Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival
A trip to the annual festival includes craft cocktails, traditional jazz music, and chats with locals.
Tennessee Williams said if it’s not New York, San Francisco, or New Orleans, at least in America, “Everywhere else is Cleveland.” There is no question that the flamboyant playwright loved the drama, decay, and decadence that is the city of New Orleans, but no more than I do...and have for most of my life. As a teenager, my parents foolishly took me there and started a yearning for the place that has never subsided.
Each year in March, I try to deny the magnetic pull toward the strange combination of hustle and crawl that is unique to the city. For the last decade, I’ve gone during the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival to meet up with returning writers and locals in steamy courtyards for cocktail parties and in air conditioned hotel ballrooms for classes and panel discussions on writing. In the evening, there are staged productions of Tennessee Williams’ dramas and on Sunday, all concludes with a Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square.
This year, I bumped into a woman I’d met ten years ago when she moved to New Orleans to pursue a memoir. (It was published last year.) I had dinner with someone who enjoyed success with a memoir of his Hurricane Katrina survival, working as a journalist during the storm. I even enjoyed a modicum of success, knowing a one-act play I wrote with someone I met at last year’s festival was a finalist in a contest. But mostly, I wandered the city, chatted with amazing bartenders, and drank.
Tennessee preferred, above all, the Ramos Gin Fizz, a New Orleans-born classic made with a fresh egg white, like so many New Orleans cocktails. The original 19th century recipe called for the drink to be shaken for 12 minutes to achieve its silky, frothy texture. Figures, so fussy was Tennessee. Happy Hour in New Orleans is a real and beautiful thing. The $5 cocktail is not a myth and they are not crappy, sweet, undrinkable concoctions, but rather, the very same cocktails you’ll order for $12 later in the night.
I began my drinking journey exactly where I did the year before—at Bar Tonique on the now popular North Rampart. Armed with fresh juices and a no-nonsense love of cocktails, the staff at Bar Tonique pour a daiquiri that makes you finally know what Hemingway was on about. Three ingredients: rum, lime juice, and simple sugar. It will cure you of the heat, crankiness caused by the heat, or generally of any silly ambitions you had for the day. Here, across from the cleaned-up, now gorgeous palm-lined Louis Armstrong Park, you can spend an afternoon observing the comings and goings of the new streetcar line.
A word about Bourbon Street. When I visit New Orleans, I barely make my way to Bourbon Street, other than to glimpse the ongoing parade of tourists as I crisscross other streets in the French Quarter to avoid it. Instead, I try to peel back the layers and go deeper and deeper each time, asking each and every local and bartender where they drink and where they eat.
At Sylvain on Chartres Street, I sat at the bar and watched pure magic being made by a young bartender as he perfected the milk punch, a drink made with Bourbon or cognac, cream, allspice and dram, for those who need some help from the night before. I asked him what to eat and was told to order the daily fish. His description practically talked me out of ordering the Sheepshead, a gulf fish that sometimes swims into Lake Pontchartrain.
“Most people throw them back,” he said. But I would not be deterred and thank God. The fish arrived perfectly grilled on a bed of Louisiana rice and local kale. It was the best and most local dish I ate in four days.
On another evening, I wandered deep into the Bywater, the emerging neighborhood rising from the 2005 storm as the most artistic and exciting place to be in New Orleans. It’s this neighborhood that has long housed the incredible New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the arts high school that gave us musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, as well as chefs, filmmakers, and dancers. Popping up are new boutiques and bars, co-work spaces, art galleries, an art garden, and restaurants that require you to think, hunt, and find them. A lazy wander around the French Quarter, this is not. A mostly residential neighborhood, the shotgun style houses are in various states of repair or disrepair, depending on how you look at it, but always decked out in imaginative porch decorations. Here, you must wander through a community in creation and appreciate a good amount of grit for every bit of gold.
A twisted wander or bike ride through the Faubourg Marigny into the Bywater might suddenly land you at one or both places that can only be described as an “oasis.” Discover The Country Club, a men’s club, where you can drink by the pool and meet new friends and Feelings Cafe, where you can sit under a disco ball in the Spanish style courtyard and sip away the afternoon. The ultimate destination is the end of the earth, the levy, and an old military outpost. This is where you’ll feel lucky you have found Bacchanal, the wine shop with an enormous backyard. Grab a glass, a cold bottle of rosé, fill your white plastic bucket with ice, from the take-out window order the magnificent steak frites or an enormous cheese plate with cornichon pickles, olives, candied nuts, chutneys, and fresh ciabatta. Then the Trad Stars, a traditional jazz band, croon away a Sunday afternoon, blasting you back to 1925. You’ll finally get the phrase “Died and Gone to Heaven” or at least understand why HBO shot so much of Treme here.
Another meal and another drink beckons. At Oxalis on Dauphine in the Bywater, someone from the neighboring bar stool will ask how you managed to find it. At this low key, beautiful spot that bills itself as a “whiskey focused gastro pub,” I had a nice exchange with another helpful bartender who steered me to fresh small plates and to the most amazing French fries I’ve ever eaten. I drank a Pisco Sour, made with Barsol Pisco, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, egg white and Angostura Bitters. Smooth, sour, refreshing, creative. It was all these things. While there, I chatted with just about everyone in the bar and then, on the advice of the bartender, did not walk to Frenchman Street, but rather took an Uber to find myself at DBA, a sturdy, wood and brick bar that is one of the most sure-fire bets to see good local acts.
Later, at a courtyard party with a bunch of writers and actors, I shunned the beers and wine on offer to wander across the street to another creative cocktail bar called Black Penny and ordered myself a refreshing daiquiri...to go.