The Quirks Of New Orleans Culture: Everything Else

The last in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different.

Scott Beyer | February 13, 2018 | |
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Mardi Gras participants hang out in the French Quarter. / Scott Beyer

[This is the finale in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different. The series was originally published in 2016. Here’s part one, about Second Lines; part two, about King Cake; and part three, about Mardi Gras Balls.]

New Orleans, LA–Several days have passed since Fat Tuesday, on February 9, when this city concluded Mardi Gras. The streets have since gone from featuring topless women, gorilla-suited trombonists, and breakdancers with Donald Trump masks, to people enduring their normal routines. That said, New Orleans still isn’t functioning like most cities do, and likely never will. For example, last night I was eating at a local diner, Parkway Bakery, when the place was randomly invaded by costume-wearing bicyclists on a pub crawl. After exiting, I mentioned to the doorman that I thought Mardi Gras had ended.

“Mardi Gras has ended,” he said. “This is just a normal day in New Orleans.”

And that is what I’ve come to love about the city: it is defined by strange customs and behaviors that are understood by locals, if nobody else. In the last week, I’ve covered some of these idiosyncrasies for Forbes, discussing Second Line paradesKing Cakeand Mardi Gras Balls. Below is my list of “everything else” that is exclusive to New Orleans, which I’ve compiled during conversations with locals over many an Abita beer. Needless to say, I probably haven’t covered everything, so if there’s a quirk that I’ve missed, tell me in the comments.

Food

Po’Boys: A common lunchtime meal, this is a sub featuring a baguette-like French bread. Typical fillings include fried shrimp, oysters, and Louisiana hot sausage. Roast beef Po’Boys feature “debris,” which is the mix of beef shreds and cooking liquids that are thrown on top. Locals usually get their sandwiches “dressed” with vegetables and condiments.

A Muffaletta / Flickr

Muffalettas: This was brought to New Orleans by the city’s many Sicilian immigrants. It is served on round, sesame-seed muffaletta bread, and features capacolla, salami, mortadella and provolone. These meats and cheeses are topped off by an “olive salad,” which is a chopped-up mix of olives and other vegetables.

Red Beans and Rice: This is a legacy of local Creole culture. The dish is typically served on Monday, when it can be ordered in restaurants throughout the city. The reason, according to the city’s official website, is that “Mondays used to be the traditional ‘wash day’…Women of the house would put on a pot of red beans to cook all day while they tended to the laundry, since the meal required little hands-on attention. The beans were largely seasoned by the leftover hambone from the previous night’s dinner.”

Sno-Balls: This is when finely-shaved ice is drenched in flavored syrup. Sno-balls are not to be confused with snow cones, which are pre-frozen, rock hard, granular ice chunks sold around the country.

Music and Dance

New Orleans Jazz: Jazz was invented in New Orleans, and has remained different here than jazz on the east coast. It is faster, happier and less regimented. The city’s popular early form was Dixieland jazz, but it now proliferates with brass bands, which, roughly speaking, are five- to ten-member ragtag groups that cover popular hits in bars or on the street.

Bounce: New Orleans is “the bounce capital of the world.” This is a hip-hop sub-genre defined by a faster tempo, stronger beats, and chants and whistles. It was popularized in the early 1990s by local transvestite rapper Big Freedia.

Twerking: Think this provocative dance style began with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke? Think again. Twerking was invented in New Orleans as a way to dance along to bounce.

Buildings and Spaces

Shotgun Houses: A Shotgun house, writes The Data Center, “typically has one room leading into the next without hallways. This style of house is particularly well suited for hot climates because one can open the front and back doors, and the breeze will flow.” This is also how it got its nickname, since one could open the doors and shoot a gun right down the middle, without the bullet hitting anything. The style was rooted in Haitian culture, and imported to New Orleans via the slave trade. These narrow homes are still common citywide.

Creole Townhomes: Perhaps better known, this is the architectural style found in the French Quarter. They are the brick townhomes that feature 2nd- or even 3rd-story balconies. Following major city fires in the 1700s, they emerged thanks to Spanish influences.

wikipedia

Cities of the Dead: This is the nickname for New Orleans’ cemeteries, which feature above-ground tombs. There is some debate about why they were placed this way; likely it is a combination of the city’s swampy soil and low water table, and the burial traditions brought by the Spanish. But they have since become tourist attractions, with many featuring elaborate sculpting and artwork.

Laws and Traditions: 

Birthday Dollars: When people have birthdays, they get a friend to pin a $1 bill on their lapel. This announces their birthday to the public, and from there, strangers will approach and pin more bills, creating a money corsage. That money is to be used for birthday drinks.

Open Alcohol Laws: While the rest of the nation is stifled by pointless and arbitrary alcohol laws, New Orleans ignores all that noise. Bars can stay open 24 hours, liquor can be sold on Sundays, and people can carry open containers in the street.

Lagniappe: Pronounced lan-yap, this is a word that is rooted in French and Spanish, but mostly used in the Gulf Coast. It refers to when a vendor gives their customer a small gift, as a good gesture. It can include putting a 13th donut into the dozen, or giving away coffee after the purchase of a King Cake.

Voodoo: Another Haitian import, this is the folk religion that combines African spiritualism with elements of Catholicism. In the 1800s, Voodoo was a strong undercurrent of New Orleans culture, inspiring bonfires, orgies, secret potions and rituals. Today it is more of an afterthought, resigned to the museums and ghost tours.

Jazz Funerals: One remaining Voodoo ritual, however, is the act of commemorating peoples’ deaths through music and dancing, since slaves believed that would ward off negative spirits. New Orleans’ black community still conducts “jazz funerals,” a phenomenon I briefly described in an earlier article.

Festivals: Mardi Gras is the most obvious of these, but New Orleans has festivals for just about everything, including for King Cakes, Jazz, Oysters, Tomatoes, Gumbo, Tennessee Williams and Halloween. I counted 46 in total on the city’s website.

Society:

Mardi Gras Indians: This is a black subculture within Mardi Gras. During earlier times, “few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade,” writes MardiGrasNewOrleans.com. “Slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. The black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their krewes are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang.” This means they incorporate Native American styles into their costumes, music and parades.

Creole People: The exact definition of what it means to be Creole is ambiguous. Encyclopedia Britannica defines such people in Louisiana as “French-speaking white descendants of early French and Spanish settlers…or a person of mixed black and white ancestry speaking a form of French and Spanish.” In general, the term refers to societies where European settlers have mixed with West Indian inhabitants. New Orleans remains one of the strongest cities for this mixture, and still has Creole influences for food, music and dress.

Cajuns: These were the French people who settled the Canadian territory of Acadia. In 1713, they were kicked out by the British thanks to religious differences, and some moved to Louisiana, largely in the rural swamps. Their culture nonetheless permeates New Orleans, primarily through food. Dishes include Gumbo, Jambalaya, Etouffee and Boudin, and are filled with Crawfish and Alligator meat.

The accents: The strangest aspect about New Orleans are the accents–people here talk funny. If I had to summarize, I’d say their accents are to Southern ones what Bostonians’ accents are to Northeastern ones. They are a slightly offbeat version. Locals here may talk similarly to Southerners, but the words are less drawn out, and are riddled with peculiar pronunciations. This Youtube video is masterful at capturing the dialect that I’ve been surrounded by for the last month.

The people: They really are different here than everywhere else in America. New Orleans is a party city, marked by a happy vibe, and a lack of inhibitions regarding food, alcohol, dress, and behavior. People who grew up here were raised in this culture, and embody it, while others move here because it attracts them. This has undoubtedly influenced the street atmosphere. If one were to encapsulate different cities’ personalities, the quintessential New York City experience might be to ride the subway, where everyone avoids eye contact. In DC, it would be attending a dinner party where everyone talks about their jobs and connections. New Orleans’ “personality” is best captured on a Saturday night outside the neighborhood bars, where people will be dressed in costumes for no reason, drunk and laughing.

So why does New Orleans have all these traditions? Perhaps counterintuitively, it is because the city has long been a port and a cosmopolitan hub, with different groups entering and staking out their culture. As Loyola University New Orleans historian Justin Nystrom wrote by email, New Orleans “was a French and Spanish city for a century before becoming part of the United States, and this cultural imprint endured well into the 19th century…Generations of black and white rural folk moved here, but unlike the rest of the South, New Orleans was a major immigrant destination for the Irish, Germans, and Italians,” not to mention Haitians, Cubans and other Afro-centric groups brought as slaves. “It is a Southern city, a Latin city, and almost Northern city.”

A lot of these groups never left, instead settling into tight-knit urban neighborhoods. “Until Katrina,” he continued. “We had the highest rate of native-born citizens of any metro area, and this helps to maintain tradition.”

Indeed, New Orleans represents a cross-pollination of multiple cultures, who held on to their traditions, while mixing together enough to create new ones. These quirks have combined to foster a genuinely unique culture.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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