May 27, 2010
STRANGER: Mary Millan
LOCATION: Muriel’s, 801 Chartres Street, New Orleans
THEME: Dinner with a voodoo priestess
We had company.
Mary Millan and I met for dinner inside Muriel’s, a labyrinth of a restaurant just off Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. I was prepared to interview her about her life as a voodoo priestess, but there was someone else with us.
Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, to be exact. He’s the “resident ghost” of Muriel’s and every night the restaurant sets out a table with two glasses of red wine and two slices of dry white bread for Antoine and his unknown afterworld companion. Mary took pictures of the table (the one above is mine), for her ongoing ghost photography, pictures that capture spirits — in the form or orbs or other shapes — that the human eye can’t see.
A caveat: always ask the ghost’s permission before taking a photograph or when entering a sacred or haunted site. If you don’t, Mary said the least bad thing that can happen is that your camera battery will be drained. The worst…well, more on that later.
After our photo-taking we took our seats in Muriel’s bright front dining room with large windows looking out on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The dining room was sparsely populated but even if every table was full it’d probably still feel relaxed in the airy building. Music was playing at an unobtrusive level, a good thing for me and my tape recorder.
I’m glad I had that recorder, because Mary talks at quite a clip. When she’s engaged in a subject, for example a defense of voodoo, her words roll out in a fast but lucid and rhythmic chain. She seems to be a natural conversationalist, which must suit her just fine in one of her many roles as “Bloody Mary,” leading voodoo and ghost tours across New Orleans.
But this is no street-corner hustler shtick to entertain heavy-set tourist in garish Hawaiian button-down shirts (do those caricatures exist in real life?) No, Bloody Mary/Mary Millan is an authentic voodoo priestess eager to share her knowledge of the religion.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Mary is from a Creole family — one of early Louisiana ancestry — in the city since the 1720s and is “related to half the spirits here.”
With its above-ground cemeteries, history of jazz, and stereotypes of voodoo, boozing and good times, New Orleans has a lot to offer the a pasty-faced Brit like myself. Mary said that growing up she “took for granted many of the things that people are in awe of about this town,” including its old European flair, architecture, laid-back attitude and freedoms that exist in the city.
“When you grow up here you assume that’s like life everywhere else, the fact that people party all the time, dressing up in costumes, and using graveyards as a playground. It’s not till you leave that you realize that things aren’t as open anywhere else as they are in New Orleans,” she said.
I silently toasted the city’s unique atmosphere by sipping at my $7 Pimm’s Cup, a refreshing cocktail that I can highly recommend for a nice summer drink.
When Mary got older she got the typical urge to try living somewhere else, so went to college in New York originally studying psychology. Ultimately she got a degree in advertising and marketing, and then wanted to act and try other things. But while living there, she experienced a number of highs and lows. “I got married, got divorced, had a baby, saw my house burn down.” That latter accident was the “last straw” that prompted her move back to the Big Easy. Living in fast-paced New York “gave me a new-found appreciation for a more relaxed lifestyle.”
Back in New Orleans, she found her association with voodoo quickly strengthening. “I had always known the history of voodoo and always been a bit psychic and spiritual, but got more heavily into the idea of being a voodoo priestess after I returned.”
What psychic experiences has she had? Mary said that as a child she would see certain spirits or have things happen that the natural world could not explain. That fed into her Catholic upbringing, and coupled with a love for occult and horror films she started to learn more about voodoo and noticing how that religion absorbed a lot of aspects of Catholicism and other belief systems.
“Voodoo was always around in the background growing up here, so it wasn’t something that foreign to me. And when I got back I was teaching about it and studying it, and it became like any other anthropological study. The more you understand it, the more it becomes part of you.” Mary said voodoo is the oldest religion that exists and is a positive practice taking the best aspects of other beliefs, rather than “most other religions that like to destroy everything in their path.”
Another plus, “You don’t have to give up anything to do voodoo. It’s very Earth-based and respectful to our ancestors. That’s something I think most cultures these days have forgotten. If we’re going to survive as a people we better start being more respectful to both” Earth and its history, she said.
“It’s not about things you cannot do. That’s not religion or spirituality. That’s morality. They’re two different things in the long run. You’ve got to make your own morality no matter what religion base you’re in. When you get into worrying more about morality you’re getting away from the spiritual base and connection with the universe” central to voodoo, she said.
Then she added, “I wonder if that’s mock turtle or real?”
No, she wasn’t randomly spouting questions. She was remarking on my appetizer of turtle soup that had just arrived, served with a healthy splash of sherry.
We both ordered from a $29.95 table d’hôte menu that lets you select from a wide-ranging range of appetizers, entrees and dessert. I’d never had turtle soup before so I decided to be adventurous. Despite Mary’s question, we never did find out if the soup was made with real or fake turtle. Regardless, it was delicious and a great start to the meal. The soup was rich but not overpowering, and the sherry was a nice touch that gave it an interesting flavor.
Mary went for the goat cheese filled crêpes that Muriel’s menu said is “topped with fresh Louisiana crawfish in a buttery sauce of chardonnay, onions, tomato and bell pepper.”
Mary said the crêpes were very light and very tasty. I can attest to what she said, because she cut me a small slice of her appetizer. The crêpe was so soft it dissolved in my mouth, and the sauce was outstanding. Both starters were great but Mary’s was definitely the best.
Um…sorry, I had a flashback to the moment pictured above when Mary thrust her crawfish from the crêpe toward my camera. Anyway, as we finished up the appetizers, Mary continued with her condensed backgrounder in voodoo.
She explained that the nature-based religion has intermediary spirits known as Loa that are like saints in other religions. “They get your needs met and connect you to the center, to god, to the grand master, whatever you call it,” she said. Mary’s technical title is mambo asogwe (high priest), the highest level possible in Haitian voodoo. She’s also a voodoo queen in the New Orleans version of voodoo, which she said is similar to Haitian voodoo but with some differences.
In New Orleans voodoo, before a voodoo queen dies she passes on the title to another through a series of apprenticeships and study. Mary’s title is recognized by the state of Louisiana, “So I can baptize, marry, and bury you all rolled into one, even on the same day. So behave.”
The voodoo practiced in New Orleans is a popular religion because “it was allowed to grow openly. When something grows openly everyone dabbles in it,” so Mary said voodoo in the Crescent City was “multicultural from the beginning.” It contains elements of Native American shamanism blended with European magic because New Orleans is a port town with a history of broad immigration from countries including France, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and elsewhere. “Everything went into a big old gumbo pot” and cooked up the city’s own brand of voodoo, she said.
Practicing the religion involves a lot of dance and music, which Mary said is connected to the concept of movement and sound helping one connect with the Earth.
My only knowledge of voodoo is from a few sources — the James Bond movie “Live & Let Die”; a computer game set in New Orleans involving voodoo-themed murders; and an interview a year ago for this site with Jerry Gandolfo, owner of the city’s Historic Voodoo Museum. It left with me with ideas of voodoo dolls, hexes and all kinds of dark goings-on.
Mary was quick to dispel the many myths about voodoo. First, voodoo dolls are very much a “Hollywood thing,” she said. Dolls in voodoo are effigies that worshipers pray and focus to. “Every religion has something that you pray and focus to, to get your magics, your beliefs done.” The pins for the dolls “are done to affect thought, the heart, love and healing” and not a harmful thing.
What about hexes? “There is a lot of hexing going on in the world but most of it is nine-to-five in the corporate area, and I believe most of it is coming from Washington, DC, spread out to the rest of the country,” Mary said with a wry smile. Side note, I live in DC but don’t go about hexing people myself.
Voodoo does not advise hexes. “The Loa would eat you alive if you did something that would cause someone harm,” Mary said, adding that a hex would be contrary to the “painstaking initiations, baptisms, levels, and hardships” that one goes through to ascend the voodoo ladder.
“We’re also not big on sacrifices” in New Orleans voodoo, Mary said as she dispelled another myth. Sacrifices of animals might be more common among Haitian practitioners of the religion, but that’s how they get their food and not how things work in the United States, she added.
Voodoo has been “exploited heavily” by television, Mary claimed, and in her own way she tries to improve views on the religion with her work as a tour guide, spiritual healer and voodoo priestess, appearing on television shows in a number of countries to talk up the religion. Now she says people from all over the world know who she is and ask for her when they’re in the city.
How did she become so well-known?
On returning to New Orleans, Mary started temporary work at the Historic Voodoo Museum, albeit before Jerry started there — Disney was right! It’s a small world after all! — making dolls and doing tours, while continuing to study voodoo and do psychic and spiritual work. When Gerry’s brother, the then-owner of the museum, died, Mary went independent.
Being a one-woman operation allowed Mary the flexibility to work but also raise her kid. “I’m a very old school natural mom and I took him everywhere I went. It paid off, he’s a very smart, good-tempered little angel,” she said. Word of mouth got her more and more bookings, to the point where she’s so popular now she can be selective about the work she takes on.
Thankfully, it also means she has time to sit down to dinner with a stranger for an interview, and we continued chatting as the entrees arrived.
Mary went for the barbecue shrimp, which Muriel’s menu describes as “wood grilled Louisiana shrimp in a spicy butter sauce served over rice.” Generous to a fault, Mary let me try some of the dish and I was suitably impressed once again. She said the sauce was “very, very sweet” for barbecue shrimp, but still good. “I’m used to eating spicier barbecue sauce,” Mary said.
I went for the seafood au gratin, with a $12 glass of Conundrum white table wine.
The dish consists of Gulf shrimp, fish, and crabmeat baked in a parmesan au gratin, and served with a potato croquette. I wanted to like it, but it just wasn’t the dish for me.
The rich creaminess of the dish was overwhelming, and the flavors seemed a bit jumbled to me, making the taste odd rather than exciting. The potato croquette was the best part of the dish, which considering it’s just cooked potato isn’t saying much. Alas. A definite disappointment considering the tastiness of the two appetizers and Mary’s shrimp dish.
The sheer amount of fish we consumed at our table led to a discussion about the region’s heavy fishing industry. “That’s another reason why the oil spill is going to be so awful,” Mary said of the ongoing fallout from the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and subsequent massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. She said the Gulf provides 30 percent of the nation’s seafood and 80 percent of the nation’s oysters, and worried about the spill’s impact on the city.
“We just got our tourism fixed and our visitors back after Hurricane Katrina. Is this going to scare them away again?” she asked, without either of us able to provide an answer.
Then she flashed that wry smile again as she suggested “perhaps we should hate the English even more than we’re supposed to” because the spill is British Petroleum’s fault. She said the spill is exactly over the area “where the British got their asses whupped” in the War of 1812 by the pirate Jean Lafitte. “They lost the Battle of New Orleans. Are you sure it’s not personal?”
On a serious note she said the spill is devastating for the city and the Gulf at large. So Mary has been doing energy healing to try and mitigate the spill’s damage. “Right now it’s an Earth issue so there’s a lot of energy work focused on it. I’m talking to the Loas, using candles, doing drumming and dancing rituals to figure out the best way to cleanse it,” she said.
Do the healing rituals actually work? Mary said yes, adding that she’s performed healing rituals for a range of ills including hurricanes, crime, cancer sufferers and romantic breakups. “It’s all about cleansing” and she’s had several cancer patients that have recovered after her healing.
Skeptical types out there might wonder if Mary’s on the level, so I asked whether she gets detractors on her tours or psychic readings. “Not on the readings, people that come to those are pretty serious. And on the tours, if you search me out, you’re a believer. That doesn’t mean there’s not a yahoo that gets in now and then who drinks too much and has to be the center of attention, but that’s rare.”
Even if there are detractors, Mary says her point isn’t to sign people up for voodoo. “I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just reporting and stating what experiences I’ve had and what people have reported throughout the ages. My main goal is just to make you think, to make you wonder, to question the world around you always. We’re not alone, but you don’t have to believe that, that’s fine. Just question the world around you, question your beliefs. Open up, don’t be a puppet.”
Pitching what makes her stand out, Mary said, “I’m very good, very real at what I do. I’m a very gifted storyteller, very well researched, and this is personal for me. I didn’t script it, I’m someone who lives the life” of a voodoo priestess from New Orleans.
She’s been approached time and again by television producers about a show based on her daily life, but to date has rejected the offers because they’ve tried to have Mary act a certain way, playing the stereotypical kooky voodoo practitioner. Other projects in the works include a coffee table book of her ghost photographs reflecting the orbs and other spectral sights she’s caught on film.
At this point Mary’s eyes lit up. I’d love to say it was the wonderful company I was providing, but it turned out to the arrival of our desserts.
Mary chose the dark chocolate brownie with peanut butter gelato, caramel and chocolate sauces. “I had a momentary girl phase of ‘I’ve gotta have the chocolate,’” she said.
We both tried the ice cream and brownie, and — sorry to sound like a broken record — I once again agreed with Mary’s assessment of the dish, after she said that “the brownie’s good, but I’m not sure how I feel about the peanut butter. It’s a bit too heavy for me. I’d rather have vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a bit over the top for me.”
On Mary’s recommendation, I ordered the pain perdu bread budding with candied pecans and rum sauce. “I always adore the bread pudding here,” she said.
Oh, how I adored it too. I guzzled the dessert down in what must have been a new world record for speed eating. The thick rum sauce was a great compliment to the moist, sweet bread pudding, and the pecans on top provided a nice crunchy finish.
Muriel’s is Mary’s “favorite fancy restaurant” and it’s easy to see why. The service was highly attentive and barring my entree the food was outstanding. She also has a favorite dive restaurant in the French Quarter, but the locals don’t want too many people crowding the place so I’ll have to keep the name off the Internet. Though I have been there, and can speak to its awesomeness. If awesomeness is a word. Hey, spell check isn’t flagging problems with it.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and it was time to wrap up dinner with Mary.
While we waited for the bill, I asked if voodoo is how she met her husband. “Maybe” was the response, because they met when he was doing construction next door to the voodoo museum where Mary used to work — kismet that she said could be credited to voodoo. They have been together seven years and her husband is now an official voodoo priest.
I’ll admit I approached my dinner with a voodoo priestess with a dose of skepticism. I didn’t entirely buy into what I thought was a routine when she first told me about Antoine, the resident Muriel’s ghost. And I gave an initial cautious eye to the spectral orbs in her many ghost photographs.
But I was almost entirely won over after dinner. Her undeniable command of knowledge about voodoo, ghosts and paranormal phenomenon is impressive, and unless she’s an Oscar-worthy actress her faith in voodoo reflects itself in the genuine passion she expressed talking about her successful voodoo healing rituals, the positive aspects of the religion, and the joy it can bring.
Then after dinner something happened. Remember how Mary told me that you should always ask permission before taking a ghost’s photo, otherwise something bad will happen to your camera? Well, I went ahead without prior approval and took the photo of Antoine’s table that you can see above. Mary took her own photo, after she sought permission from Antoine.
That’s her picture above, a little less defined because I had to blow up the image size. As you can see, unlike my picture there is a ghostly orb or two floating above the table. Was it Antoine? Some other specter? Or a trick of lighting and processing? I’ll let you be the ultimate decider, but when we left Muriel’s both Mary and I took out our cameras for a few exterior shots of the restaurant (that’s Mary’s exterior shot of Muriel’s higher up in the article).
As I pulled my camera out, it quite literally flew out of my hands and barreled across the paving of Jackson Square, landing face down and thoroughly, permanently, incapacitated just steps from the entrance to St. Louis Cathedral. Was it the Pimm’s Cup and glass of wine I’d had at dinner that shook my sturdy grip? Or was it the ghost of Antoine, getting his revenge for my unauthorized photo?
I’m British and can handle my booze, so despite the skeptic that I claim to be, there was only one answer that I could feel reasonably confident in selecting.
We had company.