Rap, Immortality & the Frozen Daiquiri

From bounce to voodoo, Southern Louisiana is home to a myriad of oddball devotions. Lora Smith explores the commemorative rituals behind the region's obsession with the frozen daiquiri.

Gene’s Curbside Daiquiris | New Orleans, LA

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The bright pink building that is Gene’s Curbside Daiquiris appears almost otherworldly situated on Elysian Fields, a street named after the ancient Greek concept of the paradise heroes venture to in the afterlife. Squinting and hazy, I swing open the door to a blow of ear-piercing squeals from stainless-steel daiquiri machines that foreshadow the ringing, premeditated hangover I know is coming. It’s a little after 10 a.m. on a Saturday and I’m still gaining my composure after last night’s adventures.

Overwhelmed by where to start, Gene’s employee Kelly Gaus guides me through the frozen offerings: “You can taste as many as you like before deciding.” I take this to heart. Soon, an electric rainbow of paper soufflé cups are strewn, crumpled across the counter. Jungle juice, Tropical Passion, Peach 190, Blue Hawaii … these flavors and colors do not exist in nature. I want them all.

As if there weren’t enough choices already, I’m pointed to a tattered, ancient looking menu on the back wall. It contains a list of 34 specialty drinks—a kind of 190-proof magnum opus that alludes to a long history and institutional status in the community. It admittedly feels a bit at odds with the modern commercialized equipment churning out unnatural looking cocktails.

Beyond the specialty drinks, there are mix-and-match combinations of some Gene’s classic flavors, some served with additional shots of various liqueurs. A companion “helper menu” categorizes the daiquiris for you based on preference, like some perverse wine list: Strong, Buzz, Fruity, Strong & Tasty, Creamsicle.

For the Gene’s devotee the idea of naming your own drink offers a shot at daiquiri immortality, or simply the opportunity to commemorate the deceased. The Afro-Caribbean voodoo and Catholicism that ripples throughout the city makes the linkage between drink, the deceased and immortality not a totally crazy idea, especially considering that before Gene’s was Gene’s it was part of a funeral parlor.

With names as colorful as the daiquiris themselves, drinks like the Booty Call (Peach 190, Strawberry and Pina Colada) and Good Joog (Tropical Passion, Hypnotic, Peach 190 and Blue Hawaii)—a Southern euphemism for good sex—are listed alongside daiquiris named after dearly departed New Orleans rap and bounce artists. The Soulja Slim, for example, honors the much-loved No Limit rapper who was murdered in 2003. It’s made with Hpnotiq, Orange 190 and Blue Hawaii; it’s one of the shop’s most popular choices.

Drinking delicious sweet things—Ambrosia, amrita, the elixirs and the nectars of ancient Greek mythology—to gain everlasting life is not a new idea for the aspiring mortal. Nor is offering drinks to the dead as a way to lure them back to earth for a temporary visit or to simply honor their memory. It’s a ritual that is seen in many cultures and expressed with alcohol placed on altars and graves, consumed in toasts and at wakes, and through pouring some out on the ground for our departed friends.

After considering the potential power of these nectars, I decide to take a conservative approach and settle on Hypnotic Nights, a non-specialty daiquiri poured straight from the machine. After purchasing a medium for $5.50 and taking my first slurp, I have a vague inkling that this will not end well. But I at least have company.

During my early afternoon visit—morning is such a harsh word—a handful of regulars quickly order and leave as if they just grabbed their daily cup of coffee. Public day drinking is certainly not unfamiliar territory for me, or New Orleans. Drive-thru daiquiri and curbside shops offering go-cups are perfectly legal in many parts of Louisiana. The provision is that you receive your drink with the straw still in the paper; some places go so far as to put tape over the lid’s straw hole. However, unlike the tourist-centric daiquiri shops that dot Bourbon Street catering to people with the sole mission to get drunk, Gene’s is a neighborhood joint in the Marigny with a strong local following.

Its owner is Gene Theriot. “Like ‘the riot,’” he says taking my pen to write it down in my notebook for me. All those samples must be showing. Next door are two more of Theriot’s businesses, Gene’s Po-Boys and ILYS, a restaurant named after his mother.

As for what makes Gene’s a favorite, Gaus explains that a family comes in each week and hand mixes blends in the back just for their shop. “They’re not pre-made mixes like some daiquiri shops order in. They’re special,” she says.

The daiquiris are also special for the personalized identity they hold in a crowd of generic flavor-named drinks served at chains like Fat Tuesday. The specialty menu at Gene’s is community driven in that the staff and customers come up with the improvised combinations and names.

“I have one or two on there, but basically they contribute the names,” says Gene, “Like Miss Patsy,” a Gene’s loyalist, “she’s got a Ms. P on there.”

New Orleans is a place filled with a variety of similar ritualistic performances, many of them fulfilled through food traditions. For the Gene’s devotee the idea of naming your own drink offers a shot at daiquiri immortality, or simply the opportunity to commemorate the deceased. The Afro-Caribbean voodoo and Catholicism that ripples throughout the city makes the linkage between drink, the deceased and immortality not a totally crazy idea, especially considering that before Gene’s was Gene’s it was part of a funeral parlor.

E.J. Ranson’s Funeral Home, adjacent to Gene’s on Elysian, was in operation at the turn of the century. Parts of Theriot’s buildings, which date back to the mid-1800s, and the surrounding lot, played a role in their daily operations. “In the very back of the building they had a chimney where they did most of the cremation and stuff like that,” says Theriot, who is seeming more and more like the Hermes of daiquiris in my liminal state—suspended somewhere between drunk and really drunk. He points to the lot behind his shop, “In the parking lot here is where they used to drive the hearses through to park. The next building behind us was where they kept the formaldehyde in tanks underground.” 

Tugging on a green frozen drink that is giving me a brain freeze while hearing about embalming fluid is not the most pleasant drinking experience, but the history of the building seems fitting given that Gene’s continues to function as a location where the community celebrates its people and artists. It’s part of what makes Gene’s more than just a place for a cheap high-octane buzz.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, Gene’s defines a small piece of the city’s joyous and defiant spirit. Surrounded by the quickly gentrifying neighborhoods of the Bywater and Marigny, Gene’s is a spot of hyper-localized community memory. Marking its territory with a shockingly pink facade and a neon sign that shines bright even during the day, it is an outpost of resistance to a changing landscape and changing go-cup laws that could threaten daiquiri culture. It’s a culture backed by so much loving devotion that a Defend the Daiquiri campaign and New Orleans Daiquiri Festival have sprung up to protect the drink.

Already three-fourths deep into my Hypnotic Nights, the idea of immortality in a cup is sounding better and better. I’m starting to seriously consider the idea of taking on the challenge of getting a daiquiri named after me. If I got enough friends to request my mix, could I achieve immortality in a Styrofoam cup? Customers would speak my name at the counter long after I’m gone and I might live forever, frozen in time, to be celebrated by intoxicated revelers. People would remember me. Or maybe that’s just the green drink talking.

If you go, Gene’s Curbside Daiquiris is open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Monday-Thursdays and Sundays. Gene’s Po-Boys is open 24-hours, 7-days a week. According to Kelly, the shops only close if the power goes out or the city is evacuated.

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Lora Smith is a writer living in Greensboro, NC. She holds a B.A. from New York University, studied folklore at UNC Chapel Hill and documentary radio production at Duke University. She splits her time between North Carolina and weekend work in Egypt, Kentucky, where she and her husband are transforming a piece of property into an organic farm.

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