French QuarTOUR Kids founder Jill Dresser. (@Shawn Fink)
New Orleans is well known as an adult playground, but what to do with kids in tow? Send them back—way back to the early 1800s on Jill Dresser’s “Creole Kids” tour. Dresser, a former grade-school teacher and founder of French QuarTOUR Kids, brings local history to life during her fun and informative excursions, while providing parents with a mini vacation of their own.
You conduct tours in your underwear. What’s up with that?
It’s my unmentionables, actually, not my underwear. It’s partly because it’s so hot down here, so it’s really uncomfortable to wear a period gown and corset. But it also gives kids a sense of 19th-century customs and helps compare life then to now.
Your “Creole Kids” tours incorporate a lot of New Orleans history. What aspects of local culture do you find most interests young visitors?
How proper Creole society was, and the formality growing up during that time. We get into the expectations of how ladies would act and dress and what kind of jobs they could or couldn’t have, but we also have enough gross, interesting and disturbing stuff for kids to latch on to.
You also touch on touchy subjects such as slavery. Why?
Louisiana had a huge role in the slave trade, both in the use of slaves in the plantations and as a major slave market. And then there are some unique things about slavery in New Orleans. There were laws protecting slaves here and free people of color. There were avenues to get freedom and avenues to get educated, even if you were a slave. It’s really fascinating history.
What’s the oddest comment you’ve received during one of your tours?
It’s funny to see the boys’ reactions when you start talking about how grown women needed chaperones if they were unmarried or how they were expected to dress. One little boy was like, “But that’s torture. Why would they torture women?”
You are a former teacher. Why leave the classroom to roam the streets?
I taught for 10 years in the South Bronx and New Orleans, and I absolutely loved it. However, the job is 24 hours a day. Now I still get to teach, but it’s only for a short time. I also get to meet kids from all over the world. Their inquisitiveness, innocence and knowledge make my job unique and fun every day.
What other activities would you suggest for visiting children?
The Pharmacy Museum is awesome. It’s great to see what a leech is and learn how they were used. It’s totally disgusting—and kids love it. Grown-ups, too. The Hermann-Grima House is also a cool place to visit. It’s a beautiful historic home with a working outdoor kitchen, and kids can walk around inside the house and really see and experience that old Creole lifestyle. That’s something I can’t re-create on a tour.
Where would you direct folks in search of family-friendly restaurants?
The Royal House has a good children’s menu and a really good adult menu as well. I had my first char-grilled oysters there, and they were delicious. The Gumbo Shop is also really good. But usually I send people to the French Market to try all the food booths there. The alligator sausage stand is pretty irresistible. And they have an oyster bar and little bits of everything, so it’s a good way for parents and kids to sample a variety of New Orleans food.