Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a little something extra. Like when you order a half dozen doughnuts or potato cakes and they throw in one more as a bonus. In New Orleans they have a local word for that – Lagniappe.
We picked up one excellent word, a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice, limber, expressive, handy word — ‘lagniappe’. They pronounce it lanny- yap. It is Spanish — so they said.MarkTwain, ‘Life on the Mississippi’.
On my first visit to New Orleans in 2015, I was staying at a wonderful bed and breakfast, La Belle Esplanade in Tremé, run by hosts Matthew and Melanie – a fantastic place and an amazing couple. My rooms (yes more than one) were full of eclectic art, antiques and books.
Breakfasts at La Belle Esplanade were a highlight – interesting and thoughtful food choices, striking décor and lively interaction between Matthew who held court (while Melanie cooked) and guests.
On a recommendation at one breakfast, I went for a walk in the Garden District and experienced my own unexpected dividend. I spent the late afternoon carefully wandering the Garden District. I say carefully as the challenge in walking anywhere in the city, including the rich suburbs, is the unevenness (or absence) of footpaths. The concrete or other paving is routinely broken or lifted by tree roots. And I mean lifted. I’m not sure if this was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina’s doing, but the test was to stay upright while still appreciating the surroundings.
The district was full of really beautiful homes and gardens – all in a suburban street setting, but the kind of impressive Southern timber homes you’d expect in that part of the United States. The most striking aspect was the colour palette – houses in lavender hues, vivid greens, buttercup yellows and tropical blues. Many ornate front doors stood tall on grand porches and windows were framed with contrasting white decorative timberwork. Gardens were brimming with spring blooms, adding fragrance and joy to the warm spring air.
I ended the afternoon at Columns Hotel (also Matthew’s suggestion). Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Columns turned out to be a very impressive building in Victorian style with a large veranda at front. A few couples and small groups sat enjoying a drink outside on this warm, if damp, evening.
Venturing inside was like stepping back more than 100 years. Magnificent décor adorned the many rooms on the ground floor. Only staying guests could venture upstairs, but the ground level was a marvel in itself. Rich carpets, dark wall colours and wall panels, antique furniture, nooks and booths.
I ordered a Sazerac – rye, absinthe, bitters, sugar, lemon peel – possibly America’s first and officially the Louisiana state cocktail. I took it out to quietly enjoy on the front veranda, but soon decided I needed food to offset the potent liquor. I ordered a cup of chicken and sausage gumbo, just like a local. It’s really like a gravy soup, but tasty.
A memorable night
Despite its grandeur, Columns also has a community vibe, as indicated by a noticeboard by the hotel entrance. Live music was scheduled that evening for an eight o’clock start. That gave me time for a meal inside. The steak and fries were good, if a tad sweet, due to what I think was a mushroom sauce with bacon and maple syrup.
The live music was held is a separate parlour, decorated with gold trim, mirrors, linen tablecloths and a chandelier. Two older men played guitar, fiddle, accordion and banjo in Cajun style to an appreciative audience of about twenty. The guitarist was David Doucet – of a band called Beausoleil, which has a Grammy to its name and was on the soundtrack to The Big Easy.
I have to say the band was amazing and the people were friendly. I sat with Carolyn and Evelyn, locals who had come especially for the music.
One couple was dancing and when their dachshund would not sit still, they picked her up and danced all three together.
The duo played for two hours straight. A younger man danced with each of Carolyn, Evelyn and me, which was lovely and added to the experience.
I said that encountering this kind of event on a Monday evening, without having planned it, was an unexpected bonus for me. Evelyn said this could be termed Lagniappe. I think it was!
Word Origin and History for Lagniappe
n. ‘dividend, something extra’, 1849, from New Orleans creole, of unknown origin though much speculated upon. Originally a bit of something given by New Orleans shopkeepers to customers.
Said to be from American Spanish la ñapa ‘the gift’.
For more on words in foreign languages, read my blog Say it better – Words from other languages.
La Belle Esplanade turned out to be another bit of lagniappe. I only discovered after I returned home that it’s been rated on TripAdvisor #1 place to stay in New Orleans since April 2014, #2 in the United States and #16 in the world. I think I got in on a cancellation, so if you ever go to New Orleans, plan ahead and book a room. That’s what I’ll be doing when I get a chance to go again.