Sno-Balls and Funk
A word about sno-balls: On their own, sno-balls are not remarkable—crushed ice and flavoring, sometimes with a dollop of condensed milk. But they are one of the great delicacies of New Orleans. They exist in concert with the environment. Whether you get yours at the Queen of the Ball, which at first glance seems like a wild beauty parlor crossed with a tea shop, or at Plum Street Snoballs, which is so tucked away it feels illicit, the atmosphere is part of the experience.
A couple of blocks away, the atmosphere is also part of the experience at the Oak Street Café, the place I go when I need to recalibrate my New Orleans compass. It looks innocuous enough—picture windows; green walls cluttered with framed artifacts and photographs; paintings—all askance, and each checked tablecloth adorned with salt and pepper and the ubiquitous and addictive Crystal hot sauce. Behind the piano in a corner sits Charles Farmer singing “The Sunny Side of the Street” or some other song you might not recognize. You can’t claim the Oak Street Café has the best music, and its cuisine is rudimentary: breakfast and lunch, a good omelette, decent gumbo. But it has a certain something, a sense of improvised grace and style, old green-and-white tiles on the floor and the feeling of time pooling. It’s a great spot to recover from a hangover, even if you don’t have one.
Farmer is a very skinny man with hair flying out from the periphery of his head. He almost always wears a suit, which gives him a weathered kind of elegance that goes well with the café. Originally from Oklahoma, Farmer lived in New Orleans from 1974 to 1986, then moved to Europe for 20 years before returning to New Orleans in 2006. “It doesn’t make much sense to move to a disaster area,” he said, “but there is something about New Orleans. It’s the only place I haven’t felt out of place. It’s my spiritual home. Funk is out on the street.”