American Hauntings Podcast

Food and Spirits

Episode Summary

There are a lot of things that define the spirit of New Orleans, from its music to its ghosts, but among the top things are its food and drinks. Sometimes the meals are so tempting and memorable that people can't seem to stay away, even after death.

Episode Notes

There are a lot of things that define the spirit of New Orleans, from its music to its ghosts, but among the top things are its food and drinks. Sometimes the meals are so tempting and memorable that people can't seem to stay away, even after death.

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Want to read ahead for this season? Check out the book Haunted New Orleans by Troy Taylor.

This episode was written by Troy Taylor. Produced and edited by Cody Beck.

Intro music by Charlie Brockus

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the new episode of American Hauntings, the podcast dedicated to the history, hauntings, legends, and lore of America’s past. The show is hosted and produced by Cody Beck and written and performed by Troy Taylor – that’s me -- and we are now in our fourth season, “Haunted New Orleans.”

If you are tuning into the podcast for the first time, we suggest you start listening to the “Haunted New Orleans” season with episode 53, which is where this season begins and where we set the stage for the many dark tales ahead. In each episode of the season, we’ll be revealing the history, mystery, spirits, scandals, and sins of New Orleans – a city that we believe is the most haunted in America.

So, toast the city with a Hurricane, a Sazerac, and some Absinthe and stumble on over for the next episode of Haunted New Orleans. 

There are a lot of things that define the spirit of New Orleans, from its music to its ghosts, but among the top things are its food and drinks. The food in New Orleans is as wonderfully mixed as the city itself. The restaurants here are known for food that you can’t anywhere else – or if you can, it won’t taste the same. Gumbo, jambalaya, muffulettas, po-boys – sure, you can find them in other cities these days, but I promise it won’t be like it is in New Orleans.

And the drinks are the same. Sure, you can order a Hurricane anywhere, but it won’t taste like it does at Pat O’Brien’s. You can even order a Sazerac somewhere else today, but why would you? You can probably even find a Hand Grenade somewhere else – but for god’s sake, why would you drink it? There or here?

Anyway, my point is, these things are special in New Orleans. There is no city like it. And that’s not something I say to get you to visit. It’s true, and the evidence is everywhere from the architecture to the ambiance. It’s a place where simply stepping into a bar or restaurant can take you away from the rest of the world for an afternoon or for the rest of your life. 

The places where you eat and drink in New Orleans hold the history of the city. It's carved there – figuratively and sometimes literally – in the walls and it can be heard in the stories of bartenders and servers who have been handing over plates and serving drinks for days, months, and years.

You can find an eclectic mix of culinary styles in New Orleans, but most people think of Creole and Cajun dishes when they think of the local fare. Neither of these styles came from French food. The early settlers to New Orleans did not bring with them any particular dish and, in fact, would have starved to death long before they could invent one. Luckily, the native population was willing to share with them the secrets of eating in the unfriendly place where they’d landed. They introduced the French to a variety of breads and mushy cereals made from corn, dried beans, and different kinds of squash. They also taught them about syrups and berries that could be used to flavor meat and how to thicken stews using sassafras, or file’ (FEE-LAY) powder.

The Ursuline nuns brought French culinary skills to New Orleans, growing herbs in their garden, teaching the benefits of using bay leaves in stews and soups, and the use of plants for medicinal purposes. But while they were teaching the white people the basics of cooking, the African slaves were developing real culinary skills, making extraordinary dishes by using what they had to work with. The slaves were descended from people who had been trading with Arab spice merchants for over 700 years. Using their knowledge, they invented the stews and gumbos have become staples of local cuisine. 

As New Orleans grew, a good cook became essential to a family’s social standing. A Creole lady never ventured far from the kitchen when an important meal was being prepared. Many kitchen slaves were even taught to read so that they could adapt French recipes into New Orleans fare. The cooks used the French peasant’s thickener, the “roux,” and turned it into a dark base that is used for many local specialties like etouffee, gumbo, Creole sauce, and turtle soup. 

The Spanish brought their own culinary customs to New Orleans, along with ideas and products adapted from the Mayans and the Aztecs of Central America and the people of the West Indies – like yams, kidney beans, red peppers, allspice, and tomatoes. The Spanish added green peppers to sauces and meat dishes, mostly to keep them from spoiling. The tomato, when mixed with the roux, became an important part of Shrimp Creole. The Spanish dish “paella,” made from rice and shellfish, became the Creole dish “jambalaya.” 

European immigrants brought more flavors and additions to Creole food. The French added in their parts. Free people of color added fish dishes from the West Indies. Sicilians brought pastas and rich sauces from Europe. New Orleans became a literal mixing pot of dishes that are on every local menu like Pain Perdu – the local French toast -- red beans and rice, boudin and andouille sausage, bread pudding, and chicory coffee. 

After the Civil was devastated the local economy, rich foods were replaced with simple gumbos made from fresh vegetables and what little meat they could spare. When the price of ice was beyond their means, they would crush glass and sew it into cheesecloth bags. The tinkling sound as it floated in pitchers provided the illusion of ice and if the guests even noticed, they didn’t care. Most of them knew they might be hosting a dinner under the same circumstances the following week. 

Ironically, the influx of tourists into New Orleans in the 1960s and 1970s, which revived the local economy, came close to destroying the culinary traditions of the city. As most Americans of this period favored bland, simple foods, many of the local hotels and restaurants were forced to create an “Americanized” version of New Orleans favorites. Chicory was taken out of the coffee, file’ powder was rarely used, crabs and oysters were removed from the gumbo, and black pepper replaced the cayenne pepper in every dish. Creole cooking was banished from the restaurants and remained alive only in homes and in a few of the diehard local establishments.

Finally, by the late 1980s, food lovers were hungry again for spicy flavors and more daring fare. The Creole and Cajun cuisines once again appeared and became a major drawing card for the city. Travelers came from all over to sample foods that remain unique to New Orleans. 

Eating in New Orleans today is more than just a meal – it can be an adventure that you can’t have anyplace else. By sitting down at a local table, you become a part of a tradition that stretches back to the very beginning of the city. 

And since another long-held New Orleans tradition is its ghosts, we’ll now take a look at some of the haunted restaurants that have become infamous in the city. Talking about every ghost in New Orleans is as impossible as talking about every fantastic restaurant – so we’ll combine the two and look at some of the best-known places to get a bite to eat with the spirits.

Commander’s Palace is a large Victorian mansion that is located in the Garden District. Since 1880, it has been praised for its fine quality food and wonderful atmosphere. This being New Orleans, it’s not surprising that it has a ghost or two around, as well.

The restaurant was started in 1880 by Emile Commander and offered only the best food to the most distinguished families of the mostly American Garden District. By 1900, it was attracting people from all over the country. Even during the 1920s, when it was under different management and served as a haven for gamblers and sporting gentlemen from the riverboats, it still maintained a family dining room downstairs.

It was refurbished once in 1944, but when the Brennan family remodeled again in 1974 and gave the place a whole new look, stories of a resident ghost soon followed.

The restaurant is believed to be haunted by Emile Commander himself, and he is known to frequent one of the upstairs dining rooms that is known as the Sun Porch. One night, a table was set in advance for dinner guests and a bottle of wine was opened and poured into the glasses to allow the wine to breathe. When the host returned with the guests, about an hour later, one of the wine glasses was found to have been emptied. No one had been in or out of the room during the time the host was away.

Unexplained occurrences still continue to take place in that room, along with other parts of the building. Dishes and silverware are often moved and sometimes vanish to reappear again later, footsteps are heard pacing through the building at night, lights turn on and off on their own, and glasses of liquor are often mysteriously drained. Staff members sometimes express a reluctance to discuss these odd events, but all agree that the weird incidents are harmless.

There is little doubt in their minds that Emile Commander still believes that he is the owner of the restaurant today. 

The Royal Cafe

The LaBranche House, which is home to the Royal Cafe, is considered one of the most photographed buildings in the French Quarter, thanks to all of its ornate ironwork. The property is located at the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, and records date back to 1796. It was originally owned by Marianne Dubreuil, a free woman of color, although there were other structures here that were previously destroyed in the fires of 1788 and 1794. A wealthy sugar planter named Jean Baptiste LaBranche, who built the three-story structure that stands today, purchased the land in 1832.

LaBranche and his wife, Marie, lived in the house and had three sons. It was Marie who added the wrought iron balconies that have become so famous after the death of her husband in 1842. 

It’s also said that she also tracked down her husband’s mistress in 1842 – and killed her. 

The building was sold in 1866 to Paul Napoleon Rivera, and he became the first of more than 30 different owners over the next century. Previous owners always had strange tales to tell about the place because many of them claimed that it was haunted.

The Royal Cafe is still said to be inhabited by at least two ghosts – Marie and her husband’s unnamed mistress. They seem to be stuck together here. 

Marie makes her presence known on the second floor of the restaurant, usually as a very strong and disconcerting presence. Many people who have dined here report feeling as though someone is standing directly over their shoulder, looking down on them. When they turn to look, they always discover that no one is there. She also appears on rare occasions, wearing a dark blue dress. It is thought that her misdeeds in connection with the house have tied her to the place.

The more active and more restless ghost in the house is that of the mistress. She is believed to be responsible for moving tables and chairs around but mostly makes her presence known on the third floor of the building. Here, she has rearranged furniture and has even thrown a coffee cup across a restaurant sales manager’s desk. 

It’s believed to have been in this part of the building where she died. Legend has it that Marie kidnapped her, chained her to an attic wall, and allowed her to starve to death. 

Today, this area is used as an office, but strange things did not begin to happen here until it was renovated a number of years ago. Since that time, numerous electrical anomalies have been reported, including computer failures and lights turning on and off at strange times. There have also been cold spots encountered, along with doors opening and closing and the sound of footsteps that cannot be explained. 

Neither ghost in this place seems ready to leave anytime soon.

Brennan’s has been a landmark in New Orleans since the restaurant first opened in 1956. However, the history of the site dates back to 1794 when Gaspar DA BYE and Huberto Remy purchased the property. Five days later, the great fire destroyed more than 200 buildings in the city, including this one. New buildings were constructed on the ruins and went through a series of owners until 1820 when the property was purchased by the Martin Gordon family. Gordon was a prominent Virginian who made the house the center of fashionable Creole gatherings in New Orleans. President Andrew Jackson appointed Gordon as the Collector for the Port of New Orleans, but his notoriety was short-lived. Financial reversals forced the Gordons out of the house in 1841.

The next owner of the house was Judge Alonzo Morphy, the father of Paul Morphy, who we mentioned in the last episode. Morphy mastered the game of chess at age 10 and defeated the best players in America and Europe. He once played eight contestants at one time, while blindfolded, and won all the matches. He was also a nut. Anyway, his family sold the house in 1891. 

Several other owners followed, including Tulane University, who rented the building to Owen Edward Brennan in 1954. He renovated the property, and eventually, his sons purchased it from the university. It has since become known as a world-renowned eatery in the French Quarter and a place where you can experience dinner and spirits – of both kinds.

One of the most haunted areas of the restaurant is the Red Room, which is located upstairs and occupied by a tragic spirit. According to legend, a murder-suicide occurred in this part of the house during the Civil War. The owner of the house killed his wife and son and then hanged himself from a brass chandelier. 

According to management and staff, the chandelier located in this dining area will sometimes flicker for no reason, and then, seconds later, a shadowy figure of a man will emerge from the corner of the room, pause for a few seconds, and then disappear. He has been seen by people who both work and dine at Brennan’s. 

Also, unexplained footsteps are sometimes heard in the room late at night after all the guests are gone for the night. More than one waiter or busboy has heard or felt something out of the ordinary in the dining room and many of them will not go into the room alone. 

Muriel’s on a corner of Jackson Square has long been known for its resident ghost. The spirit is believed to be that of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who built the place in the 1700s. He loved the house but was a terrible gambler. In 1814, he wagered the house in a poker game and ended up losing the one thing that he loved most. When he was finally ordered to leave the place, he committed suicide instead – making it so that he never had to. He now haunts the second floor, and the staff sets a place for him at a table every night.

Yo Mama’s on St. Peter Street is not a place where you’d expect to find lingering phantoms. It offers video gambling, televised sports, a loud jukebox, and over 50 different kinds of tequila. 

And a ghost. 

The site was once occupied by a tailor shop owned by a Mr. Green. He hanged himself there. Since the bar has opened, employees have reported spotting a tall man with graying hair and a nice smile. He is often seen sitting at the bar. One bartender claims that he once ordered a Jack and Coke, and when he turned around to serve it, the man – who had rope burns on his neck, by the way – had disappeared. 

Staff members say that Mr. Green has been known to tap people on the shoulder and vanish when they turn around. He also likes to move balls around on the pool tables and pinch customers – men and women – on the butt. 

I’d say this makes him the most annoying ghost in New Orleans. 

The Court of Two Sisters is famous for its Jazz Brunch, with over 80 items on the buffet, which is held out back in the courtyard. It’s not as famous for the two resident spirits – although it should be because they gave the place its name. The building was once occupied by the Camor sister, Emma and Bertha. They had a shop selling perfumes and gowns from Paris. They were inseparable in life and died within a short time of one another. 

According to staff members and diners, they remain inseparable in death. They are often seen sitting or walking around, arm in arm, in their beloved courtyard.

There is perhaps no other restaurant in New Orleans that as famous as Antoine’s. It was first established in 1840 and is now fifth-generation family-owned. When New Orleans cuisine is talked about anywhere in the world, this is one of the first restaurants to come to mind. It has played a large part in the city’s culinary history and is home to a lot of ghosts. 

Antoine Alciatore (AL-SA –TOR-AY) came to New Orleans in 1840 after briefly working in the restaurant business in New York. He first worked in the kitchen at the St. Charles Hotel and then started a boarding house and a restaurant. After he was established, he sent for his fiancée in New York, and she came to New Orleans with her sister. After they were married, the two of them set to work making their restaurant the finest in the city. Their hard work paid off and soon, Antoine’s outgrew its small quarters and moved down the block to its current location in 1868. Antoine died in 1874. 

After the death of his father, Antoine’s son, Jules, served as an apprentice under his mother before traveling to France to study cooking. In 1887, he returned to New Orleans. His son, Roy, went on to manage the restaurant for nearly 40 years, steering it through both the Prohibition era and World War II. He passed away in 1972. His son followed in his footsteps until 1984, and the family continues to operate it today. 

Through all of the changes, though, the younger generations have had little to fear about making a mistake or not operating the restaurant according to the high standards of the family –because it’s believed that at least one of their own family members has remained behind to keep an eye on things.

While several spirits are said to haunt Antoine’s, the most visible and famous is that of the original owner himself. Guests and staff members have long confirmed the presence of Antoine’s ghost. Sightings of the apparition bear an uncanny resemblance to the man who founded the restaurant so many years ago. Even family members have encountered the ghost and believe that Antoine is still watching over his beloved eatery. 

On one occasion, a family member was making some dinner preparations outside one of the dining rooms and happened to see what he thought was a busboy enter the room. When he followed the person, though, he reached for the door, but it was locked. Curious, he quickly unlocked the door and went inside to find the room empty. There was no other way in or out of the room.

On another occasion, a young staff member claimed to see Antoine enter a different dining room. He thought it was the head waiter, so he followed him to ask a question. He walked into the dining room, but to his surprise, there was no one there. Returning to the front of the establishment, he saw the head waiter and asked him where he had disappeared so quickly. The other man assured him that he had never left that spot, despite the staff member telling him that he had just seen him go into the dining room. 

When asked to describe the man that he had seen, the young waiter realized he hadn’t looked like the head waiter at all. He offered a remarkable description of Antoine, even though he had no idea what the long-deceased original owner had looked like. With a smile, the headwaiter informed him that he had just met a ghost.

And the waiter assured him that he’d never go into that dining room by himself ever again. 

There are a lot of stories about the origin of the cocktail and its name, and even New Orleans lore has a story that begins with the arrival in the city of a man named Antoine Peychaud (PA-SHOWED) in 1795. He fled his home of Santo Domingo because of a slave revolt and brought with him his Caribbean recipes, including his own bitters, which was a family secret.

Antoine opened an apothecary shop on Royal Street, and like other pharmacists at the time, he experimented with fermented spirits. In those days, there was a fine line between spirits and medicine because alcohol was believed to be the redeemer of all social ills. That only changed when Prohibition ruined things for everybody.

Antoine was a Freemason, and his shop became an after-hours destination for his Masonic brothers. On those nights, he blended brandy with bitters and likely served what was the very first American cocktail was. He mixed everything using the large end of an egg cup and since it was double-ended, it's possible that the design influenced the jigger that bartenders use today. 

As for the name cocktail – it's derived in part by the mispronunciation of the original French word for egg cup – probably by another American who spoke French as badly as I do – which is something like COCA-TAY. It eventually ended up as a cocktail.

But while people in New Orleans started enjoying cocktails in the middle 1800s, they weren’t yet enjoying them in bars. Drinking establishments were then known as coffee houses, many of which were named after precious stones for some reason. In 1851, the Gem opened on Royal – probably because the names Ruby, Pearl, and Diamond were already taken.

The Merchants Exchange Coffee House became one of the city’s first liquor stores and later changed its name to the Sazerac Coffee House. What the owner, Aaron Bord, offered was a sip of the era’s most famous French brandy – Sazerac-du-FWAGE, and a dash of bitters, finally giving a name to the concoction first created by Antoine PA-SHOWED. The next owner of the place, John B. Schiller, was the one who promoted the Sazerac cocktail, though. It became so popular that he was said to have made a quarter-million dollars in his lifetime, selling Sazeracs alone. 

The next owner of the coffee house, Thomas Handy, dropped the word coffee from the name and replaced the French brandy in the cocktail with American rye whiskey, and it soon became one of the most famous drinks in New Orleans. 

Of course, it’s neck in neck with another New Orleans classic – the Hurricane. 

A lot goes into the making of a Hurricane – a lot of liquor and a lot of history. Benson “Pat” O’Brien is credited with the creation of both the Hurricane and the bar where it’s famously served, which opened in 1933. It was probably not Pat’s first experience with running a bar. During Prohibition, only a few doors away, was a speakeasy called Club Tipperary. You could only get into the speakeasy with a password – “storm’s brewin’” – and it was allegedly run by Pat O’Brien.

In 1942, Pat moved the bar to its current location but was having a lot of trouble getting alcohol, due to shortages caused by the war. Distilleries were converted to make bullets and grain was being used to make rations for soldiers. Rum was still easy to get and when a traveling salesman showed up one day selling glasses shaped like hurricane lamps, passion fruit juice, lemon, and sugar were all thrown together with the rum and the new drink was born. 

The many drinking establishments of New Orleans have created legends in the city, and they often seem to go hand in hand with ghost stories. We’ve talked about hauntings at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and the Old Absinthe House in past episodes but there are plenty of other places where spirits – AND SPIRITS – can be found in New Orleans. 

On the second floor, the Bourbon Pub is a dance club. Downstairs, though, it’s a bar, and that’s where the resident ghost – called Mam by the staff – likes to hang out. Mam is the ghost of a small Creole slave lady, who often is seen walking through the mostly empty bar area in the early morning hours. She wears an old cotton dress, a bandana around her head, and a large wooden spoon in her hand. She walks around and mutters to herself but sometimes stops and looks at staff members before she disappears. Glasses are often moved around the bar and footsteps are sometimes heard walking around when no one is in the room.

Café Lafitte in Exile is the oldest gay bar in the country. It was opened when a former owner of the Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop went out of his way to make his gay customers uncomfortable and unwelcome. So, regular patron Tom Caplinger opened a gay-friendly bar just a half-block away. 

During their years in New Orleans, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote both used to frequent Lafitte in Exile – and their ghosts still do. Williams had often been reported sitting at the end of the bar, sipping a cocktail, while Capote’s ghost haunts the small stairwell leading to the second floor. Some people claim that he has even chatted with them as they pass him on the stairs. 

But both men have been out-haunted, so to speak, by a ghost named Mr. Bubby, a fun-loving spirit often encountered on the dance floor and spotted waving to tourists from the second-floor balcony. He has also been known to pinch a butt or two when he’s feeling frisky.

The buildings that now house O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub were built in 1798 and were home to businesses with living quarters on the upper floors. The location has a long and sorted history that includes the use of one building as a quarantine house during a yellow fever epidemic, along with murder and suicide. 

According to legend, Joseph Bapentier (BAP-TEN-YAY) lived in a house here with his wife, Mary, in 1806. In 1810, he allegedly murdered a young woman on the property and then dumped her body into an old well. He committed suicide a short time later, although Mary resided here until her death in 1817. At that time, the property was auctioned off, but reportedly, the former owners never left. Mary has been seen many times looking out a second-floor window, and the troubled spirit of her husband has been seen and felt many times in the courtyard. 

The couple apparently aren’t alone here. A third ghost is that of the young woman that was murdered here. She has been dubbed “Angelique,” and has materialized in the courtyard as a young woman with long, brown hair. She has also been experienced as a mass of chilling air. According to reports, her spirit seems drawn to both young men and children and she enjoys stroking their hair and holding their hands.

The Alibi is a favorite late-night hangout in the French Quarter. It’s been honored many times as the best bar in the city, and past midnight, it’s usually filled with people who work in the many New Orleans service jobs. They are elbow to elbow at the bar with the ghost of another service worker, a former staff member of the Alibi who still wants to wait on customers.

There’s also a less helpful ghost who is known for throwing bottles, glasses, and silverware off the bar – and sometimes directly at staff members. This spirit is said to be that of a man who was stabbed to death behind the bar many years ago.

The attic of the building is off-limits to everyone but employees – but they really don’t want to go there. It’s said to be the most haunted part of the Alibi. Legend has it that the attic was once a hiding place for escaped slaves who were trying to flee the city with help from the Underground Railroad. No one knows if this is true, but many have reported the sounds of sighs and soft crying in the darkness of the attic. 

But those who have heard it – well, they never want to hear it again.