Bears. With New Orleans out, I had to grab a night-flight to Redskin Park because the Bears would play Washington. I can tell you, the food around Redskin Park did not compare with New Orleans cuisine.
But I digress.
I had only been to New Orleans once as a civilian, to use the term applied by scribes when they aren’t working.
That would have been many years ago, during my sophomore year in college. After a major storm left the snow so high that the streets and sidewalks of Madison, Wis., looked like World War I trenches-in-white, we were sitting around having a few beers and lamenting.
Someone said, ``Hey, we can beat this. We can get in a car and drive to Mardi Gras.’’
And so we did. College attendance rules being lax in those days, we drove to Mardi Gras.
We arrived at dawn. Slept on the floor of a friend’s dorm room at Tulane until midday. Got some beer and caught the trolley to Bourbon St. Money being short, we never went inside any establishments. For several days.
We had a blast, in a drunken college sort of way.
When it poured, and it did, we got soaked. When the rain stopped, somebody blasted, ``Here Comes the Sun,’’ on loudspeakers from a wrought-iron balcony while the mob below roared with delight.
While I enjoyed that Mardi Gras, old age—and my experiences at well-attended New Orleans sporting events—has tempered my interest in being in New Orleans when it’s over-run with people.
That changed last weekend, when I ended up on Bourbon St. for only the second time as a civilian.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The occasion? My wife had a meeting there during the week, so we decided to spend a few extra days listening to music and enjoying the food.
It was the weekend before the Big Mardi Gras weekend. I highly recommend this. New Orleans is festive-crowded, but not wall-to-wall crowded the way it is right before Mardi Gras.
The parades are delightful. And they are festive without being over-run.
They are whimsical. Pure fun. The two parades we caught in the French Quarter were modest in a way, owing to the tight quarters. But they were exceptionally cozy and warm, owing to the tight quarters.
The Krewe of Cork did a nice wine-themed Friday afternoon parade that even wended its way on Bourbon St. for a time. Cork? Wine? Yup.
The Krewe of Barkus, a Sunday afternoon gala, was essentially a parade of canines. Dogs? Barkus? Yup.
Gotta love the matching sunglasses. . .A good time was had by all—although many of the four-legged participants seemed terrified by the antics of those on two legs.
And then, of course, there were the grand parades on Canal Street. The wonderful high-school drumlines. The smaller Dixieland ensembles. Tractor-pulled floats. Beads and other trinkets flying from the floats into the crowds.
There was even a float where you could throw your beads back, and try to hook them onto the mane of a giant sun.
And then there was the music.
First, I am an old trombone player, and Dixieland is right in my wheelhouse. I also am partial to the Blues.
And second, we were fortunate to be joined by my cousin, Andy, an old saxophone player, and his wife, Cathy. They are New Orleans music-scene regullars, and they guided us to their favorite haunts on Frenchmen St. as well as Bourbon St.
And then, there is the food.
I’ve always been a fan of Cajun/Creole fare.
The difference between now and those sportswriter forays is the emphasis is on smaller, more casual meals.
Back in the Bears-Patriots Super Bowl day, the bosses organized a Team Murdoch dinner—the Sun-Times and the Boston Herald then were both owned by Ruper Murdoch—at Arnaud’s.
I remember going into the men’s room and bumping into Ed McCaskey, son-in-law of George Halas. An old Big Band singer, Ed was crooning in the ‘loo, and why not? The Bears were the toast of the NFL. It was lovely.
On this trip, we managed to hit a couple of excellent sportswriter favorites: Mother’s, a cafeteria-style delight that I like to think of as the Manny’s (Roosevelt Rd in Chicago) of New Orleans. And the Bon Ton Cafe, an old-school Cajun classic.
The highlight, though, was our continuing fascination with all manner of oysters: On the half-shell, fresh or grilled. In a po’ boy. In gumbo. You name it.
The Acme Oyster Bar and Felix’s. You can’t go wrong with either. And there are many others.
I am reminded of a line Ditka used when Refrigerator Perry reported to camp: ``I’m sure the chicken population of South Carolina is breathing easier.’’
And when Liz and I depart New Orleans, I’m guessing the oyster population is breathing easier.
Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler.[/membership]