The Great River Road Trip

Given the painfully cold winter we were experiencing in Chicago, Jay and I decided to road-trip to New Orleans for Christmas.

On the first day, we started from home around noon and took a relatively short 4 hour drive to Louisville. For dinner, we went to Game, a restaurant that specializes in exotic wild (you guessed it) game. We had the meatball sampler with alpaca, duck, elk, kangaroo, venison, wild boar. We don’t really cook meat at home anymore, so this was a nice change of pace. Alpaca is surprisingly juicy!

This is the only good food photo I have, so enjoy :-P

The next morning, we drove down to Mammoth Cave National Park for the “Domes and Dripstones” tour. Mammoth Cave is not at all what I expected. In my mind, caves are giant caverns, dripping with moisture, studded with the glowing eyeballs of translucent creatures. Mammoth Cave is, on the other hand, remarkable because of its dryness. It’s the longest cave system in the world (about 400 miles of tunnels) but relatively shallow (about 400 feet deep) because of the karst landscape: a water soluble layer of limestone capped (and protected) by a layer of sandstone.

Not a lot of good cave photos since they don't allow tripods.

After the tour, we drove down to Nashville for a quick lunch at The Sunflower Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant well off the tourist track. They serve wholesome meals cafeteria-style, with lots of delicious combinations and surprisingly large portions. I really wish there was a place like it closer to me.

From Nashville, we drove down the Birmingham, Alabama, and checked into the Hassinger Daniels Mansion Bed and Breakfast. The service was great, location was perfect , the rooms were comfortable, and (bonus!) the place was super weird. Basically, it was a giant creepy dollhouse, complete with a carousel horse and mannequins in our “Camelot” bedroom.

I loved it. Where’s the fun in traveling if you don’t get to see weird new places?

After checking-in, we went around the block to Chez Fonfon for a fantastic dinner. It’s owned by the same chef that runs the more famous and more expensive Highlands Bar and Grill next door, but Fonfon is more casual.

The next morning brought us a longer drive from Birmingham to New Orleans where we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We stayed at the Inn on Ursulines in the French Quarter. It was a little expensive, but absolutely worth it because we did not drive at all during our stay. I’m glad we decided to visit over Christmas. There were fewer people making a raucous on Bourbon Street, but still enough tourists that restaurants and music venues were open, busy, and fun.

As soon as we arrived, we went to Cafe du Monde for their famous beignets and chicory coffee. Honestly, not the best beignets I’ve ever had, but still delicious and worth trying. Also, chicory coffee is pretty great. After Cafe du Monde, we went to Reveillon Dinner at Court of the Two Sisters. Huge disappointment: a tourist trap, and an expensive one at that. Oh well, you live and you learn.

Things got much more fun after dinner when we wandered over to Frenchman Street. First, we explored the Art Market. There were so many pieces I wanted to buy (especially the handmade jewelry) but we stuck with a small watercolor painting of the market itself.

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Then we enjoyed an impromptu marching band performance in the middle of a busy intersection. Finally, we spent a couple of hours dancing and listening to live music at 30/90. If you get a chance, check out the music of Hyperphlyy.

On Christmas morning, we got up early to explore the city. (The only people walking around the French Quarter at 8am are the truly committed drunks and the runners. My kind of people.) We spent a couple of hours on a self-guided walking tour that showed us many of the major historical highlights as well as some random stuff.

After the tour, we lucked out and walked past the Desire Oyster Bar just as it was opening for lunch. Everywhere else we wanted to go had weird Christmas hours or was super busy. Sadly, food was probably the most disappointing aspect of our stay in New Orleans because 1) I should have made reservations for Reveillon dinner farther in advance, 2) it was unclear which places were open on the holiday, and 3) we decided against driving, which made some of the more interesting New Orleans institutions inaccessible.

But the culture, the music, and the atmosphere more than made up for the lackluster food at tourist restaurants.

By far the highlight of our stay in the city was a show at Preservation Hall, this tiny little theater- a few chairs for the band, a few wooden benches for the audience, standing room in the back – tasked with protecting the legacy of New Orleans jazz. We don’t know much about music, but this experience motivated us to learn more.

The following morning, we grabbed breakfast at the Croissant d’Or, a great Parisian-style near our hotel. I wish we’d eaten all of our meals there. The brioche bun with rum-soaked raisins and almond paste was quite possibly the best pastry I’ve ever eaten. I had a second one immediately after the first to ensure it wasn’t just my hunger talking. The second was just as good. If you are ever in the French Quarter in the morning, go there, and bring me back a brioche bun!

After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and drove over to Destrehan Plantation, about 30 minutes outside of the city on River Road. The plantation tour was fascinating, but not in a good way. It was obvious that the foundation that maintains the historic structure had a very forgiving view of slavery. For example, the tour guide noted (repeatedly) that slaves in Louisiana were governed by the French Code Noir, which was incredibly lenient compared to the laws imposed by the English. Slaves only worked 5 days per week (less than we do now! haha) and were allowed to grow their own crops in gardens (ate the same food as the masters! maybe better! haha) and could runaway and return without consequence (heck, they lived near where I live now! haha!)

This blows my mind. The tour guide was also quick to note that everyone had slaves: black people bought each other, and all the slaves came from Africa where they were captured and sold by warring African tribes. Moreover, the white European ladies who ran the house had as much, if not more, work to do than the domestic slaves they managed. (She had to do all the dishes herself, by hand, because she couldn’t risk a disgruntled slave “accidentally” dropping an irreplaceable piece of fine China!)

Not a super nice place to live for slaves, regardless of what the tour implied.

Destrehan Plantation

Here’s the scary part: everything she said was technically true. But it was the presentation of this information, and the exclusion of other pertinent information, that would give the uninformed observer a very misleading impression of slavery in America. Destrehan Plantation was central to the 1811 German Coast uprising, the largest slave revolt in US history, but that part of the story was barely mentioned.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. The greatest offense, in my mind, was this: The tour perpetuated the myth of the self-made man as an ameliorant for the horrors of slavery.

Repeatedly, the guide told us that many slaves were skilled individuals, carpenters and coopers and seamstresses, who were allowed to earn money through their trades and buy their freedom over time. The illegitimate daughter of plantation owner and his slave-mistress did just that: ran a laundry, saved her pesos, then haggled in court to lower her market price so she could be free. What a clever woman!

Throughout American history, the myth of the self-made man has been used to denigrate poor people and blame them for their own poverty. Forget systemic racism or institutionalized socioeconomic inequality. It is much nicer to believe that any man, if he works hard and keeps his head down, can succeed. That is the American Dream and that (we pretend) is the American Reality, despite all evidence to the contrary. To see this perverse logic retroactively applied to slaves, implicitly blaming men and women in bondage for not freeing themselves through hard-work and frugality, is horrifying.

The plantation tour was upsetting, but it was also – for me – an important insight into the revisionist history of slavery we are taught through various vehicles.

After the tour, we drove 5 hours to Little Rock for the night, a calm afternoon and evening after a distressing morning.

The next day, we drove out to Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It isn’t really a national park in any meaningful sense. The area was designated as federal reservation to prevent commercial over-development as a resort town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Woodrow Wilson authorized a name change that made it a national park. I wouldn’t really recommend visiting unless you, like me, have a peculiar desire to see all the national parks in the country.

After Hot Springs, we drove back to Little Rock to visit the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Another place I cannot recommend, another exercise in revisionist history, presenting a one-dimensional and exceedingly rosy assessment of Bill Clinton’s tenure in the Oval Office. If you replace “Democrat” with “Republican” in some of his quotes, they could easily have been said by Trump, a disappointing reminder that politics is theater, or maybe just a game charismatic men play with normal people’s hopes.

The highlight of our visit to Arkansas was lunch at The Root Cafe, a popular farm-to-table restaurant that reminded me of the cafeteria at Deer Park Monastery. It was obvious the staff care deeply about the cafe’s mission: serve good food made from local ingredients with care and attention, building a bridge between diners and farmers. Just a great local spot that truly lives its values, like the Sunflower Cafe in Nashville. Again I wondered why there wasn’t something like this closer to me in Chicago. (Maybe because of the growing seasons?)

After lunch, we drove to Memphis for the night. We weren’t knowledgeable enough about the city to seek out “authentic” dive bars and juke joints, so we stuck to Beale Street and spent 4 hours eating dinner, enjoying drinks, and listening to live music at BB King’s. A tourist attraction, but still a lot of fun.

The following morning, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum. This was, by far, the highlight of our trip.

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It was a powerful experience, from the moment we walked up to the entrance and realized this wasn’t just a museum building. This was the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The museum opens with a gallery on modern slavery. Then you are drawn into a chronological journey through the history of black lives in America, starting with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, running up to the assassination of Dr. King.

The biggest lesson for me from the Civil Rights era is that persistent bigots, convinced they hold the moral high ground, can undo great strides for progress and equality through legislative and judicial action. After the Civil War, black Americans made huge gains towards full citizenship, voting rights, and land ownership. But when Reconstruction ended and federal oversight of formerly Confederate states was withdrawn, the Jim Crow laws sprang up. Numerous court decisions, including Plessy v. Ferguson (argued in New Orleans in a building we saw on our walking tour), further eroded the rights of African-Americans.

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It happened then. It is happening now: gerrymandering and voter ID laws and transgender bathroom laws and restrictions on reproductive rights. Then, it took men, women, and children in marches, sit-ins, prison cells, and courtrooms to turn the tide. Now, we have the choice of walking in the footsteps of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, or sitting quietly by in the hopes that things will turn out okay.

The National Civil Rights Museum, in addition to its compelling subject matter, was probably one of the best designed museums I’ve ever been to. There was a huge amount of information presented in an accessible manner. By the time we exited the legacy galleries, we were both emotionally and physically exhausted. We had a quick lunch at the Central BBQ across the street before hitting the road.

Our next stop was St. Louis, where we had St. Louis-style thin crust pizza and toasted ravioli for dinner. We didn’t feel like doing anything tourist-y downtown, so we went a nice movie theater in the Central West End neighborhood and watched La La Land. This was the perfect way to unwind after an intense morning. We loved the movie and the soundtrack.

The following morning, we went to City Museum, a giant indoor/outdoor playground filled with slides, hidden tunnels, and goofy exhibits to explore. Definitely the most unique “museum” I’ve ever been to.

After the museum, we grabbed brunch at The Original Pancake House, one of a multi-state chain of breakfast places that boast a 6-day yeast starter for their fluffy flapjacks.

And then we headed home.


During the drive back to Evanston, I remarked that I liked St. Louis. “Seems like a really nice place, a lot more like home than some of the places we stayed in the South.” And Jay reminded me that St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in America, one that tried unsuccessfully to implement a busing program to force integration, one that has a higher rate of violent crimes than even Chicago. My highly biased impression of St. Louis captured only  sliver of the reality of the living there.

In the South, the legacy of slavery is everywhere. More black people live in the South, relative to the total population of Southern states, compared to Northern states. “It happened right here!” the historical buildings seem to cry out to you. It was easier for me to see how that legacy was expressed, in daily life and in tourist attractions.

Back home, it’s harder to recognize. In theory, I’m highly sympathetic to the plight of people less fortunate than I am, but I don’t like to have that theory tested in more dangerous neighborhoods through exposure to street harassment, threats of violence, and risk of robbery. I like my little pocket of socioeconomic segregation, though I heartily decry the deleterious psycho-social impact of such segregation writ large across America.

What does that say about me and my ability to help solve these problems?

I’m not really sure. But I’m glad this trip brought the discrepancy to my attention.

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