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What People Love About New Orleans

Lauren Hutton relives freshman year
"I got my education on Bourbon Street, not at Sophie Newcomb," says model and adventuress Lauren Hutton recalling her first year at the two best-known New Orleans finishing schools. "I lived on Bourbon, baby, in a great apartment across from the Court of Two Sisters restaurant. Had a big brass bed that cost me twenty-five dollars. I was eighteen and waiting tables at Al Hirt's place," she says, invoking the name of one of the city's most beloved jazz legends. "I'd work from seven p.m. till three-thirty a.m. I'd sleep four hours, hop on my Vespa, and head up to the Garden District for my classes at Newcomb. I loved working at Al's. Dizzy Gillespie made a pass at me there. Believe me, that's something a girl doesn't forget. Al's was the first to integrate Bourbon. I'd sit at the bar doing my homework. Field all the calls. And listen to the bomb threats we were getting."

"I went back recently for the first time in over twenty years and was appalled by what's happened to Bourbon Street. It was always trashy, but wonderful trashy; now it's devolved into the lowest of the low. The city government must be criminal to let that happen. All those damn T-shirt shops. It broke my heart. Don't they know what they've got?New Orleans is a national treasure. No, it's a world treasure. It's America's only European city. I know it must still have its charms, but I didn't find any. So I'm heading back to do some more exploring. I'm going to bag me some of that city's damn charm. I'm determined to. Determined."

Calm down, Miss Hutton. Calm down. And listen to that sultriest of siren calls: a New Orleans resident reeling off the reasons why "the weather don't matter and the neighbors don't mind."

Emeril kicks it up
There is no more pleasing sight in all of modern New Orleans than chef Emeril Lagasse walking toward you ready to shave a Périgord truffle atop a piece of wild sea bass he's seared especially for you. The bass is presented on truffle risotto amid a mushroom emulsion. Emeril has already plied you with beluga caviar and a bowl of oysters Rockefeller soup. "So good so far?" he asks with a devilish grin.

"Kick it up a notch," he's told.

A piece of wild boar, lolling on a sizzling brick, arrives just when the essence of truffles begins ever so slightly to subside. Perfection.

Emeril all too rarely soils his white tunic in the kitchen here at his home base. He now spends about 10 days a month in New York, taping his hit television show Emeril Live for the Food Network. And to maintain standards, he constantly visits his restaurants in Orlando and Las Vegas. Plus, he's written five best-selling cookbooks in the past seven years.

"I'm a carpetbagger," Emeril admits. "My dad's French-Canadian, my mom's Portuguese, and I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. But I've lived here eighteen years. New Orleans is home. I love the feel of this city. I tell people there are forty-nine states in America," he says, laughing at where he finds himself today—wildly successful, a celebrity, a Southerner. "And then there's Louisiana!"

Emeril's essential New Orleans
His own restaurants: Emeril's (800 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504/528-9393; dinner for two $70); Emeril's Delmonico (1300 St. Charles Ave.; 504/525-4937; dinner for two $80); and Nola (534 St. Louis St.; 504/522-6652; dinner for two $60).

Classics: Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Ave.; 504/899-8221; dinner for two $90); and, of course, Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St.; 504/525-2021; dinner for two $70).

For breakfast: Bluebird Café (3625 Prytania St.; 504/895-7166; huevos rancheros for two $8.50).

Quick dinner: La Crêpe Nanou (1410 Robert St.; 504/899-2670; crêpes for two $18). "Love the food, and the people who work there, too."

Late-night burger: Camellia Grill (626 S. Carrollton Ave.; 504/866-9573; burgers for two $6).

Crawfish pie: R & O (216 Hammond Hwy.; 504/831-1248; pies for two $8). "A down and funky Bucktown place."

Groceries: Sav-A-Center (2900 Veterans Memorial Blvd.; 504/834-4151). "Great fish, and a surprisingly good wine section."

Can man live by Satchmo alone?
The two native musical geniuses of New Orleans are Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson. It's only fitting, therefore, that the historic New Orleans Opera Association stages its productions in the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Louis Armstrong Park. Still paying attention, Miss Hutton?Then face it: you've got to love a city where Puccini is performed inside Mahalia.

Jazz was Armstrong's calling, but certainly not Miss Jackson's—in fact, she considered it gospel's no-count cousin and refused ever to sing a secular song. There was no need, for New Orleans, no matter how gloriously down-and-dirty its many bars and music dives, has always been a hotbed of gospel. How have two such diverse, yet rhythmically similar, musical traditions grown up side by side?"The short answer: African retention," says Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, who for years worked as road manager for the Wynton Marsalis Band. "There are all sorts of stories about Congo Square, in Armstrong Park, being the great gathering spot for slaves. It was a market as well as a social place where people would dance and play music. The French here in New Orleans had different conceptions about slavery than the English in the rest of the South—the French let the Africans keep their drums."

The drums at the uptown outpost of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church are displayed behind Plexiglas, and each time the choir swoops into its Holy Ghosted rhythms, the Plexi shakes with the fervor of all the true believers prancing about the sanctuary. In the mural behind the baptismal font, Jesus is depicted, appropriately so, as a dark young man, preternaturally self-possessed. His robes are perfectly draped. His hair is pomaded into a beguiling pageboy. He is Nat King Cole as Mona Lisa.

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