THE NEW ORLEANS DIARY

Wednesday: A celebration of cocktails in New Orleans? It sounded a bit like Nero fiddles while Rome burns or even like complacent women knitting as they nonchalantly watched the victim-filled tumbrels rattle by. But once in the elevated French Quarter, all became clear. The Big Easy badly needs to make some money and everybody loves to drink, so bring in the bartenders, mixologists, chefs and hordes of liqueur lovers to enjoy – for the fourth year – Tales of the Cocktail. In our limousine from the airport, a Californian adept named Kimberly informed me that the current vogue for cocktails had induced scores of college grads to take up bartending as a vocation rather than something to work at for a couple of years as had formerly been the case.

On the roster at the Hotel Monteleone: lectures, presentations, seminars, parties and gourmet dinners paired to the appropriate cocktails. The 160-year-old, family-owned hotel seemed an appropriate HQ, its former guests having included William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty and Truman Capote, whose books are on display in the lobby. Surely some of them must have stumbled out of the slowly revolving Carousel Bar, some complaining that it had speeded up during their drinking session. (It hadn’t.)

A Literary festival named for Williams took place in New Orleans in March followed by a jazz festival, a Wine and Food Experience and a Satchmo Summerfest. All were well attended so, despite the havoc in much of the rest of the city, the tourists are beginning to come back. “FEMA – THE NEW FOUR-LETTER WORD” is a popular local bumper sticker.

Thursday: Breakfast at Brennan’s, an occasion so auspicious and concluding with a flaming banana dessert, that it has spawned a full color book of the same title. Most of the famous French Quarter landmarks are back in business including Antoine’s, the Napoleon House (established 1812, although he never visited), the Café du Monde (beignets covered with a mountain of icing sugar), Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (a charming bar converted from a 1770 Creole cottage) and the old Absinthe House (established 1870). This New Orleans redoubt, once the boozer favored by Walter Whitman, O. Henry, Mark Twain, Aleister Crowley and Oscar Wilde (“absinthe makes the tart grow fonder”), has sadly been obliged to serve absinthe’s near-clone, herbsaint, since 1912, when the original liqueur was outlawed.

At the Monteleone’s evening cocktail hour it was difficult to move through the wall-to-wall crowd, everybody swilling samples from one stand after another. Sazeracs – invented in this city – were popular, but so were Rasputins (vodka, cassis syrup, lime juice); mint juleps (bourbon, peach syrup, mint leaves); white-capped Stoli Strawberries and Cream (vodka, strawberry purée, cointreau, whipped cream); and a noxious blend called Dirty Laundry (bourbon, triple sec, grenadine, orange bitters, lime juice, lemon, champagne). Personally, I favored the Bananas Foster (rum, banana, cinnamon, ice cream).

Friday: After enjoying sessions about pairing cocktails with food, setting up a home bar, and drinks that taste like desserts, today’s dissertation by Ted Breaux on absinthe had been keenly waited; the room was jam-packed, eager listeners spilling out of the door. Probably the trendiest of all current drinks, especially among younger drinkers, absinthe is still banned in the U.S. despite being now once again available in other parts of the world. When it can be found in this country it usually comes surreptitiously from bottles smuggled in from Europe or via the Internet. Breaux himself sells it that way, distilling it in Saumur, France on equipment originally created by Gustav Eiffel.

The perception that absinthe causes hallucinations or makes people crazy is ridiculous, Breaux claims. ”It does give you a unique mild sensation similar to the way drinking tequila makes one feel a bit different from drinking a beer,” he says. Although technically prohibited in the U.S., it merely falls into a category that the FDA won’t approve for distribution. “It basically carries the same legal status as un-pasteurized cheese,” Breaux says.

Created in 1792 by a French doctor living in Switzerland who steeped wormwood, angelica root, anise and other herbs in ethanol, it was shortly thereafter distilled by the Pernod family and became “an integral part of the irreverent, chaotic lifestyle of bohemian Paris,” as put by the author of “Absinthe, Sip of Seduction,” a book by Bettina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch that Breaux edited. Such writers and artists as Rimbaud, Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin and Paul Verlaine raved about the emerald-green drink. But chronic consumption and its deleterious effect on the nerves – it is 70-80% alcohol – sent so many people to the hospital that the so-called “green fairy” was banned in one country after another, a ban lifted only in recent years in most countries. But not in the U.S.

Replacing it here has been the transparent, green drink herbsaint, a name derived from the French pronunciation of absinthe. It is almost identical to the original but lacks the wormwood (the exact formula remains a secret with its French manufacturers, the Legendre company). Like absinthe, it louches (turns milky white) when water is added.

Saturday: No less than 37 authors of relevant books attended Tales of the Cocktail and a quartet of them turned up this morning to read from their works, along with writings from famous authors of the past. It’s a wide-ranging subject illustrated by the variety of books on sale in the lobby – “Cocktails Shaken and Stirred”; “Meet me in the Bar”; “Drinkology”; “Bartender’s Guide”; “Culinary Artistry” and the ominous-sounding “Obituary Cocktail.” And thus ended four days of smiles, happy faces and the occasional hiccup. Truly, as artist Benn Johnson observes, “Southerners approach life like artists, simply by getting up every day and embracing the possibilities with a sunny ‘Mornin’ y’all.’”

John Wilcock’s weekly column can be read at www.ojaiorange.com