Thursday, August 11, 2011

The House on First Street Deepens My Love for New Orleans

Julia Reed had a decades-long love affair with the city of New Orleans, long before she met her real-life love there later in life. The House on First Street is a love story about Reed's affection for the The Crescent City, from its decadent food to strong drinks to jazz music.

Reed grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, a few hundred miles up the river from New Orleans. In the book she recalls the New Orleans of her childhood as a place people went for long weekends, business trips, and celebrations.

Initially moving to the city as part of a writing assignment as a journalist, Reed first lives in a rundown apartment in the French Quarter. She then moves to a slightly-less-run-down part of a house just off Bourbon Street which she fills with antiques. She lives the happy life of a New Orleanian -- a life full of long lunches and dinner parties -- until she meets her husband to be.

Marrying in their forties, Reed and her husband have enough of their lives behind them that they can afford to purchase their dream home: a home in New Orlean's Garden District. The House on First Street is named for that house, a place Reed sees as both grand and as an enormous money pit. From the very beginning, renovations begin to go horribly wrong and their move-in date moves back again and again.

Then, just after they've moved in (and only to the upper-level rooms) -- and in the midst of a dinner party to celebrate -- New Orleans gets word that Hurricane Katrina is on its way. Forced to evacuate, first to her parents' house in Greenville, then to a family member's home back in Louisiana, Reed and her husband learn to appreciate their blessings.

Other people in Reed's New Orleans life don't fare quite so well, and she tells their tales with frankness and empathy. Although Reed can be slightly off-putting with her name-dropping and her love for luxury items, she seems to have a heart of gold when it comes to those she loves. In other words, being her friend is always a good thing -- for she will go to great lengths to help those she loves, and others.

Countless times during her stay back in Greenville, she makes the trek to New Orleans with her car filled with food from restaurants back home -- which she delivers to National Guardsmen and other workers feeling displaced as they try to bring order to her beloved city.

The house from the book's title does become the center of the novel once again, but as part of a larger, whole-city revitalization. Reed talks about the reopening of her favorite restaurants as much as the final construction on her home. While some might be disappointed that the book is not a strict renovation tale, as the title suggests, I absolutely adored this book.

I met Julia Reed at the Southern Festival of Books several years ago. She whipped up some of her fabulous food at the cooking tent, along with a (strong) milk punch laced heavily with whiskey. She talked ninety-miles a minute about her love for New Orleans, which in turn resulted in my loving her (and apparently, talking about her every year on the blog, as I did both in my discussion of SFB two years ago and again last year). New Orleans is, after all, my favorite city on earth.

My dad worked there for a couple of years when I was in high school, and I've visited many times since just for fun. My friends and I took a girls-only trip to the great city in 2005 (that's me in purple):

Eating at one of New Orlean's many courtyard restaurants
Although Reed is not appearing at the Festival this year (as of yet, anyway), you an still read her backlog of titles. In addition to The House on First Street, she has written two other books: Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena and Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. She has also written a food and drink column for Newsweek (now The Daily Beast) and was an editor for Vogue for twenty years.

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