Places I Remember with Lea Lane

New Orleans: Travel Editor/Mardi Gras Queen Tells All

February 16, 2021 Millie Ball loves her city: "There's no place in the world like New Orleans!" Season 1 Episode 2
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
New Orleans: Travel Editor/Mardi Gras Queen Tells All
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Millie Ball, former travel editor at the Times-Picayune, has traveled the world from Antarctica to Easter Island, but is still in love with the city where she was born: "There's no place in the world like New Orleans."

-- Millie first discusses the founding of the Crescent City on a curve of the Mississippi River, the diversity of the population, and the influence of slavery.

-- She shows us the delights of the French Quarter; a "Moon Walk" along the river; and the pleasures of a perfect day in the Garden District, including lunch at Commander's Palace and a strolling among grand mansions and parks.

-- We discuss the world-class World War II National Museum, and other New Orleans museums, parks and gardens.

-- And then, of course, all about Mardi Gras, from the local jargon to the newest tradition -- 'house floats.'

-- We talk of music, including jazz; clubs; and food, of course -- focusing on restaurants that locals love.

-- We end, as we always do, with favorite memories. Lea shares her first solo trip to New Orleans, at 19. And Millie tells us a story of when she was a Mardi Gras Carnival Queen, and what resulted -- the only time in almost 100 years of the tradition!
Millie Ball has won numerous Society of American Travel Writers Foundations’ Lowell Thomas Awards, and writes for publications including the Los Angeles Times.
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine travel books, including
Places I Remember, and contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and  blogs at 
Please subscribe to Places I Remember with Lea Lane, and leave a quick review! New travel episodes every Tuesday, wherever you listen, or at

* Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. On this episode, we're talking with Millie Ball, former travel editor of the Times Picayune. And her hometown is New Orleans. Welcome, Millie. So tell us something first about the history of New Orleans.


Millie Ball  00:41

Well, it's a quirky city and maybe even its discoverers. Its first settlers set the path for it because they, it was Bienville and his brother Iberville. And they came up the Mississippi River they were supposed to stop that was supposed to settle somewhere near Baton Rouge, but they decided no, the crescent said the crescent of the Mississippi River was a better spot, but it was filled with mosquitoes and swamp. And they had convicts having to get snakes and all of this high grass out. But it turned out to be a good spot in the long run. Because it was a good spot. It was nearer to the Gulf of Mexico. So shipping and trans trade could come through. Yes.


Lea Lane  01:28

Well, it's called the Crescent City. I guess for that reason. There are lots of names for New Orleans, but I know you call it NOLA. Is that the way to say it when you're a real New Orleans person?


Millie Ball  01:39

No, no, we really don't we say that, to make it short and typing something but there are different pronunciations. My mother always called it New Orleans. I say New Orleans or New Orleans. Nobody says New Orleans unless you're singing you know what it means to miss New Orleans. And also nobody says Nolan's which you also see people who are hosts of shows who really don't know New Orleans they let's say Alex knowledge. No, it didn't. Nobody here says that. So we have our own languages. And it all depends upon sort of where what part of the city you live in.


Lea Lane  02:14

What are some of the neighborhoods I know there are many, many of them that are very interesting.


Millie Ball  02:19

They're totally, many there. Oh gosh, there's well Orleans Parish, which is a blue spot in the middle of a red state. It's a very democratic city. But the suburbs tend to be more suburbs, it would be across Lake Pontchartrain, St Tammany Parish and Jefferson Parish on this side of Lake Pontchartrain would be like conservative types. But then in the in the city itself. We have the Lower Ninth Ward, which was badly flooded in Katrina, and we have Chalmette and we have uptown we have downtown we have favored Marigny, we have by water. It just just so many.


Lea Lane  03:03

Lots of personality. Speaking of Katrina, I know that was a big comeback. But New Orleans has come through many problems. I know it was hit by fire in 1788. And that flattened 80% of the French Quarter, there was yellow fever and multiple hurricanes, but you always come back, it's got spirit.


Millie Ball  03:25

We do, after Katrina, there's some people in Washington, you know how we feel about them sometimes. They would say, Well, you know, it's not worth bringing the city back to many things happening. Everybody in New Orleans went, huh, we don't feel that way at all. This is a city that cares. And the first Mardi Gras after, after Katrina, which was August 29, in 2005. Was one of the best we ever had. And the first jazz fest that year. I know, Bruce Springsteen came down all these top people. Amen, saying and there's a sense of, it's a hugely diverse city, different types of people and you all live, you know, one of the richest people in town might live around the corner from somebody who's a housekeeper. You know, it's not so stratified in, in economic ways is many other cities.


Lea Lane  04:18

What about the history? I know slavery is something that is our capacity. But what is the history in New Orleans about about slavery? 


Millie Ball  04:28

When it came to slavery, slaves came early here, and we wasn't big a slave market. We've had several show exhibits here on the slave thing, but a place called Armstrong park now after Louis Armstrong was one of the slave trade markets and yeah, it was their plantations all around here. One of the plantations around New Orleans it's about an hour outside called Whitney is one of the few anywhere that is all about The slaves who lived in South Louisiana. So it makes it a different, different aspect from the ladies in the antebellum dresses and that sort of thing. 


Lea Lane  05:10

Yes, it's very important to have both to understand the past. Let me just ask you about two of the most well known neighborhoods. The first one is some, the French Quarter, and we're all familiar with that one. What are some details you can tell us about about that area?


Millie Ball  05:25

Well, it's been rebuilt several times since the Great Fire, of course, was, in turn, what what year was that I forgotten. But the great fire in 1788 1888 really knocked out most of the French Quarter. But it's been the heart of the city. It's high. It's the highest sea level point. So so much of the city is under under a sea level. But it wouldn't you come to New Orleans, the best thing to do is you just walk around it's, it's by the Mississippi River. And one of my favorite things to do is if I'm feeling bad, someday, I may go to the quarter. And there's always a street band playing for quarters or something in front of St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square and breakdancers. And you really get caught up in the spirit of it and everybody claps and that sort of fun. And then you can cross the street and get coffee and donuts. Or as we used to say when I was growing up, we call them donuts. But as new people came in and wanted to change it, they got a little more hoity toity, and they started calling them beignets. 

Lea Lane  06:31

The beignets, yes.


Millie Ball  06:33

And that's right across the street. From where you see the street people and you still see them, actually, a few feet down from the Cafe Dumond.


Lea Lane  06:43

Is there a new Riverfront Park right in that area?


Millie Ball  06:48

The moonwalk, you can walk along the moonwalk. Really it's almost connected all the way back into some of the neighbors of a neighborhood by water excuse me, and Marin and to the to Canal Street. And there's a big aquarium Canal Street and but all along the rivers it's really a nice way to walk and face call moonwalk after Moon Landrieu who was the mayor of New Orleans.


Lea Lane  07:15

Oh, that's an interesting little fact. I would have thought it was the moon. Let me ask you about the most posh district I remember the Garden District so beautiful. Makes me think of Tennessee Williams and you know all the antebellum area. Tell me a little bit about about that. I know that the universities are there. 


Millie Ball  07:35

And when you know they party, they're usually uptown, a garden. Uptown are two different neighborhoods. The Garden District is between Jackson Avenue and Louisiana Avenue. And you have all these grand houses. But we don't have big yards like in other cities because the city is built between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. So you don't have vast amounts of land anyway. So you'll have these enormous houses on release very small plots of land. But yes, that's where Anne Rice lives, the writer and you just have all sorts of people and they do walking tours. There's a what's really good is Commander's Palace Restaurant is there. And that's one of the most popular restaurants in the city. And it's a half a block from an old cemetery, which you can tour and then there's a place called the rink, another half a block away, which is a small shopping center with a coffee shop downstairs, one of the really two or three small, locally owned bookstores in the city. And several places I say that if you only have a day, and you want to go to a commander's for lunch, and then you tour the cemetery, which I think closes at three. And then you go around the rink and have a cup of coffee at the end. And it's sort of like a perfect little thing you could do in a short amount of time in New Orleans.


Lea Lane  08:58

Sounds great. What about the National World War Two Museum? I've heard a great deal about that. Very, very impressive.


Millie Ball  09:06

Yeah, that's the number one attraction in the city. More people see that than anything else. And it was started by Steven Ambrose who was a historian at University of New Orleans, but some landing boats were by Higgins and he was a New Orleanian Landy votes in World War Two, which is how it started. And it really caught caught Fever, fever, but whatever the word is, anyway, caught on Yeah, so you're here I go. But people like Tom Hanks and all these movie stars got involved. And I remember Steven Ambrose wrote a letter to the editor one time in New Orleans to New Orleans and said, okay, all these people from California donating you need to donate to and I remember I sent $100 in and then you were shamed. And we were shamed into supporting it, but it's it's just really amazing and tells you so much about the war. And then they're, they're shorter exhibits to the traveling ones. Like we have to be careful what happened in Germany when they were doing propaganda and doing it as news and that sort of thing. So but it's a very active place. 


Lea Lane  10:18

It gets a great reputation, when I was in France people told me about it when I was visiting the DJ museum there. In Normandy, they were mentioning how good the National World War Two Museum was in New Orleans. How about outdoors? What about parks and gardens? Are there any recommend?


Millie Ball  10:35

Well, those are sort of my favorite things to do when there's Audubon Park, which I just love. It's not too far. It's uptown and Audubon Park. Is right begins on St. Charles Avenue, right across the street from Tulane University and Loyola University which are next door to each other. And there's a statue of Jesus in front of Loyola University with his hands raised up looking toward the sky. And people who go to Tulane say, that's the statue is really saying, Can I help it if there's a better school next door, which would be So, but anyway, you can get off the streetcar. They're taking a tour of the city of other parts out of the quarters, good to take a streetcar ride, you can get off at the Garden District. And then you can ride a little bit longer and get off at Audubon Park and walk through the park. It's 1.9 mile loop. And what's so wonderful about it besides the oak trees, and there's a lagoon and there's an island with egrets on it and different birds all the time. And there's a swan, one Swan, and one goose and they're very good friends. And they they're seeing they're seeing swimming together. But what I really like about it is they're so they're fathers and children, and families, and they're all together in Audubon Park. So it's just seems peaceful when I'm there. That's just amazing place and then a city park, which is larger. But I think if you live in that part of the city, you prefer a city park. And that's where the neurons Museum of Art is, which is a beautiful museum. And the Children's Museum, a new Children's Museum, which is fantastic is open. But they have a sculpture garden next to the next to the museum. And it is is just phenomenal. There's a lagoon in there bridges and sculptures from people from all over the world and just really is a first class place to go. And they sometimes have yoga classes they are in the morning. But just to wander around when you want to be by yourself is just great to do that.


Lea Lane  12:51

Tell me a little bit about what we all think about carnival and Mardi Gras. I'd like some inside information about about the floats and all of that. You know, we know all that.


Millie Ball  13:02

Yeah, we do. We have our own language here. I mean, everybody in New Orleans. You if you come here, you need to know what the words mean. The Carnival organizations and they're probably way over 100 They call themselves crews, KR e w e s, and the ones who have grades. They'll tell you, particularly New Orleans, if a friend of yours is riding on a front float. And these are all private organizations so that members all pay to do this themselves. They spend will say well, I'm on the neutral ground side or the sidewalk side. And a neutral ground is what we call medians. And even if there's no median on that street, we still know that that's the left side of the street. So it may be a street that doesn't have a neutral ground, but friend will just say yes, US I'll be on the neutral ground side of chaos, which is the name of a organization for men that does a satirical parade. But they're all all sorts of them. And the deal is people throw all sorts of 1000s of dollars worth of trinkets, beads and just different things to people and somebody may be a good friend of yours, but he can't he or she cannot give you the trinket ahead of time. You have to catch it from them on the street, even if they live next door or in the same house. So it's it's one of those really weird things. But this year because of we had no monogram because of the pandemic. They started somebody on went on Facebook one day it was just a woman and said we ought to do house floats. Let's decorate our houses. And then some people that were there were a lot of there were a lot of float makers that had lost business and the designers and so it became a way to get them to get some jobs at people's houses well within a few 9000 People had signed up even, even in Europe. And now people are just doing it. I mean, I've, I've got a friend who just went places and bought things, but the places were sold out of the flowers, and the jesters and the things that people were putting on their houses, because so many people just absolutely love this idea. 


Lea Lane  15:22

And it sounds like something that you might be keeping, just add to the parades. It's a wonderful idea.


Millie Ball  15:29

I think we will, because people spend a lot of money on things. And we have, like Leah Chase, who was one of the wonderful chefs of New Orleans. She died a couple of years ago, but one relative of hers has a figure of her cooking on the upper balcony of his house and steams coming out of a pilot. And then we have Stacey Abrams is a Georgia, there's a Georgia House float with Stacey Abrams at the top. But then they're just fun. I mean, this is one street called Harmony Street, in every house on that street has something to do with harmony music, art. Wow. It's amazing. 


Lea Lane  16:09

Sounds like it's one of those things that makes New Orleans what we all love. Yeah.


Millie Ball  16:16

It's shows the resilience of the city. Absolutely, I think I think it really will last. Because again, they've spent so much money on it. And everybody now, we all just ride around all the time it be you began with a list. And then you discovered the list. There are 15 other houses that are on the list and within two blocks. So on Facebook now that's basically everybody's showing, look, I got 72 pictures here. And they want to know where they are. 


Lea Lane  16:44

So we can all share we can all we can all go out. And look that sounds fabulous. Let me ask you a little bit about the music of New Orleans we just traditional New Orleans jazz. And where would we find that?


Millie Ball  16:57

Well, Preservation Hall is still about the best place to find traditional jazz, there's not too much of it you can find in the city. And it's so that it that's a place off next to Pat O'Brien, which is maybe the city's most famous bar, and it's off of Bourbon Street. And then then you just have on Frenchmen street right behind the French Quarter, or all sorts of music clubs. And they usually have a blackboard outside of seeing who's performing because different local performers go from club to club and perform. And there's also right across the street from in the middle of it. There's an open our air market at night that you can go to I had some friends in town and we all bought necklaces made out of zippers, you know, but they have really kind of fun, fun things that they sell at that market. So it's it's nice, but there's just different types of music. We have blues, I mean, our you know, Fats Domino was from here and Alan Tucson. And then, you know, Ernie Kato and just a million people that and right now tank and the bangas they're they're hot number and Kermit Ruffins. So you just have all sorts of types of music and food and the food I know you can go on and on.


Lea Lane  18:15

And tell me you know, it's a mix. I mean, when I went there, I've been there a couple of times to New Orleans. It's just everybody talks about food. Everybody loves food. There's a mix of these wonderful Creole soul French Cajun whatever, it's it's just super, super delicious stuff. What would be your you know what, two places perhaps or three would you say? Try not to miss maybe that we would know about?


Millie Ball  18:42

Well, I think the tradition you know, of course the new restaurants come in and everybody has to go see the new restaurants. But New Orleans Tim does stay more with the ones that we've known for years. Couple of them are uptown. They're not in the quarter. Clancy's and upper line are two restaurants that are very, very popular with locals and so is Bryson's Brights and was a chef with K Paul Paul Perdomo when he first opened and K Paul's has shut down with the pandemic for good. It's not going to open again. But anyway, those three are really terrific. And also Dooky Chase even though Leah Chase died she was what you would do is you would go to Dooky Chase and a lot of the Civil Rights meetings were held in that restaurant. She was a black woman and married into this family that had a sandwich shop and she turned it into a white tablecloth restaurant where people could be black and white people could meet together and have their civil rights discussions. And she you would end your meal there by going to say hello to Leah in the kitchen. And she was in the kitchen until about two months before she died. And she was in there mid 90s And she was still cooking.


Lea Lane  20:02

I remember seeing her I think on 60 Minutes and many shows, she's very famous  for New Orleans.


Millie Ball  20:09

Yeah, wonderful. Yes, we all go down every I have so many pictures of me and my friends with because I always took friends there to meet her to eat the food. It's you know, it's all Creole food, black food, you would have red beans and rice fried seafood. But the big treat was was meeting Leah but she her family is still running it and it's a lovely restaurant. And it has lots and lots of black art in it. There's a picture of Obama in there and Bush in there. Who so with with and I think she said gave some food or serve some food to the Pope. I'm not positive about what he can to entwines did the same thing I think and Antoine is the oldest is the oldest restaurant in the city from the same family. And it's been there amazing. But Brandon's in commanders, and there's just really so many, many using restaurants there really are.


Lea Lane  21:07

I remember well. The podcast is called Places I Remember. So I always end with personal memories of the of the place we're discussing. And I have just the best memory of New Orleans because I think it was the first trip I ever took by myself. I was 19 I took the train from Miami. We must have switched trains in Tallahassee or somewhere up there. And I just remember all these places you're talking about Antoine Jones and, and Cafe Du Monde for the venue days, and Brandon's for Bananas Foster. A lot of it was food, but also just walking around. It seemed like I was in another country at that time. I had never been to another country and it was the closest thing I had ever been to someplace that was so so special and different. And I will always remember that is probably my first great memory of travel. Now you have a million memories of New Orleans. I would like to ask you what your favorite one is to share with us today.


Millie Ball  22:06

Well, I have I have one that people like to hear. Because it's kind of funny. As I told you, there are a million carnival balls here and you have the social ones the debutantes are in then you have that's maybe 15 But the rest of them every every different group in the city has its own carnival, Paul, and their men summer men's cruise and summer women's and summer mixtures. And I was queen of two balls. One when I was in college, and that was where your family you know if your family has some connection, somebody in college is queen and a member of the ball who's much older is the king. But when I was 13, I was queen of something called the children's carnival club that my grandmother helped found with two other women. And my my king was 12. So we were 12 and 13. very precocious age and he wore a he wore he wore a blonde pageboy wig and white tights underneath his tunic. And, and I think he had elevator shoes on because I was taught at the time. And I had a pony through ponytail through my crown in the pack. And what's what's really interesting about this is that he the organization is almost 100 years old now. And we're the only king and queen to ever get married. And we married in our mid 30s.


Lea Lane  23:39

Oh my goodness. Does he still have a blonde page boy?


Millie Ball  23:44

I don't know. No, he's it's gray and sort of going away now.


Lea Lane  23:47

Well,  nobody can top that memory. That's fantastic. Anyway, look, thank you so much, Millie. It's been a wonderful discussion about New Orleans. I learned a lot. And you know, I will hope to go back because it's a great city. So thank you.


Millie Ball  24:09

Well, I enjoyed talking to you. Really it was it's fun to talk about my favorite city because you know I've traveled a whole lot and I'm always glad when I come home because there really is no place in the world like New Orleans no place. Yep.


Lea Lane  24:22

If you have any comments or questions about New Orleans about this or any episode just contact me at places I


Lea Lane  24:37

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

History of New Orleans
What locals call New Orleans
The French Quarter
'Moon Walk,' along the Mississippi
The Garden District's grand houses
A perfect day in the neighborhood
National WWII Museum
Parks, Museums and Gardens
Inside info on Mardi Gras!
House Floats!
Music of New Orleans
Lea and Millie's fave memories of NoLa