A quick but meaningful and memorable trip to The Big Easy

My trips to New Orleans always follow a few familiar patterns—habits we’ve formed over decades of visiting this beloved city.

On the way there, we stop in East New Orleans for banh mi sandwiches at Dong Phuong Bakery, a James Beard Award-winning Vietnamese restaurant and bakery. This NOLA East institution has been around since 1982 and has a cult following. For lunch during our visit, we find a new place (or a new old place) for po’ boys. This time, we tried Killer Poboys; we went to Big Killer on Dauphin and were not disappointed with their internationally inspired versions. We always stop in at M.S. Rau on Royal Street in the French Quarter. This incredible store full of fine art, antiques of all kinds and amazing jewelry is like a museum where everything—from Renoir paintings to Venetian glass perfume bottles to a 20-carat fancy yellow diamond ring—is for sale. The art, alone, is worth a trip. And we always get beignets to go from Café du Monde in the French Market. (We get them in a bag so we can shake the powdered sugar evenly over the hot pastries, and then we go eat them by the water and watch the river traffic.) 

Our latest trip, though, included two new experiences inspired by a book and a film.

This cookbook is beautiful. It won Book of the Year and Best American Cookbook at the 2021 IACP conference in Birmingham, AL.

In fact, the main reason for this visit was to dine at Mosquito Supper Club for my birthday. That became a wish after I saw the Mosquito Supper Club cookbook win “Book of the Year” AND “Best American Cookbook” at the 2021 IACP conference here in Birmingham. It’s a beautifully written book that shares this self-taught chef’s love of Louisiana’s Cajun coast, a region that is in decline because of climate change and the resulting wetter, stronger storms. The photos of this special place are breathtaking, and the food pics are amazing. 

Amazing enough to inspire our road trip.

So, we went to Melisssa Martin’s restaurant, which is in a little Victorian cottage in Uptown. It’s filled with antiques; handmade furniture; and paintings by her brother Leslie, who is also a jazz pianist. Each night—Thursday to Sunday, September to June—Melissa does one communal seating (and two private ones). We were divided between two tables of 10 in adjoining rooms. Everyone enjoys the same multicourse menu. You can add wine pairings if you’d like. We did like.

Here’s our menu from that night:

  • Sweet Potato Biscuits with Steen’s Butter
  • Murder Point Oysters with red wine vinegar mignonette (so proud to tell our dining partners about these fabulous oysters from home!)
  • Fish Boulettes with tamarind glaze (paired with 2017 Les Parcelles “Tete Nat’ Igny Ruse”
  • Velma Marie’s Oyster Soup with pain d’epi (paired with 2018 Montenidoli Canaiuolo Rosato)
  • Grilled Napa and Arugula Salad with radish, parsley, pecans and broken shallot vinaigrette
  • Red Snapper with Speckled Butterbeans (these beans were one of my favorite dishes of the night)
  • Shrimp Jambalaya with Carolina Gold Rice (paired with 2020 Teutonic Wine Company’s “Pear Blossom Vineyard” Riesling
  • Sweet Potato Pie with whipped cream (served with 1988 Casa Manoel Boullosa “Quinta dos Pesos” Carcavelos

Several of the dishes are in the beautiful cookbook; a serving of that oyster soup was one of my birthday wishes come true. For more info on Mosquito Supper Club and to make your own reservation, go here.

We made one other stop on our trip—and it was more about paying respect and educating ourselves than celebrating. We went to the Whitney Plantation about an hour west of New Orleans. 

A few days before we left Birmingham, we watched the documentary The Neutral Ground, which is about the history of Confederate statues and why they divide us. The film, by comedian and journalist C.J. Hunt, also follows the removal of four Confederate statues from public spaces around New Orleans. Informative and quite funny at times, the film is well worth watching. (“Neutral ground” is what New Orleanians call the grassy median between two streets.)

Whitney Plantation was featured briefly in this film. Today, what was once a sugarcane and indigo plantation is a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who labored and died in Louisiana. In fact, this museum is the only one in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people. 

The place is beautiful, which makes it even more haunting, as you gain a clearer understanding of what kinds of terrible and cruel lives the slaves lived on this sugarcane plantation. (Sugar production from sugarcane was intensely brutal and dangerous; the sugar districts of Louisiana were the only areas in the entire slave-holding South that had a negative birth rate among the slaves.)

The Big House (one of the earliest raised Creole cottages in the state and one of the best-preserved Creole plantation houses on the River Road) is open to visitors; so are some of the slave cabins and other outbuildings. Beautiful but chilling hollow-eyed, terracotta statues of The Children of the Whitney haunt these grounds. The Field of Angels children’s memorial is heartbreaking yet lovely. It is dedicated to 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between the 1820s and the 1860s. That’s not a long time. The Wall of Honor is a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation. The names and the information related to them (origin, age, skills) were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs. The larger Allees Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is the name of the memorial dedicated to the 107, 000 people enslaved throughout Louisiana and documented in the “Louisiana Slave Database” built by Ms. Hall. 

The memorial to the 1811 German Coast Uprising is, by far, the most shocking exhibit here. Dozens of Black, life-sized men’s heads stand on sticks in the ground. It’s a brutal display of unforgettable art. About 500 slaves—armed mostly with hand tools—participated in the uprising, which was the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. Their goal was to escape from the River Road plantations (including this one) to New Orleans. Most never made it that far. Many of the captured were killed — and their decapitated heads were put on sticks along the river to terrify and dissuade others. 

The tour of Whitney Plantation is self-guided, so you can take your time and explore what you want for as long as you want. You just download an app and use your phone. I will say, in spite of the sadness of this place and the pain it evokes, I left feeling like I was part of something larger and more important than just myself. Definitely better educated, but also connected to a terribly painful time in history in a deeply empathetic way. As the narrator of your tour will tell you: “If you leave the plantation feeling guilty or angry, that means I have failed in my mission. Because this museum is about educating people about the past. It may be a very painful past, but we cannot hide history. Hidden history hurts.” 

For more information, go to www.whitneyplantation.com or follow Whitney Plantation on Instagram @whitneyplantation.

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