My sister moved to Jackson, Mississippi about two years ago, and early last year, we talked about the possibility of me coming to visit sometime this winter (because goodness knows I could not stomach a Mississippi summer, even for a couple of days). While I originally planned to go in January, a variety of circumstances made that not a possibility. As winter wore on, I thought I’d have to shelf the idea entirely, until a variety of other circumstances freed up my February more than I anticipated. In a fit of spontaneity, I decided during the first week of February that, three weeks later, I’d go to Mississippi.
When I originally started thinking about this Mississippi trip last year, my sister and I talked about going to New Orleans for a day. That idea stuck in my head hard, and while her schedule no longer allowed her to go to New Orleans, mine certainly did. So, instead of heading directly to Jackson, I hopped on the City of New Orleans train in Chicago two Wednesdays ago and took it all the way to the end of the line: New Orleans, Louisiana.
I had never been to Louisiana at all before, never mind New Orleans. After exhaustive Google Mapping and hotel searching, I opted to stay at the Holiday Inn Superdome, which, while still a Holiday Inn, was only a few blocks from the train station and within easy walking distance of both the train station (obviously) and the French Quarter, where I spent nearly all of my time in the city.
After getting to my hotel, I threw on some real clothes and made my way to Preservation Hall, which, to my understanding, is the place to go to see live jazz in New Orleans. They have four nightly shows at 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., and you can buy tickets in advance online (for a little more) or at the door for $15 (cash only). I opted to buy tickets at the door, though I think if I were to do it again, I’d pony up a little extra and buy them online ahead of time. Preservation Hall is TINY, so I had to get to the venue 45 minutes before the show started to stand in line, and even then I was probably in the last quarter of people admitted into the 6 p.m. show (on a Thursday night well after Mardi Gras).
The show, however, was fantastic. It didn’t run all that long, but the musicians were amazing, and the small space made the show feel so intimate and personal.
After the show, I planned to eat dinner at the Acme Oyster House per the recommendation of a former roommate who grew up in New Orleans. This required (well, maybe not “required,” but it certainly made the most sense) a walk down Bourbon Street, which my oh my! I’ve never seen anything quite like that in my life (though I’ve also never been to Vegas, and perhaps if I had been, I’d be singing a different tune), what with the legality of walking around with open containers, the strip clubs, and all the general debauchery. It was an experience, that’s for sure!
Anyway, the line at the Acme Oyster House was an hour long, and I had no desire to wait that long just to get in, so I returned to Bourbon Street and ate at Le Bayou, which was right around the corner from Acme Oyster House (and had no wait!). I was on a mission to eat as many local staples as possible on my trip, so I went with the Taste of the Bayou, which provided me with (from top, going clockwise) jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice and crawfish étouffée.
OMG. DELICIOUS. I always shied away from Cajun food when my former roommate would make it, given my aversion to all things spicy, but this stuff was amazing. Granted, I hadn’t had a substantial meal in almost 24 hours at that point, but I was super surprised by how much I enjoyed all four of the dishes. I really don’t think I could pick a favorite.
I cabbed it back to my hotel and called it a night fairly early so I could get up at a decent hour the next morning to go for a run. February has been my month “off” running, so technically I shouldn’t have been running, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to cross one more state off my list of Places I’ve Run (I’m now at eight states! Not a whole lot, but not too shabby for five years of running, I’d say.). I ran down Canal Street to the Mississippi and turned around for a nice two miler.
I cleaned up quickly, packed my bags, checked them at the front desk, and then walked down to the French Quarter for what was, to be honest, the primary reason why I wanted to visit New Orleans: Cafe du Monde.
I had never had beignets before, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect, other than fried dough and more powdered sugar than you can shake a stick at. I was very pleasantly surprised to find out beignets are much larger than I anticipated (I was expecting donut hole-sized treats) and quite delicious. I would’ve snapped a photo of the actual food, but my fingers were covered in powdered sugar. Sorry not sorry.
I also got a cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, as my mother insisted I do, and…meh. I didn’t like it. BUT I don’t like coffee. I was expecting a coffee drink that tasted nothing like coffee, so that’s why I didn’t like it. If you do have a taste for coffee, I’m sure the cafe au lait would be a much more enjoyable experience for you!
After de-sticky-ifying myself from the beignets, I took some time to walk around the French Quarter, stopping first at the St. Louis Cathedral.
The cathedral was open, so I walked around for a bit and ogled at the gorgeous building, as I’m apt to do when allowed to enter big, fancy churches.
I did some more wandering, mostly taking in the absolutely stunning architecture of the French Quarter. I was 100% obsessed with the buildings in that area, and also 100% obsessed with the flowers many people had in their balconies and galleries.
I stopped in a couple candy shops on Decatur St. to buy pralines (LOVE), and then wandered over to Johnny’s Po Boys to continue my quest to eat traditional New Orleans food.
This was, without question, the biggest and most expensive ($18.99, I believe? Oof.) sandwich I’ve ever bought and eaten in my life. I opted to go with the fried oyster sandwich, which drove the cost up substantially, but also helped me achieve my goal of eating oysters while in New Orleans, so it is what it is, I suppose. I definitely didn’t need any afternoon snacks after that sandwich!
(Also, side note for those traveling to New Orleans and inspired by my adventures: Preservation Hall, Cafe du Monde [at least the takeout window], and Johnny’s Po Boys are all cash only. Prepare accordingly!)
I walked back to my hotel to retrieve my bags, then said goodbye to the Crescent City as I got back on the City of New Orleans train to head north to Jackson.
My sister asked me what I wanted to do during my time in Jackson, and to be honest, I had absolutely no idea. I’ve never spent any sort of time in Jackson, and had barely even been to Mississippi previously (I spent a week there on a mission trip my freshman year of high school, but that was 11 years ago and obviously not at all like a vacation). I did want to continue my quest to eat local food, however, and eat local food we did! We started with dinner at Pig & Pint, located in Fondren (the “hipster” side of Jackson, according to my sister), and continued the following morning at Koinonia Coffee House in West Jackson.
YES PLEASE. I had been craving pancakes for weeks, and this hit the nail on the head. Koinonia is a really fantastic neighborhood establishment that not only serves fantastic food but also hosts a ton of events related to community development and other issues relevant to the people in the area. There’s some really fantastic things going on there, and I’d recommend it to anyone, either traveling through Jackson or already in the area.
My sister took me on a tour of the city afterwards, which was eye-opening, to say the least. Again, I’ve never spent much time in the South, and though de facto segregation most certainly exists in Chicago, it was a whole different experience to see the relics of de jure segregation – driving through downtown Jackson and being told, “This road was where the white shopping district was,” and then turning down another, perpendicular road that intersected the white shopping district and being told, “This was the black shopping district.” Jackson is somewhat like Detroit in the sense that the city has lost a substantial portion of its population, but unlike Detroit, which bled out residents due to the collapse of the auto industry and manufacturing in America in general, Jackson bled out residents due to the illegality of segregation, which is also a difficult concept to wrap my mind around. The effects of that are most certainly still felt to today in Jackson in many ways, from the empty downtown (the former white shopping district had a handful of business at best, while the former black shopping district was nothing but empty storefronts) to the potholed streets (Mississippi clay isn’t the most durable kind of soil to build roads on, and the vast majority of people who work in downtown Jackson–that is to say, white people in politics–live in the suburbs, and drive their cars over Jackson streets to get to and from work, but don’t pay Jackson taxes to repair the infrastructure, since they live outside Jackson) to the fact that Gov. Phil Bryant recently declared April to be “Confederate History Month” in the state of Mississippi so the state could “recognize its heritage,” which, YIKES. As I said, it was an eye-opening experience, and certainly left me with a lot to think about.
After that, my sister and I went to her friend’s dance performance, and on the way home stopped at Deep South Pops. Apparently, artisanal popsicles are a thing in the South – think cupcake shop, or maybe even craft beer brewery, but with popsicles instead of cupcakes or craft beer. (I imagine this concept hasn’t caught on in Chicago for obvious, temperature-related reasons.) I was absolutely fascinated by this, and my sister was kind enough to indulge my curiosity.
I got a strawberry cheesecake popsicle, and it was every bit as delicious as one would suspect. Another popular thing to do at places like this, or at least at this place in particular, is to order a beer, pop, or coffee with your popsicle, and put your popsicle in it to create a beer/pop float, or to have it melt like creamer in your coffee. Cool, huh? I didn’t do any of those things, but thought my popsicle was quite delicious on its own.
The rest of my time in Jackson was mostly spent just hanging out with my sister and/or her friends, but we did make one last local food stop at Country Fisherman on Sunday, where I experienced my first soul food buffet.
I’ve had most of these goods in some capacity before, but it was my first time trying greens (not a fan, really), catfish (unpictured, as I had some of my sister’s), bread pudding, and sweet potato pie.
And then, after an afternoon of sitting on my sister’s front stoop, talking about life, it was time to, once again get on the City of New Orleans train and head north to Chicago.
This vacation was exactly what I needed. It felt so, so good to get away from Chicago and all its cold and dreariness for awhile. I was in desperate need of some sunshine, and the South came through hard for me: I think I saw one solitary cloud on my entire trip. These February vacations just might become a regular thing!
Have you ever been to New Orleans or Jackson?