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New Orleans is the kind of place you daydream about long after you’re gone

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                A brass band on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans in mid March.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    A brass band on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans in mid March.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Chris Hannah, a revered mixologist and co-owner of Jewel of the South in New Orleans, makes a cocktail.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Chris Hannah, a revered mixologist and co-owner of Jewel of the South in New Orleans, makes a cocktail.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                The Sazerac cocktail is a classic New Orleans invention.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The Sazerac cocktail is a classic New Orleans invention.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Rebirth Brass Band, above, performs during the 48th Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in 2017.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Rebirth Brass Band, above, performs during the 48th Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in 2017.

Over the course of the decade since I first visited, I have often imagined myself at home in New Orleans. I think of the syncopated shuffle of a snare drum, the simple pleasure of an afternoon walk with a to-go beer in hand and the candy-colored shotgun houses that sink into the ground at odd angles. And so it wasn’t a huge surprise when, at the beginning of 2021, I found myself packing up my life and moving to the Crescent City for a few months. Why not be somewhere I love at this difficult time? Why not live in my daydreams for a little while?

New Orleans is above all else resilient. Mardi Gras parades were canceled this year, although it didn’t stop New Orleanians from finding ways to celebrate (nothing ever will). In recent months, brass bands have taken to street corners in front of masked, socially distant spectators instead of packed nightclubs. Strangers still chat you up about the Saints from their front porches. My visions of this city may still be filtered through the fuzzy lens of a visitor, but I know I’ll be pretending I’m still there long after I’m gone. Here are a few ways you can, too.

Turn up that radio

New Orleans music is a collage of sounds: it’s the birthplace of jazz, of the frenetic dance music known as bounce, popularized by superstars like Big Freedia, the call-and-response songs of Mardi Gras Indians, and so much more. For an overview of the sounds of this loud, percussive city there is no better place to start than the wonderfully eclectic WWOZ, a community-supported radio station that has been on the air since 1980. Luckily, you can listen to it from anywhere online (wwoz.org). It’s only a matter of time before you start getting to know the various DJs and tuning in for your favorites.

Put on a curated playlist

“New Orleans is not a periphery music scene,” Soul Sister, who has hosted a show on WWOZ for more than 25 years, told me. “New Orleans is the reason for it all.” Soul Sister was one of a handful of local experts I consulted in putting together a playlist that will send you straight to New Orleans. Among her recommendations are a bounce classic by DJ Jubilee and the music of Rebirth Brass Band, which brings her back to afternoons spent celebrating on the street: “It reminds me of the energy and freedom of being at the second line parades on Sundays, dancing through all the neighborhoods nonstop for three or four hours,” she said.

You will also find some classics — the rollicking piano of Professor Longhair, for example, starts it off — recommended by Keith Spera, who writes about music for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. By the end of the playlist, you will undoubtedly agree with Spera’s assessment of New Orleans music “There is no singular style of ‘New Orleans music’ — is it jazz? Rhythm & blues? Funk? Bounce? — but you know it when you hear it.” Listen to the playlist on Spotify here: 808ne.ws/Soundsof NewOrleans.

Expand your cookbook collection

Just like its music, New Orleans food contains multitudes: Creole, Cajun, African, Vietnamese and other flavors collide like nowhere else. A fine place to start is with the Dooky Chase Cookbook, the collected recipes of Leah Chase, who died in 2019, of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, an institution that has hosted civil rights leaders, presidents and countless regulars at its location in Treme, the neighborhood where jazz was born.

Next, tap into the Cajun influence on the city with “Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou,” by Melissa M. Martin, who oversees a restaurant of the same name in the Uptown neighborhood. Martin recommends making her grandmother’s oyster soup.

“I can picture her stirring a pot on Bayou Petit Caillou and seasoning a broth with salty Louisiana oysters, Creole tomatoes and salted pork,” Martin said. “The marriage of three ingredients transports me to the tiny fishing village I call home, where salt was and still is always in the air.”

Cook up some noodle soup, Nola style

“It is New Orleans’ best kept secret,” chef Linda Green, better known as Ms. Linda, told me when I asked about her specialty. Festival and second line crowds come to her for ya-ka-mein, a salty beef noodle soup often eaten as a late-night snack or a next-morning cure (hence its “Old Sober” moniker).

The dish’s origins are mysterious: a product of cultural exchange involving, depending on who you ask, Black soldiers returning from the Korean War or Chinese railroad workers arriving in the 1800s. Ms. Linda’s family recipe is also a mystery (she credits globe-­trotting chef Anthony Bourdain for encouraging her to keep it secret). But she has shared versions of her recipe, so you can try your hand at it at home. Find the recipe at louisianacookin.com/8078-2.

“That will get you pretty close to the real thing,” she said with a wink I could almost hear over the phone.

Walk it off

New Orleans is a city full of history, and it can be hard to know what you are looking at without some guidance. You can feel like you are on your own personal walking tour thanks to Free Tours by Foot, which has transferred its expertise to its YouTube channel. You can now stroll the grandiose Garden District, pull away the sensationalism around New Orleans’ Voodoo traditions and take a deep dive into jazz history in Treme.

“New Orleans is full of painful history, and it’s also known as one of the most fun cities in the world,” Andrew Farrier, one of the tour guides, said. “I think it’s useful for all of us to know how those two things can live so close to each other.”

Fix a drink

Contrary to so many pop culture depictions of the city, New Orleans’ drinking scene extends far beyond the vortex of debauchery that is Bourbon Street. There are the classic New Orleans inventions, of course, like the Sazerac, but for something a little different, turn to one of the city’s most revered mixologists.

Chris Hannah, of Jewel of the South, invented the Bywater as a New Orleanian spin on the Brooklyn. “Among the ingredient substitutions, I swapped rum for rye as a cheeky nod to our age-old saying ‘New Orleans is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean,’” Hannah said.

Have a little party

While it’s impossible to fully channel the spirit of a New Orleans dive bar at home, combine the playlist above with your quarantine pod and a “setup” and you might just get close. What is a setup, you ask? It’s a staple dive bar order that will get you a half-pint of your liquor of choice, a mixer and a stack of plastic cups. It’s also an often-overlooked part of New Orleans drinking culture, according to Deniseea Taylor, a cocktail enthusiast who goes by the name Cocktail Goddess.

“When you find a bar with a setup, you are truly in Nola,” Taylor said. “First time I experienced a setup, it was paired with a $5 fish plate, a match made in heaven.”

Wind down with a story or two

It should come as no surprise that New Orleans, with its triumphant and tragic history, its syncretic culture and its pervasive love of fun, is a place of stories. There is a wide canon of literature to choose from. For something recent, pick up “The Yellow House,” a memoir by Sarah M. Broom, which New York Times book critic Dwight Garner called “forceful, rolling and many-chambered.”

Going further back in time, try “Coming Through Slaughter,” a fictionalized rendition of the life of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden by Michael Ondaatje.

If you are in the mood for a documentary, Clint Bowie, artistic director of the New Orleans Film Festival, recommends Lily Keber’s “Buckjumping,” which spotlights the city’s dancers.

For something fictional, Bowie points to “Eve’s Bayou,” directed by Kasi Lemmons. It’s hard to forget that New Orleans is a city built on a swamp when you feel the crushing humidity or lose your footing on ruptured streets, and this movie will take you farther into that ethereal environment.

“Set in the Louisiana bayou country in the ’60s, we could think of no better film to spark Southern Gothic daydreams about a visit to the Spanish moss-draped Louisiana swamps,” Bowie said.

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