Debra Shriver, a 12th generation Southerner, Francophile, passionate preservationist and jazz devotee, is the author of two books on New Orleans: Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard (Glitterati Incorporated) and In the Spirit of New Orleans (Assouline). Although she is an inveterate New Yorker, living and working as a media executive here in the city, her heart belongs to New Orleans.
Shriver recalls, “Creating both books was a labor of love. Each was written in less than a year. I’d been collecting clips, photography, and books on New Orleans for years. I have always been a student of the city. Both volumes are a great mix of old and new, of vintage, historical, and contemporary street scenes, portraits, landscapes and still lifes.
The first book, Stealing Magnolias, was a very personal book. “There were many intimate vignettes taken throughout the house, like a café au lait served in the morning or a beautiful banana truffle adapted from a recipe I remembered as a child.
“New Orleans feeds all the senses,” Shriver said. “For me, ‘chic’ is another word for beauty. It could be the scent of a perfume, or a bottle of wine just poured, or the color of flowers on the table, or a person walking down the street with a bigger-than-life attitude.
“I opened Stealing Magnolias with a beautiful quote by Roald Dahl: ‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’’
Following are excerpts from Stealing Magnolias:
“I am always dreaming of New Orleans, both in my sleeping ‘travels’, and in my waking hours. Yet, with all my preoccupation with this three-hundred-year-old city, it is nearly impossible to isolate her, to try to break apart the elements of her magic. Locals call it her ‘mojo’, a part-Creole, part-African word, now a slang term meaning magic by way of hoodoo or voodoo at play, or the casting of spells. The old city is at once exotic and familiar, cool and hot, scrappy and elegant, friendly and even dangerous. Her contradictions draw you in, and then, one by one, dominate your senses. Sight, sound, scent, and taste conspire and collude to captivate.
“A friend calls New Orleans ‘Europe with heat.’ She means the lusty, leisurely, European lifestyle is calibrated to an even slower, heat-driven and tropical pace. Searing temperatures are matched only by the more palpable spices of its cuisine—a hot, peppery jambalaya, the African-inspired ingredients of a salty andouille gumbo, or a spicy, roux-soaked étouffée. Neighborhood accents and menus are an irresistible mix inspired by France, Italy, a dose of Spain, and the melding flavors of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Deep South.
“In a way, New Orleans is all about the moment of release, a deep virtual sight that surrenders all weight of thought and behavior, and slows the heart to a restful, rhythmic beat. Sound becomes the most prevalent, seductive element of all. The ease of ‘The Big Easy’ can be heard in a harmony of noises that recall it and nothing else, from the whisper of a dragonfly hovering above a clutch of magnolias to raw raucous blat of a trombone on Bourbon Street. All are ceaseless reminders to resident and tourist alike why it has been called ‘the most alive city on earth.’
Shriver says, “New Orleans came into my life very early. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, but came out of the Bible Belt, and so New Orleans seemed very exotic. It had joie de vivre. After visiting for two decades, my husband and I bought a townhouse in the French Quarter. As she writes in Stealing Magnolias:
“Contrary to popular wisdom, real estate is not all about location. For me, it’s a trinity: one-part construction, one-part location, and the last part, emotion. When all are in sync, a house has claimed you.
“Just before we were scheduled to sign the paper’s, Hurricane Katrina’s force broke the city’s levees, which flooded New Orleans and created the biggest manmade disaster in United States history. We made a decision rooted less in reason and more in just plain hope: we decided to stay the course. We bought the house three months later, in November 2005, as soon as the city’s courthouse re-opened. In fact, we were one of the first home purchases in the Vieux Carré, post-Katrina, and were on our way to become a part of what would be the new New Orleans.
“The house is Egyptian Revival. We can entertain in, close ourselves up in the courtyard, sit in the library on the third floor, or have cocktails in the double parlors. The house is a respite from our lives in Manhattan. Here the pace slows but somehow the heart beats faster.”
“My favorite nook in the house is our small bricked-in courtyard. It is bordered by a series of French doors on one side, and a high, hand-cut brick wall on the other. Here, I indulge in what is perhaps my recurring Proust ‘madeleine’ moment: just sitting an inhaling the fragrance of my late grandmother’s petite gardenias.
“One afternoon, during our first spring there, I forgot to close the French doors at the end of the front hall leading to the courtyard. It was late April and a rainstorm lingered overhead. I turned the key to enter and was overtaken by the mixture of light and scent permeating the hallway from the garden, As twilight faded and night descended, a lone gas lantern flickered in the dusk, amid shadows or swaying banana leaves. Traces of wet soil and damp, moss-covered brick mingled with gardenia, and sweet olive to fill the downstairs rooms. It was as though I had entered my own secret garden. I stepping inside and closed the door behind me. I was home.”