Courtyard at Soniat House
Articles

For $15 million U.S., it is possible to buy four quite respectable townhouses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. That is the sum paid by the United States Government to France for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. That fire sale price did include New Orleans, already a thriving French port at the mouth of the Mississippi River, along with more than 800,000 square miles—basically the land west of the Mississippi over to the Rockies.

By that time the Acadians had already been shipped to Louisiana from Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia by the British government. That story based on oral tradition became the epic poem Evangeline with its 1400 verses that assured the fame of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847. Much was made of this theme by artists stressing the cruelty of this forced emigration and emphasizing the French identity.

In Louisiana, the story of Emmeline Labiche imitates the life of Evangeline. After being ripped from her lover, unable to come to grips with this dire situation, she loses her mind and dies under an oak tree that bears her name. It turns out that this plausible, but fictitious, tale was concocted by Judge Felix Voorhies in the early part of the nineteenth century to develop tourism and to promote Cajun pride.

There is no record of Edgar Degas dealing with this sad story, but his Creole mother came from a prominent family of cotton brokers in New Orleans. Because she died when he was just 14 years old, he was raised in France, but he did paint a large canvas of his uncle and his brothers in the New Orleans Cotton Exchange during a five-month visit that he made to America in 1873.

When we visited this port city we wanted to have a true New Orleans, that is to say, French, experience. Our hotel was in the French Quarter, a luxurious establishment comprised of three Creole townhouses. Two of the houses were built in 1830 by Joseph Soniat, a plantation owner who needed a city house when visiting with his large family. Four years later his son built an even larger house. The three have become one.

As you would expect, this hotel is elegant. Entering through a coach-house-style door reminiscent of Paris, the visitor encounters a flagstone inner courtyard with full-sized trees and a fountain. Parisian-influenced metal tables draped in white linen are arranged around this casually grand space.

After registering at a Directoire-style desk that accommodated not only a receptionist but also a multi-coloured cat, we were shown to our room on the second floor that was furnished with French antiques purchased, I assume, from one of the many outstanding decorator shops in this area along Royal Street. Perhaps all of these handsome pieces came from the antique furniture shop adjacent to the hotel operated by the hotel’s owner.

Twelve-foot ceilings, easily in scale with the furnishings, gave a Southern tone. A white manteled brick fireplace anchored this large living room that had a generous bed alcove off to one side. A cat also came with the room which delighted us. It was clear as the moggy casually strolled in from the open courtyard window that we were only temporarily sharing its room.

My bride, as I have mentioned previously, is a person who takes her food seriously and in this city there is no shortage of restaurant opportunities. Creole food cooked in sauce containing tomatoes, peppers and onions gives your taste buds a wake-up call. We certainly needed some excitement after waiting for almost an hour outside in an alley to finally get a table at Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant.

This Michelin-man-sized chef has created a mystique in America, and every small town visitor seemed to want to try what their eyes had only sampled in magazine articles and television programs such as NBC’s Today show. Frankly we were more impressed with many of the other meals that we enjoyed in this cuisine capital, but obviously bombast in this restaurant market is as necessary as chillies.

Although there are patrons enough to go around, it is clear that the not entirely friendly competition among this city’s chefs is as fiery as a Louisiana gumbo. Perhaps these culinary stars should settle things the way that New Orleans doctors did in the 19th century—resolving professional disputes by repairing to the Dueling Oaks, now a part of a city park.