The Deep Dive
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Courtesy of Assouline Publishing
To say that Debra Shriver is in love with New Orleans is an understatement as big as her city’s personality. A 12th-generation Southerner, Shriver, along with her husband, bought and restored a home there after Hurricane Katrina, a project documented in her first book, Stealing Magnolias: Tales From a New Orleans Courtyard. Her newest effort, In the Spirit of New Orleans (Assouline)—part historical narrative, part travel guide—walks readers through her town and all its richly fascinating culinary, musical and cultural hallmarks. Shriver, who splits her time between The Big Easy and New York, chatted with us about the sensorial allure that keeps people coming back for more.
Q: Wynton Marsalis wrote the book’s evocative forward and clearly gets New Orleans. What does it take to really understand this town?
A: It’s all about the five senses. There’s so much to see—architecture, the French Quarter and the Garden District, the levees along the revered Mississippi. But scent and sound are the real seducers. It’s the invisible that will hex you—the smell of jasmine or beignets and the music wafting from the corner bar. I always say, three visits and you'll need a realtor.
Q: Music and food are enormously important. How best to tackle both?
A: When you're sampling the culture, be sure to mix old and new. Book tickets for classic jazz haunts like Snug Harbor and Tipitina’s, but also drop by Irvin Mayfield’s new I Club for the latest mix of locals and visiting legends. Take the same approach with culinary choices. Go to Commander’s [Palace], August and Emeril’s, but also try Cochon Butcher. And don't forget about the cocktails. Start with the Old Absinthe House and French 75, and move on to SoBou, Bar Tonique and Cure. Your motto should be: I saw, I sipped, I supped and I slept ... on the way home.
Q: It is really like its own little country. How has it managed to hold onto its personality?
A: New Orleans was founded by Latins, not Anglo-Saxons, unlike Charleston [South Carolina] and Savannah [Georgia]. New Orleans was also geographically separated by the river, so it didn't associate itself with the Americas. French fathers, Spanish ancestors and a steady influx of Africans and Haitians have blended and whipped up the most diverse culture in the U.S. today. It’s the proverbial melting pot, serving up the headiest bowl of gumbo ever.
Q: What keeps you there?
A: New Orleans is one big seduction. I’ve written two books on the city hoping to single out what is so magical about it. I can think of a million reasons to love it, but it’s impossible to just name one. It really was, in my case, what the French call a coup de foudre—love at first sight. The moment I arrive, I do a slow, long exhale. My breathing changes, the pace slows, the air is warm and embracing, every meal is a sensation and the sound of jazz is always playing somewhere. What else is there?