Due to the previous night’s misunderstanding regarding my tour, the company graciously offered a complimentary tour of my choice the following day. Since I didn’t have plans to be out after dark, I chose their cemetery tour. To start my day off right, I decided to explore one of the local breakfast options I researched.
Breakfast at Brennan’s
If you look up things to do in New Orleans, the phrase “Breakfast at Brennan’s” is one you’ll encounter again and again, but don’t worry, it’s not empty hype. While I had hoped to go there with my husband once his meetings were done, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating at the same place twice if it’s good, so I decided to investigate. You know, for science. Delicious, delicious science.
I arrived just as the restaurant had opened at 9, which seems oddly late to me for a place that aggressively advertises breakfast. I’ve since learned that “morning” here seems to start much, much later than what I’m used to in “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” California. Upon entering, I was greeted with the ice cream-like colors the green, pink, and white, which flowed through the dining room before opening up into a peaceful European courtyard. My first thought was, “Wow, Disneyland totally ripped them off.” This is true of the French Quarter in general, but this was my first daytime taste of just how true this is.
Their signature brunch dish, Brennan’s Eggs Hussarde is a spin on Eggs Benedict, made with English muffins (no Thomas brand here, these are homemade), coffee cured Canadian bacon, hollandaise, and marchand de vin sauce, which is a savory blend of chopped mushrooms, ham, shallots, onion, garlic, and red wine. The addition of this sauce made what would have been an otherwise outstanding Eggs Benedict into a tangy, mouth-watering, next-level creation that I’m absolutely going to have to try making at home.
Caribbean Milk Punch
On my list of the signature cocktails to try in New Orleans, Brennan’s Brandy Milk Punch came up repeatedly. I asked the waiter what he thought, and he said he preferred their Caribbean Milk Punch, which is similar, but made with rum instead of brandy. I’m more of a rum fan anyway, so I took his recommendation. It tastes like what I feel eggnog should be; deliciously frothy and creamy, well-balanced in the rum, a nice vanilla bean finish, not overly spiced. I’m not a fan of eggnog, but I’m glad I tried this drink, if anything for the novelty. I will warn you though—It’s listed on the menu as an “eye-opener” but the after effects milk-punched me back to bed for a post-brunch nap as the day progressed.
After breakfast, I walked down Royal Street towards my tour meetup spot at Rouse’s Market, thinking I could make it to the 10 AM tour. As I walked, an elderly British couple approached me.
“Are you a local?”
“No, sorry, I’m a tourist.”
“Do you know how to get to Rouse’s Market?”
“I’m headed that way, actually! Here, you can follow me.”
As we walked, I noticed that the scenery didn’t begin to look familiar, so I opened the map on my phone to find that Royal street is actually incredibly long and I was a mile away. I had only 10 minutes to spare, there was no way I could walk a mile that quickly! I sheepishly turned to the couple and told them what was up. They looked at me like I had purposely led them astray before shuffling off in the opposite direction. Hey, I said I wasn’t a local!
I rescheduled my tour for later in the day and continued walking when I realized the street had gotten quieter and less populated. Fewer people were walking with purpose and more were just…loitering. This gave me a very bad feeling, like in a video game where the bad guy characters walk around in their same set loop until they “notice” you and come in for the kill. Just as I was thinking that, I evidently got too close to one of these loops, as a man who was walking around in circles aimlessly locks eyes with me and menacingly says “Heeeeey mama…” before moving towards me.
I picked up the pace just in time for the street to open up to Canal Street, which I learned later is considered the widest street in the United States. A perfect place to blend in! Just then, I noticed the street car pull up, and since it was on my list of things to do, I took the opportunity to get a day pass (just $3!) and ride it in a loop to see the neighborhood and put Royal Street behind me.
The Canal Street line (or red line) takes you up through downtown and to one of the cemeteries, then back down to the waterfront and French Market. As I rode, I noticed just how many “old”-style townhouses there were, with people of every class living in them, some being turned into businesses. There was one block where every single old home had been turned into a law office. A law district?
I make note of this because in California, many of the old, Victorian-era homes that haven’t been turned into historical monuments are either subdivided to be multi-family rentals or only attainable by the rich. It’s rare for an “everyman” to own one, and I think this is mostly due to short supply. We have earthquakes and fires that have destroyed a lot of these homes, whereas this area, which was mostly spared by Katrina in terms of flooding, enabled these older homes to age with the community rather than making way for newer buildings. Many were in disrepair, some were abandoned, but they continued to exist for 100 years or more, which was really remarkable to me.
After a bit of a ride, I was beginning to really feel the effects of the milk punch and went back to my hotel for a nap.
A Year and a Day: Visiting New Orleans’ Oldest Cemetery
Later in the afternoon, I met up with my tour group to visit the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (there are two) which was founded in 1789 and is the oldest still-active cemetery in New Orleans. As we walked, I learned about the types of domestic architecture in the French Quarter, and that due to so many trial-and-error burial attempts in the early founding of this city in the swamp, that there are many unaccounted for bodies buried beneath current buildings. Apparently, someone recently tried digging to build a pool but ended up unearthing over 15 coffins, some dating from the late 1700s. The real kicker of this story is that they still finished that pool, and uh, good luck with that one, buddy. I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it plays out.
Cemeteries in New Orleans have above-ground tombs rather than traditional graves. This is due to a combination of the European settlers to the area already having above-ground burial traditions, but the more gruesome reason is because it’s very difficult to bury people in a swamp. You can stop reading here if you’re easily grossed out.
Still with me? Ok.
Due to ground saturation, ordinary coffins will float and pop up out of the ground, and waterlogged bodies don’t decompose as efficiently as dry graves, which can create a health hazard. Some of the tombs in the cemetery had coffins buried below the ground but with a stone “lid” to keep things in place, but the majority were the above-ground tombs New Orleans is famous for.
I wondered how bodies decompose when encased in marble tombs. Our tour guide explained that coffins are put into a wall vault or “oven vault”, which means they’re sealed up in a stone wall for a full year and a day after burial. One full year is sufficient enough time for the sub-tropical heat and stone encasing to essentially slow-cremate the body, leaving just bone and dust. After that time, they then open the wall, sweep out the remnants with a broom, and place them in their assigned tomb for all blessed eternity. The full year is customary, but the extra day is tradition. After learning this, I think that “A Year and a Day” would make for an awesome title for a supernatural thriller, don’t you think?
Nicolas Cage’s Future Burial Site
Among the 200+ year tombs is one that appears very out of place, architecturally speaking. As mentioned in my previous post, actor Nicolas Cage is a New Orleans super fan. Despite not being a native, he is viewed as somewhat of a local cryptid and mischief maker, from being routinely drunk and disorderly, to getting arrested at a French Quarter bar by none other than Dog the Bounty Hunter, to losing not one but two French Quarter houses to the IRS, including the famed (and incredibly, incredibly haunted) LaLaurie mansion. But there is one thing the IRS can’t repossess: your tomb.
This white pyramid is the future burial site of Nicolas Cage. The inscription reads “Omni Ab Uno” meaning “Everything from One”. He also purchased space in front of his tomb, one can only assume to ensure the view in his eternal place of rest isn’t obstructed by “general rabble”. Way to plan ahead, Nic.
The gravesite I wanted to see most was that of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. She is a local celebrity, most recently played by Angela Bassett in American Horror Story: Coven. She was a hairdresser by trade, having her own beauty parlor that served the wealthy elite of New Orleans, so her gravesite is littered with offerings of hair ties and bobby pins. The cemetery has prohibited the leaving of offerings, as it became an issue of littering and made walking through nearly impossible, but people still find ways of leaving a little something.
The noteworthy thing about her tomb is that people frequently request her to bless them from beyond the grave. The practice is to draw three X’s on her tomb, knock three times while chanting her name, and ask her to fulfill your heart’s desire. If it’s granted, you’re supposed to come back to the site and circle the X’s. You can also leave an offering of sprinkling gin or whiskey on her grave, a cigar, anything to make her happy and offer a gift in exchange for her magical favors.
Naturally, the site’s preservationists discourage this behavior as it’s defacing a gravesite and historical marker, so this cemetery can’t be visited without a tour guide and motions are taken to prevent folks from drawing on her tomb. Still, fresh X’s had clearly been left despite the caretakers’ best efforts.
Despite what you’d assume, her tomb is very non-descript, so people have mistaken 2 other tombs as hers within this same cemetery, which are referred to as “Faux Laveaus”. X’s are left on these tombs as well, for good measure. If you’re already breaking the law, might as well make it count I guess!
When we left the cemetery, you’re supposed to walk out backwards while kissing your fingers on your right hand. That way the spirits know you’re not speaking ill of them. I’d never.
Dinner at Dat Dog
After the cemetery tour, I hopped the streetcar and rode it all the way past the riverfront and down to the French Market to indulge in one of the restaurants on my list, Dat Dog, which makes their dogs from unusual local ingredients.
Walking through this part of the quarter made me a bit anxious, as I needed to pass a few dive bars and tattoo parlors with their patrons spilling out into the street. Daylight was on my side, but it didn’t prevent me from getting some uncomfortable glances. “Hey girl, you sure have pretty hair,” said one man as I walked past. Regardless of if it was a genuine compliment or a catcall, I looked him straight in the eyes and said very enthusiastically, “A hwhy thank yewwwwww!”
Finally I arrived at my destination and ordered a much needed beer (a local Amber, Abita).
Crawfish Etouffee Dog
The item I was especially excited to try was the crawfish etouffee dog, made from a crawfish sausage (it’s as unusual as it sounds), homemade crawfish etouffee, sour cream, tomatoes, and creole mustard.
I sat out on the patio taking in the sights and sounds of the district, watching people in costumes walk by: a Sriracha bottle, a lobster, Baron Samedi, more than a few vampires, and the Pink Power Ranger who turned around and flipped off someone yelling at her.