New Orleans, Louisiana: my favorite city in the United States by a long shot. With a history so fascinating and scandalous, the only thing they taught us about New Orleans in school was that the U.S. acquired it in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase. When you visit New Orleans and become familiar with its past and its people, the place gets under your skin. Like the song says, then you know what it means to miss New Orleans, and the feeling gets stronger the longer you stay away.
Everyone loves the things New Orleans is famous for: the food, the music, and the “laissez les bons temps rouler” attitude. But even more special are its residents and their unique traditions. Here are ten things you may not know about New Orleanians.
1. They invent saints.
When building the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in New Orleans, the parish priests ordered a large statue of the Virgin Mary from Spain. Months later, they received two crates instead of one. The unexpected second crate bore the legend EXPEDITE (as in “expedite this shipment”). They opened it and found a statue of a Roman centurion, which they assumed was St. Expedite. He still stands near the entrance to the Chapel, and people pray to him for rapid solutions to problems.
That spiked metal object near the top of the poles in this photo is called a Romeo Catcher. New Orleanians – especially those with daughters – put them on poles below their balconies. I don’t think I need to explain the rest….
3. They engage in competitive fence building.
The Cornstalk Hotel in the French Quarter sits behind an iconic “cornstalk” cast iron fence. The fence, erected in 1856 by an owner of the then-mansion, is beautifully ornate with ears of corn on their stalks and pumpkins at the base of iron columns, around which are entwined pumpkin vines and morning glories. Not to be outdone by those Europeans in the Quarter, a resident of the very American Garden District (Colonel Robert Henry Short from Kentucky) had an identical but much, much larger cornstalk fence built around his mansion at 1448 Fourth Street. Unfortunately for Colonel Short, the fence didn’t keep out the invading Yankees during the Civil War: they kicked him out and used his home as officers’ quarters during the occupation of New Orleans.
New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau (1782-1881) is reportedly buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in the Glapion family crypt. It’s the second most visited grave in the U.S., topped only by Elvis. Visit the crypt on any given day and you’ll see all manner of offerings lying around it. My personal favorite: buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken (so much more humane than the traditional sacrificial killing of a chicken during voodoo ceremonies).
5. They let women run plantations.
Take a fairly short drive from New Orleans through the Bayou to the Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana and learn about the fascinating world of the French Creoles. Back in the day, many Creoles ensured that their smartest child, not necessarily the oldest son, would run the family business. The Laura Plantation is one example of the many farms along River Road in plantation country that were run by women. When Laura Locoul sold the farm in 1891, she stipulated that from that sale forward, it must be called “the Laura Plantation.” You go, girl!
6. They serve a fantastic 25 cent martini at lunch.
At beautiful Commander’s Palace Restaurant in the Garden District, modern New Orleans cooking meets haute Creole for delicious results. More importantly, they serve fantastic martinis at lunch for just 25 cents!
7. They have the BEST marching bands.
There’s nothing quite like watching New Orleans high school marching bands strut down the street during Mardi Gras parades. Incubators for New Orleans’ amazing musical tradition, these bands have more energy and pride than any I’ve seen. Forget about one drum major. They come at you with a line of drum majors!
Doubloons, beads, cups, stuffed animals, and … coconuts?? New Orleanians are serious about the stuff that’s thrown to the crowds from the floats during Mardi Gras parades: serious about throwing them, and serious about catching them. Don’t even think about coming to the parades without a butterfly net or some other contraption designed to help you collect as many throws as possible. The most valuable, of course, are painted coconuts from the Zulu krewe, which are prized collectors’ items.
If you’ve never been to Mardi Gras, it’s worth a trip if for nothing else than to see the costumes. From incredibly ornate, to a simple yet effective “sheet” theme, New Orleanians don’t mess around when it comes to getting dressed up for Mardi Gras day!
10. They still need our help.
Even though it’s been 7 years since Hurricane Katrina, the rebuilding effort in New Orleans is still very much underway. The need is especially great in St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes, where thousands of families can’t afford to rebuild their homes. If you love New Orleans like I do, consider donating your time or money to the St. Bernard Project. It rebuilds homes for senior citizens, people with disabilities and families with children who can’t afford to have their homes rebuilt by contractors. For clients who can afford supplies, the St. Bernard Project provides supervised volunteer labor. For clients who can’t afford supplies, the St. Bernard Project buys the supplies and provides the labor. Together, we can help the people who really know what it means to miss New Orleans return to their home.