In Search of New Orleans’s Past and Present

After a two-year hiatus, a writer returns to New Orleans to rediscover her roots through art, flavors, and memory.

In Search of New Orleans’s Past and Present

Mister Mao’s ssam style charmoula octopus is among the essential new tastes awaiting in New Orleans.

Photo by Paprika Studios

I’m standing in front of an empty lot where my great grandmother Emily’s house once existed in New Orleans’s Tremé neighborhood, imagining what once was. The vacant space is a ghost of my past, flanked by two shotgun homes that still stand. What happened to my family’s home depends on the messenger. Some neighbors say that Hurricane Katrina swallowed it whole; others claim that years of wear and tear made bulldozing the only option. I’m left with pieces of information and my own imagination to create the storyline of a home once filled with eight people squeezed in tiny quarters—and later, a great migration west to California that would continue our family’s bloodline.

I arrive in New Orleans from California in January 2022 to the place my grandmother left in the 1920s, in search of remnants of my family’s life, but also to take in the sights, smells, and tastes that have made New Orleans a permanent fixture among the kaleidoscope of my life’s greatest memories.

When my flight lands at Louis Armstrong Airport, I’m immediately overwhelmed with the warm fuzziness that travel often brings me, heightened even more now by my prolonged separation from these streets that have carried celebration, sorrow, second lines, and love.

This is how I spend three days recalling memories—and making new ones in an ever-changing New Orleans.

A visit to Uptown reveals a middle ground between past and present—as in many cities where gentrification, students, and real estate developments collide with communities who have called it home for decades. Despite these rapid neighborhood changes, the 19th-century Victorian mansions and corner stores selling everything from fried chicken wings to Vietnamese pho remain. I check in to the Chloe on St. Charles Avenue. The crowd here draws in neighbors and visitors alike, with the loud chatter of conversation over cocktails competing with the clanging of passing streetcars.

The 14-room hotel from LeBlanc+Smith is housed in a refurbished 19th-century mansion; it includes a pool, bar, and restaurant and offers contemporary art along its walls and a welcoming porch to people watch. This intimacy and comfort is where the Chloe shines—whether you’re tucked into a corner in its gardens or L-shape seating area behind a glowing fireplace.

The on-site restaurant is headed by executive chef Todd Pulsinelli and approaches Creole cuisine with contemporary touches, like a mushroom dirty rice with fennel and red wine. Beverage director Jason Sorbet’s whiskey based Della Nona cocktail gives me just the bit of smoke and earthiness I crave on a chilly night. Decor in the rooms is personal in its approach. New Orleanian designer Sara Ruffin Costello gives all guests something to discover or relish: a bathroom accessed through a wardrobe closet, say, or a soaking tub framed by a light-filled window.

Venturing beyond my hotel, I head to various locations around the city to witness an art exhibit called Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow. This fifth edition of a triennial citywide art exhibition covers the expansiveness and nuances of Black culture, from colorism to voodoo, and was cocreated by Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi.

Yesterday we said tomorrow is a reflection of the city, its legacies and complexities,” says Keith. “It’s in the exhibition title itself, which takes after that of New Orleans–born jazz musician Christian Scott’s 2010 album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. The show is a living representation of how the past informs the present. With that in mind, we intentionally positioned the project throughout neighborhoods to highlight the cultural cornerstones and rich history of New Orleans.”

Witnessing the works of artists like Katrina Andry, Willie Birch, and Karon Davis, I am instantly transported back to where my grandmother’s childhood home once stood. Through these works of art that captured both the mundaneness and wonder of being human—like Birch’s Memory Flowers for a Heart Broken America—I imagine what life was like for my family in this city, and I’m thankful to be standing here and conjuring up these bits of resilience mirrored in the frames before me. It took Keith and Nawi about a year and a half to identify and invite artists to be a part of the exhibition, which closed on January 23 after much acclaim.

No city scene has welcomed me into its orbit quite like New Orleans’s culinary scene. Bowls heaped with steaming piles of red beans and rice (doused with Crystal hot sauce, of course), beignet powder that sprinkles my clothing, the chew of pliant po’boy bread—it’s in all of these bites that I can recall family traditions like my making my grandmother’s gumbo.

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Sophina Uong of Mister Mao is among a new wave of chefs making a culinary mark in New Orleans.

Photo by Paprika Studios/James Collier

Since my last visit to the city two years ago, a few newcomers have debuted in the city’s restaurant landscape, including Mister Mao. Helmed by chef Sophina Uong and her husband and business partner William Greenwell, Mister Mao serves small plates with a focus on Southeast Asian and Latin American food in a tropical setting with jungle decor that Uong describes as a “tropical roadhouse.” My favorite dishes of the night are the crab claws and radish, and a Kashmiri fried chicken that’s packed with heat and earthy cumin flavors under its crispy skin.

I also make a visit to James Beard Award–winning chef Nina Compton’s Bywater American Bistro, which had been on my must-visit list for years after having had a soul satisfying meal at another one of her New Orleans restaurants, Compère Lapin. The menu at Bywater has a similar focus as Lapin, combining Compton’s Caribbean roots with southern flavors. The dimly lit bistro offers an environment that’s as comforting as its dishes, which include a sweet potato soup with coconut, and fiery jerk chicken with semolina dumplings.

Other tried-and-true favorites I can’t say no to before I leave include Willie Mae’s for that crackling hot fried chicken, Heard Dat Kitchen for a sublime blackened fish that sizzles in lobster cream sauce, and Drago’s for those meaty charbroiled oysters tucked between pillows of French bread (and best topped with buttery hollandaise sauce). My taste buds dance every day in this city; the celebration in my mouth is never-ending.

Back in Tremé, I visit two recently opened Black-owned businesses that have found footing between this ever-changing neighborhood. Bookstore Baldwin & Co. pays homage to author James Baldwin, with various artwork and quotes by the artist adorning its walls. I am filled with pride seeing so many novels at the neighborhood’s fingertips. Just down the street, Botanicals NOLA offers vegan foods and freshly made smoothies with names like “Ya Heard Meh” and “Beaucoup Berries.”

As I leave Tremé, a mural that can’t be dimmed by cloudy gray skies catches my eye. It reads: “We gon’ make it, rain or shine.” These words are the sole reason I am here today, and why I’ll continue to fill my great grandmother’s empty lot with my gratitude each time I return, so that her sacrifices can never be forgotten.

>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to New Orleans

Kristin is a travel journalist and founder of CrushGlobal.
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