Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Catching Up Over Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at the iconic Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. This open-air cafe has been serving up fresh beignets and chicory cafe au lait since 1862, making it one of the oldest coffeehouses in the United States.
When DJ first arrives in the Big Easy, he heads straight to Cafe Du Monde to meet up with a friend and dive right into the local culture over mounds of powdered sugar. The cafe is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week except on Christmas Day and during hurricanes. DJ likes to go mid-morning, when there’s a lively but not overwhelming crowd. He grabs a table outside under the green and white striped awnings and settles in to soak up the atmosphere.
The menu is simple – beignets, cafe au lait, and orange juice. DJ orders a plate of hot, freshly-fried beignets, still steaming slightly when they arrive at the table. The yeast dough fritters are absolutely smothered in confectioner’s sugar. DJ takes a bite and the crisp exterior gives way to a warm, pillowy interior. The sugar manages to puff up in a little cloud before settling gently back down on the plate. It’s a pure sensory experience.
Between bites of beignet, he and his friend catch up over steaming mugs of dark, chicory-laced coffee. Made with roasted chicory root added right to the grind, the cafe au lait has a rich, complex flavor and a smooth, creamy consistency thanks to the melted milk foam floated on top. DJ finds the bitter notes of the chicory balance perfectly with the sweetness of the beignets.
Looking around, DJ takes in the sights and sounds of the bustling cafe. Servers in aprons zip from table to table balancing large round trays laden with orders. A three-piece jazz band plays lively ragtime music as patrons chat and laugh. The crumbs from powdered sugar-dusted beignets cover almost every surface.
What else is in this post?
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Catching Up Over Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Browsing the Shelves at Garden District Book Shop
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Learning the History of Voodoo at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Experiencing Live Jazz on Frenchmen Street
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Strolling Through St. Louis Cemetery #1
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Sampling Cajun Cuisine at Cochon Butcher
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Wandering the French Quarter's Colorful Streets
- Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Soaking in the Atmosphere at Lafayette Cemetery #1
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Browsing the Shelves at Garden District Book Shop
After the sweet indulgence of Cafe du Monde's famous beignets, DJ makes his way over to Magazine Street. He's headed to the charming independent bookshop Garden District Book Shop, nestled right in the middle of the bustling shopping district.
Garden District Book Shop originally opened in 1975, making it one of the oldest independent bookstores in New Orleans. The shop eventually moved locations to its current perch on Magazine Street. As soon as DJ steps inside, that true indie bookstore vibe washes over him. The shelves are packed tight with books arranged in sections like Local Interest, Nature & Science, and more. Stacks of new and used books decorate every surface. They even have a dedicated shelf right up front just for cookbooks featuring Louisiana cuisine.
DJ immediately gravitates to the Local Interest section. He loves perusing bookstores when he travels to get a real feel for the place and its people. The shop owners have curated an extensive collection of New Orleans history, art, culture, music, ghost stories, and more — DJ knows he'll find something unique here. He selects a book of colorful photography capturing New Orleans jazz musicians in action. Flipping through the vibrant images, he gains a deeper appreciation for the city's profound musical legacy.
Continuing his browsing, DJ discovers several volumes dedicated to exploring New Orleans' distinctive architecture and neighborhoods. He settles on a walking tour guide covering architectural highlights of the French Quarter and Garden District. Reading a few pages provides fascinating insights into the multicultural history behind the Creole cottages, shotgun-style houses, and stately mansions that give New Orleans its singular visual identity.
In keeping with NOLA's famed occult traditions, an entire bookcase is devoted to titles exploring the city's voodoo past and haunted present. DJ selects a ghost tour guide recounting the eerie legends surrounding the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. He's excited to dig into more of the sinister side of the Big Easy later on during his visit.
DJ purchases a big stack of books for some entertaining reading before, during, and after this weekend. Supporting local independent bookshops like Garden District Book Shop that curate unique collections to provide a sense of place is important to him wherever he travels. Perusing the shelves here has already helped DJ feel immersed in the spirit of New Orleans.
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Learning the History of Voodoo at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
With his interest piqued after browsing the selection of occult books at Garden District Book Shop, DJ decides to dive deeper into New Orleans’ voodoo past by visiting the historic Voodoo Museum and Cultural Center. Tucked away on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter, this unique museum provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity for travelers to learn about the origins and evolution of Louisiana Voodoo.
The museum is located in the former residence of renowned Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Nicknamed the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” Laveau was a legendary figure known for her prowess in gris-gris, voodoo rituals, and more during the 19th century. Today, Laveau’s former home has been converted into an immersive museum that honors her legacy and the artifacts she left behind.
As soon as DJ steps inside, he’s captivated by the intriguing exhibits, artwork, and relics from hundreds of years of voodoo history in Louisiana. One of the highlights is an expansive courtyard featuring Voodoo alters, candles, and offerings that allow DJ to gain insight into authentic rituals and ceremonies. DJ is amazed by the detailed vintage artifacts on display, from gris-gris bags and voodoo dolls to Laveau’s own spellbooks.
In addition, the museum offers informational guided tours led by knowledgeable staff. DJ opts for a tour to hear tales from expert guides about historic figures like Marie Laveau and Dr. John, another famed 19th century Voodoo practitioner. Listening to accounts of their activation in the Voodoo community of New Orleans provides intriguing context DJ just can’t get from a book.
The museum also screens an original 20-minute documentary detailing the origins and misconceptions of Voodoo as a religion and spiritual practice. DJ settles in to watch, gaining a nuanced understanding of the rituals developed from African spiritual traditions and Catholicism. Far from the sinister Hollywood stereotypes, DJ learns the real history is one of community, healing, and reverence for one’s ancestors.
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Experiencing Live Jazz on Frenchmen Street
If there’s one thing New Orleans is renowned for, it’s jazz music. And there’s no better place to soak in the Big Easy’s live jazz scene than Frenchmen Street. Just steps from the chaos of Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street offers an authentic showcase of New Orleans' profound musical legacy.
As an independent bookshop owner and jazz enthusiast, experiencing live NOLA jazz is high on DJ's New Orleans itinerary. He heads to Frenchmen Street in the evenings to follow the sounds of blaring trumpets, improvised piano melodies, and bluesy vocals spilling out of the street's abundant bars and clubs. Meandering from venue to venue, DJ revels in the diversity of live jazz on display from both veteran players and up-and-comers.
At d.b.a., DJ grabs a seat at the bar and orders an Abita. As he sips his beer, he closes his eyes and absorbs the wailing saxophone solos and driving bass lines from the band on stage. According to DJ, "the steady stream of impressive musicians here always makes me feel lucky to catch such an intimate show in a bar setting."
Just down the block at The Maison, DJ indulges in some stick-to-your-bones Louisiana fare while tapping his feet to the funky brass band joyfully jamming on stage. He's amazed by their youthful energy and improvisational skills. "It just reiterates that jazz is still evolving and renewing itself," notes DJ.
DJ's favorite part of Frenchmen Street is catching unforgettable collaborative shows. He once saw renowned trumpet player Kermit Ruffins suddenly join an up-and-coming band on stage for an electrifying jam session. And it's not unusual for musicians to be out in the audience on their night off, then be pulled on stage by other performers to riff back and forth.
On his final night in the Big Easy, DJ stops by The Spotted Cat to end his trip on a high note. The cozy corner venue oozes vintage vibes with its distressed plaster walls, velvet paintings, and tin ceiling. A stellar jazz guitarist and his band have the crowd completely enraptured. According to DJ, “it was the perfect way to conclude an incredible weekend immersed in the one-of-a-kind jazz culture of New Orleans.”
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Strolling Through St. Louis Cemetery #1
With its lush greenery and imposing above-ground tombs, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 offers an evocative look into New Orleans' unique funerary traditions and history. As DJ strolls along the cemetery's narrow avenues on a sunny day, he contemplates how this necropolis exemplifies the city's distinctive French, African, and Caribbean roots.
Founded in 1789, St. Louis No. 1 is the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans. Due to the low elevation and frequent flooding, burying bodies underground was not a viable option. So the city adopted the Spanish custom of above-ground burials in family tombs and mausoleums. These architecturally ornate stone and brick structures dominate the landscape, stacked side-by-side like tiny cities for the dead.
Wandering past the crowded tombs, DJ admires the elaborate engravings adorning their facades. Names, dates, and effigies from decades of burials decorate the weathered surfaces. The variety of cultural symbols reflects the diversity of those laid to rest. DJ spots crosses laid side-by-side with upside-down fleur-de-lis, representing French heritage even in death.
Turning a corner, DJ suddenly finds himself face-to-face with the legendary tomb of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Her striking above-ground grave stands out with its rich red brick, nine-foot-tall walls, and triple crosses marked on top. Seeing those infamous "X"s in person gives DJ chills. For decades, worshipers have scrawled crosses or circles in hopes Marie's spirit will grant their wishes from beyond the grave. Even today, DJ notices flowers, candles and other offerings around the base, proving her legend lives on.
Ambling onward through the maze of crypts, DJ stumbles upon a unique pyramid-shaped tomb etched with imagery of the Eye of Providence. Its mysterious symbolism piques his curiosity. Next he spots a simple gravestone engraved entirely in Spanish, hinting at the site's multicultural past. Surrounded on all sides by the ornate final resting places of strangers, DJ can't help feeling moved while reflecting on the cemetery's profound sense of history.
However, not all the tombs remain sealed and somber. DJ notices some have been cracked open by time, offering a glimpse of exposed human remains inside. While unsettling, these fractured facades reinforce that this space isn't just art and architecture – it's the very real, final home for generations of people.
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Sampling Cajun Cuisine at Cochon Butcher
After an active day exploring the Big Easy, DJ works up quite an appetite. To satiate his hunger, he heads to Cochon Butcher to indulge in some mouthwatering Cajun comfort food. Tucked away on a side street in the Warehouse District, this laidback eatery run by award-winning Chef Donald Link serves up deliciously authentic regional cuisine.
As soon as DJ steps inside, the smoky aromas whet his appetite. This butcher shop and cafe oozes rustic ambiance with its tiled floors, rough wood accents, and strings of dangling sausages. DJ settles into a barstool at the counter overlooking the open kitchen. From this perch, he can watch the chefs hard at work smoking meats, frying up dishes, and assembling po' boys.
DJ orders a juicy muffuletta stacked sky-high with assorted deli meats and melty cheese, all layered between two crisp pieces of the round Sicilian olive bread this sandwich is known for. Biting into the generous layers, DJ first tastes the bright, briny flavor of the olive salad before sinking his teeth into the peppery house-cured meat and gooey cheese. He notes, "it's a perfect synthesis of New Orleans' French, Italian, and German influences."
Next, DJ digs into a hearty bowl of smoky gumbo brimming with plump shrimp, chicken, Andouille sausage, and okra stewed in a dark roux-based broth. The rich depths of flavor in the stew pay homage to the Cajun tradition of the shared community pot of gumbo. Between spoonfuls, DJ remarks "you can just taste the heritage, passed down through generations, in its complex flavors."
For his final savory course, DJ orders up a Southern-style platter of slow-smoked brisket, dripping with juices and topped with a crunchy slaw. The fork-tender brisket exemplifies Chef Link's dedication to Texas-style pit-smoking methods. DJ is amazed that something so melt-in-your-mouth tender can also deliver such mighty smoked meat flavor.
DJ decides to skip the bread pudding in favor of something more refreshingly sweet. He finishes his meal with a tall cold glass of Steen's cane syrup soda. The crisp, grassy drink flavored with pure cane syrup provides the perfect palate cleanser after so many rich, hearty dishes. Sipping the local specialty, DJ thinks this beverage sums up the regional flavors that make Cajun cuisine so unique.
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Wandering the French Quarter's Colorful Streets
No visit to the Big Easy would be complete without leisurely meandering through the rainbow of sights and sounds that is the historic French Quarter. For DJ, spending an afternoon getting delightfully lost in this vibrant neighborhood provides an immersive glimpse into quintessential New Orleans.
Arriving at Jackson Square, a sunny plaza flanked by street performers and the soaring spires of St. Louis Cathedral, DJ begins his amble down Chartres Street. Wrought-iron balconies and floor-to-ceiling shutters in shades of emerald, sapphire, and gold decorate the buildings that line the cobblestone road. DJ feels transported back in time by the preserved 18th-century architecture.
At every turn, live jazz music drifts through the air from buskers tucked into alcoves and clusters of brass bands parading down the street. DJ taps his foot along with a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" that follows him for a block. The joyful celebration of music that permeates the Quarter invigorates DJ's afternoon stroll.
Weaving his way towards Bourbon Street, DJ pauses to indulge in a quintessential NOLA treat: pralines. At a candy shop overflowing with sugary confections, he samples the iconic Southerm pecan patties enrobed in creamy vanilla and buttery caramel. Their melt-in-your-mouth sweetness provides the perfect pick-me-up.
Refueled by sugar, DJ wanders down Bourbon Street, taking in the crowds milling about its legendary bars and rowdy, neon-lit strip clubs. Though not his usual scene, DJ appreciates glimpsing this side of the city's hard-partying reputation. He weaves through bachelor parties and raucous revelers spilling onto balconies overhead.
Needing a reprieve from the sensory overload of Bourbon Street, DJ slips down a quiet side street followed by the faint sound of a wandering Dixieland band. Soon, he emerges onto a sunny square centered around a towering cathedral oak tree, its gnarled branches draped in ribbons and beads. Streetside psychics and tarot readers have set up folding tables draped with fabrics under the oak's sprawling canopy.
DJ takes a seat at a table and decides to receive a quick reading. The psychic immediately intuits he's a visitor and describes visions of DJ's travels and adventures across the globe. Though skeptical, DJ still enjoys the performance and insight into New Orleans' spiritual traditions.
Big Easy Insider: A Weekend in New Orleans With Bookshop Owner DJ Johnson - Soaking in the Atmosphere at Lafayette Cemetery #1
Situated in the Garden District, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is almost as old as its more famous French Quarter counterpart, dating back to 1833. The cemetery was built to accommodate the influx of Americans that flocked to New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, seeking to be laid to rest in the Protestant tradition.
Armed with his newly purchased walking tour guide, DJ arrives at the wrought iron gates of the historic cemetery on a balmy New Orleans afternoon. Right away, he’s struck by the architectural uniformity compared to the ramshackle tombs of St. Louis No. 1. Here, soaring marble obelisks, dignified brick crypts, and statuesque Greco-Roman mausoleums line up in neat rows along pristinely manicured grass avenues.
DJ slowly meanders along the cemetery lanes, admiring the ornate craftsmanship and skillful stonemasonry decorating the stately memorials. He pauses to study the symbolism etched into the tombs, hinting at the lives of those interred within. Military uniforms and rifles adorn the graves of fallen soldiers while clasped hands signify an unbroken matrimonial bond.
Turning a corner, DJ comes face-to-face with the central feature of the cemetery – the crumbling, column-lined tomb of a 19th century socialite dubbed “The City of the Dead.” Though worn by time, the decaying mausoleum still emanates the mournful, romantic aura that so enthralled early tourists.
Ambling onward down the grassy avenues, DJ is struck by the landscape abounding with greenery despite being a space for the deceased. Towering oaks wrapped in draperies of wispy Spanish moss keep watch from above. Lush ferns sprout between cracked brickwork as vines slowly reclaim the deteriorating memorials. Nature appears alive and determined amidst the city of the dead.
As DJ nears the rear of the cemetery, a strange collection of small offerings and trinkets at the foot of one tomb catch his eye. His guidebook reveals this to be the grave of Marie Laveau’s daughter – and some still believe her spirit has inherited her mother’s voodoo powers. DJ notices handwritten notes asking Marie for blessings along with gifts of flowers, coins and candles.