We’ve covered one of New Orleans’ most under-recognized treasures — its hosts — before, but the truth is that it takes quite a bit more than a little planning and some grocery shopping to throw a party: it takes a good attitude too, and few people can control the attitude of a party alone. That’s where the purpose of the party comes in, and in New Orleans it’s never just a party: it’s a celebration. Now, it can be a celebration of absolutely anything, big or small, but it gives people a rallying purpose, a common attitude to share. In a city well known for its joi de vivre, New Orleanians are more than great hosts, they’re great celebrants, too.
You perceive a place you visit for the first few times, no matter how exotic or boring, very differently than it actually is. You see the outward facing character of the place, the mask. It’s not until you stay in a place long enough for both of your histories to intertwine that you’ll see behind the mask, under the robes, and straight into the heart. In New Orleans, visitors see Mardi Gras, they see the French Quarter, the streetcar, Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street, Bywater, “it’s ‘the Tremè’, right?” and probably during their time here totally and honestly encounter a part of the city they can’t otherwise see: the people. For all of these names and places, there are corresponding actual communities not seen on the map. It’s because communities aren’t merely geography, but history, and also: tradition. Celebrations mark all the proudest New Orleans traditions.
Here in New Orleans, we build “families” to celebrate with. It’s cute, but it’s also functional. They’re the people we only see for particular big events, in these intense, ecstatic bouts, but then fail to talk to during the months of relative normalcy (not that we couldn’t call at any time). Real truth lies in the jokes about an event like Mardi Gras being “hard work”: it is! It’s long and cold, you stand a lot, it’s crowded, the traffic sucks, you don’t remember the last time you sat down to a meal, you’re drinking because you still don’t know any better, AND on top of all that you still have to go to work and run errands throughout. But the celebratory family is worth all that, whatever it is, usually just a bunch of people you enjoy hanging out with, and then, all of a sudden, that’s it, till next year. Because this is the [INSERT NAME OF FAMILY HERE] family. One of our favorite families, and one of our favorite celebrations, is our own Porch Fest.
It happens in April, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival sets up in the Fairgrounds, a block away. Hundreds of thousands of people attend, it turns these quiet neighborhood streets into pedestrian superhighways. We watch from our porch. We get a keg, we cook breakfast, people bring whatever else they want drink, take what they need to eat, etc. We put the speakers outside on the porch, listen to music, and watch the people go by. For 10 hours a day. For seven days (over two weekends, thank god!). It’s the only thing we can do in the neighborhood anyway, so we might as well be happy when drinking the keg of beer.
We don’t do much of anything in particular, but something always keeps us occupied. These long engagements can’t be planned, we all just sit around and talk, watch the people. We enjoy each other’s company. Celebrations, family, company; it’s the people that make a city, and it’s the people who are holding on to the culture, nothing else. To celebrate like a local, it’s important to look beyond the ceremony, the history of the event, and try to notice the connections built by the personal history of the celebration: the memories, the people, the company. It is impossible understand a celebration from a local perspective without doing the hard, time consuming work of making these connections, but to celebrate like, and with, the locals, one just needs to appreciate, capture, and contribute to the strength of the celebration.