Ever since 1751, when the Jesuits first introduced sugarcane in southern Louisiana, this sweet crop has been an integral part of our economy and culture. Today, the sugarcane industry contributes $2 billion to the Louisiana economy! The sugarcane harvest has just started in southern Louisiana and it is not uncommon to find huge sugarcane fields completely engulfed in flames prior to the harvest. We just saw this today as we drove to and from the beautiful plantation homes northwest of New Orleans. There are a number of reasons why sugarcane farmers burn their harvest every year at this time before cutting it down. First of all, it rids the canes of their leaves which are razor sharp and get in the way of harvesting. Secondly, the ashes created will be excellent fertilizer for this type of soil. Third, the smoke and flames rid the field of the snakes, rats, and other unpleasant critters. And finally, perhaps most importantly, the heat liquefies the sap (also called sweet water) within the bamboo-like stick of the sugarcane, therefore making it easier to extract when you bring it to the sugar mill. One of the beautiful things about the sugarcane harvest is that every part of the cane is used, nothing is wasted. After getting the Molasses from the sweet juice, loaded with rich minerals, you are left with the fibrous bagasse which is used to make sheetrock-like construction panels.
Everyone who has heard of New Orleans has most likely heard of Bourbon St. But did you know that Bourbon St. wasn't actually named after the delicious alcoholic beverage we have all come to know and love? Bourbon St, like other streets in the French Quarter was named after one of the royal houses of France at the time the French Quarter was laid out in the 1700's.
Tchoupitoulas St. is one of the longest streetnames in the city and is notoriously mispronounced, if attempted at all! It is said that the name was given by the French to the Native americans in the area. The Choctaw indians occupied the Mississippi delta region before it was colonized, and used to catch a mudfish along the river the French called Choupic. The street runs parallel to the Mississippi and has had various spellings over the centuries. It is pronounced CHOP-a-TWO-liss, but locals will often refer to it as just tchoup (chop).
New Orleans also has many classically named streets named after Greek mythology. Dryades is a street named for the wood nymphs and was the wooded side of town when it was established in the 19th century. The Greek muses are well accounted for in the Lower Garden District where nine streets names for the muses cross Prytania. Prytania was named for the Prytaneum, the hearth that each ancient Greek village had dedicated to the goddess of the hearth, Hestia. Euphrosine is the incarnation of grace and beauty, also known as the Goddess of Mirth. Euphrosine is another of the streets inspired by Greek mythology, along with Calliope (poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music), and Terpsichore (dancing).
Understanding the names of the well traveled streets of our beautiful city reveals what a rich and multicultural history we have!
Louisiana plantations in the second half of the 19th century were very much in a self-sufficient economy. Since it took at least a week either by horse and buggy carriage along the river road, or more commonly by steamboat, to get to and from the market, they had to grow their own goods and suffice to their own needs. A flamboyant Creole plantation owner, Valcour Aimé, once boasted that he could invite a French dignitary to his grandiose plantation close to Vacherie, Louisiana and treat him to a 12 course meal and feast worthy of the royal French court using only foods and goods and venison from his own plantation at 'Le petit Versailles.' And he did! This is how they kept perishable foods in plantation pantries in those days. These 'Amphoras' or giant clay jars were buried in the ground with only the top neck sticking out in order to keep perishables insulated and as cool as possible in the semi-tropical climate we enjoy around New Orleans.
Did you know Napoleon Bonaparte never stepped foot inside of the French Quarter home that adopted his name? Now a famous bar/restaurant and registered National Historic Landmark, the Napoleon House was first occupied by Nicholas Girod, mayor of New Orleans from 1812-1815. In 1821, Girod offered his home to Napoleon as refuge during his exile from France. A local plot to bring Napoleon to Louisiana came to an abrupt end when news of Napoleon's death reached New Orleans. The building remained a private residence during the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century it was occupied by a local grocery and cafe. Finally, at the end of Prohibition, the Napoleon House bar that we now know and love was born!
The 200 year old French Quarter landmark is one of the best examples of a large French colonial townhouse in the country, representing the influence of French architecture in New Orleans. It is decorated by ironwork balconies on the second floor and an octaganal cupola.
People often get confused between Cajuns and Creoles, or even use the terms interchangeably without knowing what the difference is! While both peoples have a strong influence of French ancestry, they are distinguished primarily by their migration history. Cajun refers to a person whose ancestors came from Acadia, a region that includes Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The British were in control of the area in the 1700s. During the French and Indian War, the British feared the Acadians would join French forces so they were expelled from the region and guess where they ended up? Louisiana! Creoles, by contrast, were people of mixed decent, including French, Spanish, African, and Carribbean influence. Both Cajuns and Creoles brought with them many of the culinary and artistic traditions we boast about today, yet their music, food, and religious traditions remain distinguished. Here are some of the characteristics of each:
use a lot of paprika, cayenne, and other spices
use a lot of parsley
dishes often feature pork, chicken, sausage, or crawfish
strong Caribbean influence in their music
use a lot of okra
use a lot of tomatoes
dishes often feature seafood rather than meat
Looking for something to do this Saturday? Get a ticket for Smithsonian Magazine's Museum Day Live! With it you will have access to free tours of both the Hermann-Grima House and the Gallier House.
The Hermann-Grima House and the Gallier House physically connect us to the New Orleans of the mid 19th-century–a romantic, decadent and mysterious time of wealth, culture, slavery, oppression, hurricanes and disease. Juxtaposed with the affluence of antebellum luxury was an astoundingly stratified society of groups within groups, and with distinctions of race, gender, nationality, religion and social standing as complicated as any caste system. The city's environment, including unforgiving weather, sickly swamp conditions and rampant urban growth, created a dramatic backdrop for these intriguing tales.
The Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses are not just National Historic Landmarks. These museums actively tell the story of the people who built the properties and the challenges they faced–the founding families, the Free People of Color and immigrant craftsmen who created the amazing interiors and the enslaved workers who ran the day-to-day business of the homes.
If you are going to miss Museum Day, don't worry! We can certainly include a visit of these historic homes on private tours. They are a perfect addition to the historic walking tours of the French Quarter.