Saturday, October 26, 2019

Barracks Street Jawbreaker

Hoo, boy.  Where Bayou Road intersects with Barracks Street there's a triangular lot.  The building on the Johnson Street side of the triangle used to be a grocery store, a greengrocer with general store sundries and a butcher counter with a bar in the back.  Your typical New Orleans corner grocery back in the day.

Barracks Street may be the most undeservedly unlauded street in New Orleans.

For years after Katrina, the building was a fence installation office.  Times change.  You'll know the building when you see it.  Barracks Street, like Bayou Road, is a very interesting street.  Barracks Street, like Bayou Road, has a lot of history most professional historians overlook.  

Professional historians, especially the ones who teach in schools, but, also, the kind who write best selling books and have podcasts, or, who show up to offer opinions on TV shows about ancient aliens, or ,who did nothing more but get themselves some accredited sheepskin, they got their smarts from burying their noses in books.  A real historian, an agent in the field, he or she is out and about like Indiana Jones, discovering history and putting all its pieces together.  Academia isn't always academic.  There is history all around us in New Orleans.

The Barracks Street Jawbreaker was a particular kind of hard, round candy made by a certain Juliette Mirabeaux.  She lived on Barracks Street and that how this candy got its name.  References to it appear in the local newspapers, the New Orleans Bee, the City Item, the Picayune, the Mascot, the Times-Democrat, etcetera.

There was a popular song at one time called "The Barracks Street Jawbreaker Rag."  Hoochie-coochie girls used to dance to it.  

In Creole society, it has never been polite to chew gum in public.  People could smoke cigars or pipes, even cigarettes, eventually, even women, and no one will bat an eye.  It's like a cocktail at lunch.  To chew gum, though!  Someone seen chewing gum in public can be ostracized from all the good couvillons and Mardi Gras balls.  Who would want to associate with a common, sloppy gum-chewer?  Nobody.

Instead of chewing gum, polite Creoles from good families started to suck on jawbreakers.  Sucking a jawbreaker was the vaping of its day.  Nowadays, they just vape instead of chewing gum.  When it comes to chewing gum in certain echelons of New Orleans high society, New Orleans may as well be the city-state of Singapore.  The two have almost nothing else in common besides their weather.

Juliette Mirabeaux was toasted all over New Orleans as "Queen of the Barracks Street Jawbreakers."  She had a secret recipe.  She went to her grave with it.  She is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #3, in Restaurant Row.  

All sorts of house-industry jawbreaker confectioners set up shop on Ursulines Street and on Bayou Road.  They tended to cluster on either side of Claiborne Avenue.  Juliette Mirabeaux was the only one on Barracks Street.  Her central location as well as her secret recipe cemented her reputation.  Give the people what they want.

You can still find a Barracks Street jawbreaker today, but not in any store.  Sometimes, you'll find them for sale in a jar at a snowball stand but the only really reliable source is a huck-a-buck lady.  They aren't cheap but they aren't expensive, either, considering the product.  A Barracks Street jawbreaker is fossilized New Orleans ambrosia.  Someone has replicated Juliette Mirabeaux's recipe.  It's addictive.

Sometimes, someone really will break their jaw while consuming a Barracks Street jawbreaker.  It is an interrupted consummation.  Even with a broken jaw, while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, the jawbreaker addict will wrap what's left of his Barracks Street jawbreaker in a handkerchief to save it for when he gets out of the hospital.

There are hundreds of stories like this in New Orleans.

New Orleans is full of intriguing things.


Today's installment of the New Orleans State of mind is brought to you, as usual, by La Belle Esplanade.  If you are thinking about visiting New Orleans, we hope you'll consider staying at La Belle Esplanade.  

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