Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table
By Sara Roahen
Norton. 293 pp. $24.95
Sara Roahen has written a surprisingly informative, engaging and amusing book about the cooking of New Orleans -- surprisingly, that is, because she is an outsider who yearns to be accepted as an authentic New Orleanean, and persons afflicted with that peculiar disorder tend more toward affectation than authenticity. But Roahen, who has written about Louisiana food for various local and national publications, understands that in the Crescent City, authenticity is a product of nativity. Hard though she worked at "really becoming one of them, a New Orleanean," she is smart enough to know that "I was like those expats who eat France out of Camembert and croissants but continue to read Sartre in English," or, as she puts it a few pages later, writing about gumbo and its endless variations:
"I cannot rightly claim to have learned to make gumbo at the hip of Paul Prudhomme. Alas, no amount of eating or cooking earns a nonnative membership in that society of Louisianians who were born with roux in their genes and weaned on shellfish stocks and sticky bits of okra. I continue to make Chef Paul's gumbo more than other styles, but that has to do with comfort level, not predisposition. There is, thankfully, a silver lining to never belonging: devoid of an inbred gumbo bias, I'm open to appreciating the full spectrum of gumbos without the hindrance of a gold standard. It's a great luxury in a town like this one."
Instead of pretending to be an insider, Roahen simply went about learning as much as she could "by eating in New Orleans, continually asking questions about eating in New Orleans, obsessively reading about eating in New Orleans, and writing a weekly column about eating in New Orleans," this last for a lively newspaper called Gambit Weekly. As her impressive bibliography suggests, she seems to have read just about every book on New Orleans and its food -- there are plenty to read -- and, as the whole of Gumbo Tales makes plain, she learned well.
A native of Wisconsin, Roahen arrived in New Orleans about seven years ago, landed the restaurant critic's job at Gambit Weekly, married a native Belgian who was studying medicine and moved with him to Philadelphia in 2005, though they held on to the house they had bought in the Uptown section of New Orleans. It's not easy to imagine someone coming into New Orleans from the cold and writing a regular column about its food, but apparently Roahen did so with aplomb and won a loyal readership in the process.
Gumbo Tales can be read, profitably and pleasurably, at several levels. Though not arranged as a restaurant guide, it can serve as one; Roahen knows vastly more about New Orleans restaurants than I do, but her comments on some of the ones I do know -- Galatoire's, Commander's Palace, Central Grocery, Clancy's, Domilese's -- convince me that she's a dependable guide. The book contains enough bits and pieces from New Orleans's culinary history to give the casual reader a useful introduction. Better than many others who have written about Hurricane Katrina, she gets across a clear sense of how the "New Orleans citizenry, in the city and in the diaspora, has two lives now: before the storm and after the storm," as well as of how "in post-Katrina New Orleans . . . the food and restaurant culture is keeping the city alive, spiritually as well as literally."
Each of her chapters is devoted to one New Orleans food or one style of cooking, beginning with gumbo ("the most important dish in the Louisiana lexicon for its prevalence and dependability alone") and moving swiftly through, to name only a few, muffuletta, po'boys (which, inexplicably, she usually but not always spells po-boys), crawfish, chicory and red beans and rice. She correctly calls this last "the consummate New Orleans dish" but somehow neglects to cinch the point by noting that Louis Armstrong, the native son celebrated above all others, frequently signed letters, of which he wrote many, "Red beans and ricely yours."
All of which is familiar to anyone who knows anything about Creole and Cajun cooking, but I'd never heard of something called "turducken" until reading about it here, perhaps because I've never read The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, in which, Roahen says, the recipe covers 14 pages and "involves a small hammer, a carpet needle, and thirty-nine different ingredients, including your entire spice cabinet, except the Indian section; it produces two gallons of stock and thirty-five cups of dressing; and it calls for twelve hours of roasting, at a minimum." In case you were wondering, "it" is "a deboned and stuffed chicken enfolded in a deboned and stuffed duck sewn into a deboned and stuffed turkey, all roasted together for half a day and wetted with duck-fat gravy." Roahen says she's "fond of the turducken for the utter rebelliousness of it, for the ability of one lopsided bird to contain a blow-out meal's worth of dissonant, stomach-churning combinations and still come out tasting harmonious," but to me it sounds approximately as appetizing as a dish known in Peru and Ecuador as cuy en mani: roast guinea pig in peanut sauce.
Leaving aside this particular offense to gastronomic good sense, Gumbo Tales has the not-surprising effect of leaving the reader's mouth watering. One especially good chapter is devoted to the Italian presence in New Orleans cookery, which is huge. The muffuletta may seem to have been invented in heaven, but actually it's the creation of Central Grocery: "Mortadella, salami, ham, Emmentaler cheese, and the grocery's own olive salad striate between the stiff, bland, perfect-for-its-purpose, sesame-sprinkled bread that gives the sandwich its name." Forced to choose between a Central Grocery muffuletta (also spelled muffaletta) and Domilese's hot-sausage po'boy with gravy and Creole mustard, I would spend the rest of my life trying to decide, for both are, simply, food to die for.
Muffuletta and po'boys are New Orleans workaday food, while shrimp remoulade and poisson meuniere amandine at Galatoire's are its high cuisine. Having a preference for low cuisine over high, I tend to drift toward holes in the wall in New Orleans, but there can be no gainsaying the sybaritic pleasures of a three-hour lunch at Galatoire's, which Roahen correctly calls "the beginning and the end of Creole cooking in New Orleans, not because it's always the best and not because it incorporates all possibilities of the Creole kitchen, but because it leads to and from all possibilities." Just ogle your way through the menu (www.galatoires.com) and you will find every benchmark dish, or a close variation thereof, in what is beyond doubt this country's greatest contribution to world cuisine.
No wonder Roahen was torn to pieces when her husband "got accepted into a residency program at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, after Katrina blew his career path right out of New Orleans." Sure, Philadelphia is a neat city, and a Philly cheese steak is something of a wonder, but Philadelphia isn't New Orleans and a cheese steak isn't a muffuletta. Moving was "a real hurt," but "it's important to remember -- and I've reminded myself every day -- how many people have not been able to return to their city since Katrina, to eat a po-boy or to see a friend, for reasons too many to list. I have had the luxury of a long, peaceful farewell, and I am grateful for it."
New Orleans, I suspect, will in turn be grateful to Sara Roahen for this lovely, heartfelt, quietly passionate book. She may not be a child of New Orleans, but by the end of Gumbo Tales one can't help thinking she's an adopted daughter. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.