Monday, December 28, 2009

New Orleans Wrap-up

Click here to see more of the pictures I took.

I need to reiterate the insanity of cars being let into the French Quarter. On Saturday night the Quarter was predictably packed with people. And at every intersection there was a traffic jam. The police were out in numerous places trying to direct traffic. What were all these people doing driving around the FQ? There’s no place to park near the restaurants and bars. The FQ is small enough that you can park on the outside and walk anywhere in it.

Here’s a picture that captures the extreme narrow dimensions of the shotgun homes. I really would have liked to see the inside of one to see what the layout was like.

From peering down into the alleys and over some of the fences, it's clear that many people have impressively large yards.

Overall, it was a good trip. My only criticism of New Orleans as a tourist destination is that it lacks an anchor tourist attraction -- there's no major museum or cultural site. Even a relatively small city like Philadelphia has numerous attractions that you could spend hours in, such as: The Art Museum, Independence Hall area, UPenn Museum, The Philadelphia Orchestra, etc. The biggest thing is the French Quarter, which after 3 days, I'm ready for new scenery.

The next time I go I’m not going to stay in the FQ. The Garden District seems like the ideal place to stay: the area restaurants are better, prices are lower, you don’t get raped on the parking (all the FQ lots started at $20 for 24 hours with no in-out), and the trolley will get you downtown and into the FQ in 10 minutes (and it only costs $1.25).

Tacky Picasa slideshow:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Orleans: Day 3

I focused on museums today.

The first stop was the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, which is a museum dedicated to the early history of pharmaceutical drugs in America. Among the many facts I learned, was that when heroin was first introduced, the majority of addicts were women because they did not have a vice -- respectable women did not get drunk. As the museum put it, men would go out to bars to get plastered, and women would stay home and get high.

After that I went to the Louisiana State Museum. Housed in the Cabildo, the site of the Louisiana Purchase Transfer, its permanent exhibition is dedicated to the history of Louisiana from pre-colonization up through Reconstruction.

In the afternoon I decided to do something touristy and went to Cafe Du Monde. It's famous for its coffee and beignets -- fried dough covered with a cup of powdered sugar . The line moved incredibly slowly -- I waited 20 minutes. I could not understand what was taking so long because there are really only two things that you can order: coffee and/or beignets. When I got to the head of the line I found up what the hold up was. The Cafe sold something called "black coffee," that apparently no one had heard of before. Person after person asked, "what's in the black coffee?" I blame this on Starbucks.

I didn't think the coffee was anything special -- it was really pretty bland -- but the beignets were delicious. Only if there was a way to combine bacon with them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

New Orleans: Day 2

Today I went to the Lower Ninth Ward to check out the "Brad Pitt Homes" -- homes built by his Make It Right Foundation. The New York Times recently ran an article on them.

I decided to skip paying for the bus tour of the Ward -- it's $35 and the reviews were highly iffy.

The houses are very cool; they all have an avant-garde look, but because different architects designed the homes, there is lots of variety.

The Times articles says the homes have been criticized for placing form over function -- had the destroyed homes been replaced with the same style of shotgun homes, many more homes could be built for the same money as the Pitt homes. The shotgun homes are hideous. When you build a neighborhood that looks like a ghetto, it's going to become a ghetto. People do not have any pride in where they live; they do not take care of the neighborhood. Pitt's homes are all clustered together; despite the barren landscape that surrounds them, the cluster looks like a warm and inviting place to live. It's a clever way to reinvent the neighborhood.

As for the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward, it was pretty desolate. It looks like most of the debris has been cleared. There are still some dilapidated homes that have yet to be torn down, but the landscape is mostly populated with empty lots where houses used to be.

There were some other white people driving around in cars doing the same thing as me, but none of them got out of their cars (even though I had my car, I took the bus there so I would have to walk -- I thought that was the best way to get the full experience).

After the Ninth Ward, I took the bus, then the trolly to the Garden District to see the homes of the rich.

The neighborhood lives up to its name -- there are trees and plants all over the place -- and the homes are very impressive. There were a lot of other people out looking at the homes -- with most things closed on Christmas, I guess this was one of the only activities to do today.

For lunch I found a sushi place -- Montgomery doesn't have much sushi (at least nothing I would eat), so I haven't had any since I left Philadelphia in October. I used the opportunity to stock up. I ordered a 18 piece sashimi tray. The sushi chef thought I was nuts. He kept telling me that the tray was meant for two people. Before he started making it he wanted to confirm that I really wanted all of that fish.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New Orleans: Day 1

I spent most of the day walking around the French Quarter, enjoying that I was in a city that was walkable with sidewalks. The City has done such a good job of keeping 20th century buildings out of the Quarter that the whole place has a foreign feel to it.

Bourbon Street is the PG-13 version of Amsterdam's Red Light District.

Bourbon Street: Strip Clubs.
Amsterdam: Live Sex Shows.

Bourbon Street: Women selling jello shots on the sidewalk.
Amsterdam: Drugs being sold all over the place and the air saturated with the smell of weed.

What's so American about the Quarter is that cars are allowed in it. Half the Quarter is essentially an outdoor mall with bars, restaurants and shops. Every European city that has something similar closes some or most of the streets off to traffic. It's crazy that they don't do this in the Quarter, and it's even crazier how reckless the drivers are in it.

Right outside of the Quarter is St. Louis Cemetery #1. I thought it is neat how vertical the cemetery was due to limited horizontal space (pictured below is a four person tomb tower). Apparently people would form societies so that they could pull there money to buy a large plot of land in the cemetery and then building a tall multi-tomb mausoleum.

The downtown area feels like a Northeast city with its many turn of the century brick and stone buildings.

I was surprised how much of a dump Canal St. is -- lots of cheap retail stores and fast food joints. For those familiar with Philadelphia, think Market Street between City Hall and 6th St.

One other complaint of the city: the streets are in horrible condition. It looks like the streets have not been repaved in at least 10 or 15 years. There are massive potholes and cracks everywhere. Where they have filled them in, often too much asphalt has been used leaving the road quite bumpy. Further, some of the streets are not asphalt but concrete slabs. These streets are totally deteriorating. Pedestrian street lights are also out all over the city.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New Orleans

I've been slow to post lately, but I'm in New Orleans for a few days, so I should have a lot of good material.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two observations

For whatever reason, paying by check is very popular down here. Every time I go to the supermarket I see at least one person pull out their check book to pay. It doesn't seem to be a race or socioeconomic thing -- a wide range of people do it. And it's a real pain in the ass because it holds the line up -- it takes a while for the cashier to process the check. Haven't these people heard of credit or debit cards? Maybe once every three years I would see someone pay for something at the register with a check in Philadelphia.

For a while now I've noticed that lots of people have water coolers on their porches. I finally found out that people keep bottles of beer in them -- I've observed people going out of their homes, removing a few bottles from the cooler, and going back inside.

This really doesn't make much sense since it's not cold outside. I guess I could understand doing it if you have a very small fridge, but it seems to be a common practice. I haven't asked anyone yet what the deal with this is in fear that there is a perfectly obvious logical explanation for why you should keep your beer outside in a cooler.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bacon + Chocolate

For an office potluck lunch I made bacon covered chocolate with sprinkles -- I figured that it was unusual and that people would get a kick out of it. About 90% of people were horrified and genuinely shocked when I told them what I made. One person gave me a look as if I told them that I had killed and skinned their child, then turned the skin into a human body suit, and fed the left overs to my dog Precious. The other 10% thought it was the greatest thing ever.

The shock from people was kinda ironic considering how everything down here is deep fried. My head is still spinning over deep fried Thanksgiving turkey.

The idea isn't exactly original, and the logic behind it is sound -- salt helps enhance the flavor of chocolate -- but I suppose it may be more of a recent Northern phenomenon to try and figure out a way to put bacon into everything.

Anyway, one suggest for people thinking of making this delicacy is don't put too much chocolate on the bacon. You can easily throw off the salt to chocolate ratio and smother the bacon flavor -- it ends up just tasting like regular chocolate. Sprinkles are key. Without them, the bacon looks like something that was fished out of the toilet.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fox News Southerners

I had my first run-in with a southern conservative.

On my flight from Philadelphia to Montgomery, the person next to me saw me reading a Newsweek article on health care reform, and he said, "I hope you agree that the health care bill shouldn't pass." I of course replied that I was hoping it would pass. He then responded: "I don't want to give someone a handout." So I asked him, if someone walks into a hospital bleeding to death and they don't have health insurance, should they be refused treatment." He said, "they do treat everyone." Me: "I'm asking you if the person should be treated if they cannot afford to pay for the treatment." He said yes, and I pointed out that he did in fact agreed that all people should be entitled to a basic level of medical care regardless if they can pay for it." From there he started going through everything Fox News hates about Democrats.

1. Socialism. I pointed out to him that the rest of the Western world has some form of universal health care -- are they all wrong? He said yes. We have the best healthcare in the world. My response: then why is it that the US ranks about 50th in life expectancy? He then rambled on about how we're not socialists in America, we're not **gasp** Canada!

2. Death Panels. He then started saying that having the government make decisions about your health, about when you die, was extremely dangerous, and that's not the government's job. So I said, "you prefer having a health insurance company, that only cares about profit margins, being the one making these types of decisions?"

3. Debt. He complained about the national debt, and went on this tirade about how we should never borrow money, and that in his personal life he never borrows money and only buys what he has cash on-hand to purchase. I asked him if he had a mortgage and he did.

4. Stimulus. He thought too much money was being spent on infrastructure and that there was no public good in paving roads, that people could get by with cracks in the street. I didn't bother to respond to this.

He finally went on about how America was founded by Christians who believed in limited government, that the Constitution says nothing about health insurance, the country should be run based on what the Constitution says, and that the Constitution is a Christian document. I don't know how the religion thing came in, and I thought it was a bit ironic. I didn't know Jesus, but from what I've heard, I think he'd be in favor of universal health care. I pointed out that many of the founders were deist who were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. He thought his trump card was that "liberty" comes from the bible. I pointed out that the context it was used in, in the Declaration of Independence came from John Locke and the Enlightenment. Thankfully at this point the airplane landed and I was able to make an exit.

Friday, December 4, 2009

More thoughts on food

I've decided that the quintessential Southern food is not a food, but a drink: sweet tea. It's ice tea with a few tablespoons of sugar. If you can still taste the tea, it aint sweet enough to be called sweet tea -- you should only be able to taste the sugar. People joke that you know that there's enough sugar in it when you can drop a spoon into the glass and it stands upright.

Sweat tea is served as if it were water here. At my company's holiday party every place setting had both water and tea. At restaurants the sweet tea options are featured prominently at the top of the menu -- fruit flavoring is added. This wiki article does a good job describing the Southern sweet tea obsession.

The other major regional difference is the total lack of bagels here. The truth is that it's an ethnic food -- you can only find them in cities with Jews. But in those cities, its popularity transcends the Jews. Apparently people have tried to open Manhattan Bagel type cafes/restaurants in Montgomery, but they always failed. The supermarkets sell Philadelphia Cream Cheese, but I'm not sure what exactly you're supposed to use it for without any bagels (ok, I realize that cream cheese is an ingredient in other foods, but it's still strange that the primary food it goes with is missing). That reminds me of when I was in Florence. The breakfast buffet at my hotel had Philadelphia Cream Cheese, but now bagels. Really, what were you supposed to do with the cream cheese? Put it on bread?

I've done some mail ordering from DiBruno Brothers; Zabars will follow soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Montgomery Symphony Orchestra

Last week I attend a concert of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra. It was without a doubt the worst classical music performance I have ever heard. Half the instruments were out of tune, the string playing sounded like cats being thrown into a fire, mistakes galore, etc. I was wincing non-stop throughout the performance. I really tried not to, but I couldn't help myself -- every time the violins played it felt like I was getting kicked in the balls.

If the local newspaper were to have written a review of the concert, I don't know what they would have done. If you have any kind of integrity as a journalist you would have to point out just how mediocre the orchestra is, but doing so would probably make you pretty unpopular in a small town.

The only hope for the Orchestra is to fold and regroup as a chamber orchestra. Being a smaller sized ensemble will allow them to ditch most of the bad musicians, perform in a smaller hall that has better acoustics (the Orchestra plays in a 1930s movie palace that makes The Academy of Music sound like the Amsterdam Concertgebouw), and provide more rehearsal time.

A lot of what the Orchestra plays is "pops" music, and in some ways that does a bigger disservice to listeners than butchering Beethoven and Brahms. Gershwin requires the same virtuosity as Mahler (a real treat are the Cleveland Orchestra's three Gershwin recordings -- one, two and three -- the best being Maazel conducting the tone poems). I really wish these small town bands would stick with crapping on Mozart and Dvorak -- at least there are many excellent recordings that you can quickly cleanse your ears with.

The fact that people live in denial of the Montgomery Orchestra's mediocrity is a testament to how desirable having an orchestra is -- it's one of the marks that you're a major city. Philadelphians should be a little more appreciative and supportive of their orchestra, especially considering it is one of the best in the world.