UNMASKING NEW ORLEANS ONE MEAL AT A TIME
Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place At The New Orleans Table
by: Sara Roahen
I love this book. Period. If you have ever been or plan on going to New Orleans, buy it. Read it. Follow its recommendations. (Except for the duck fetus!) The end.
I suppose I should elaborate, though I think the above suffices, for Gumbo Tales is the best non-fiction book I’ve read about New Orleans thus far. (Confederacy of Dunces is my fiction jewel.) Sara Roahen is a former food critic for Gambit Weekly who weaves her expertise into a history of New Orleans cuisine and culture, revealing how they shaped not only her life but that of the city as a whole. Along the way she effortlessly paints a holistic picture that should leave more earnest histories ‘slowly simmering greens’ with envy.
By relating her experiences both eating and cooking various dishes or styles (each gets its own chapter) Roahen illustrates how she fell so deeply in love with this city while simultaneously providing a history lesson and guide to the city’s rich and bizarre traditions. She’s well-versed in both written and oral history, yet Roahen is also an obsessive cookbook nerd—and I mean this with total respect and admiration—which gives her insight into hundreds of years worth of recipes that shed light on both the evolution of the city’s most famous dishes and the city itself.
Per the title, she starts with gumbo which she and I seem to agree is the city’s most culinary and culturally rich dish. Being a gumbo snob whose own version has won over many skeptical LA natives, I ‘Amen’ed aloud when she described how the stew’s humble ingredients and recipes are embarrassingly simplistic yet somehow lead to magic emerging from the pot. Every time I make gumbo for friends I feel like I am perpetrating a fraud, yet every time they show up hungry and on time. My Louisiana friends bring Tupperware.
The second chapter is devoted to sno-balls and I, like many, was shocked at such prominent treatment for an apparent kid’s summer treat. After being enticed by her devotion to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz stand, though, I spent my last day as an Uptown resident waiting in the half hour line. As if on cue, the man beside me with a thick local accent confessed to his friends: “If I were banished from New Orleans and allowed to take only one food with me, this would be it.”
Gumbo Tales has taught me countless lessens to ease my transition into this foreign city including what the heck St. Joseph’s Day was, why red beans were meant for Monday, how crawfish boils are a fairly recent phenomenon, when Paul Prudhomme turned New Orleans into a Cajun city (the 80’s), and where the hell turducken came from. (Admit it: That alone sold you!)
At times I’ve almost been embarrassed by how often I’ve referenced this book, but nearly every day I stumble across some quirk or ritual that would otherwise leave me confounded. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve stopped and thought, “Oh, that’s what Sara was talking about,” I’d be able to order a Friday lunch at Galatoire’s that stretches into dinner as she so temptingly portrays.
I began reading about New Orleans a decade before moving here, yet the problem with telling a linear story is that straight lines don’t exist in this town, physically or metaphysically. You can’t walk though your straight-as-an-arrow shotgun without the hall (or lack thereof) taking a sudden bend, changing directions twice, and dead-ending at an overpass. Thus, describing Bienville’s huts on the new levy, Pauger’s grid for the ‘old square’ (Vieux Carré) and the Americans’ opera house on a muddy street opposite Canal does little to illuminate how this city became the most sensuous in the nation and perhaps world.
John Chase came close in previously reviewed Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children. Using the origin of street names provided flare and humor that straight histories lack. (Fail to laugh at the absurdity and you might as well write about Salt Lake City!) Although an obsessed foodie, I’m still more of a music person and desperately want to argue that it is music that truly defines this town. Gumbo Tales and my experiences living here have convinced me otherwise. Food is king, queen, and crescent! By taking this non-linear approach of surveying the many food subcultures, Roahen paints a picture of not only this city’s depth, but it’s breadth.
Recently my friend Pat Thompson took me on a bar hopping bike tour of Mid-City, complaining that Tremé and other popular portrayals completely ignore areas like this and Lakeview and Metairie. Roahen, though, leaves no stone unturned, scouring these areas for food gems as well as the West Bank and New Orleans East. Sometimes she pushes too far, such as the above-mentioned obsession with obtaining a duck fetus boiled in the egg that is taboo for outsiders of the Vietnamese community. I’m far from a squeamish person, but my stomach turned. Still, you have to admire her dedication and moxie.
As much as Roahen reveals about the city, Gumbo Tales is equally as compelling for how much she reveals about herself. She is admittedly desperate from the start to fit in and is fearless in exposing her compulsions, flaws, and failures, such as lying comatose on the kitchen floor after her first fried potato po-boy, lying on the floor after failing to stitch up her first and second turduckens (she lies on the floor a lot!) or stalking a friend after he rescinds an invitation to red beans on Monday. In this blog, I’ve tried to be honest about my challenges moving here, exposing how much of an outsider I am. (I was pleased and flattered last week when Maggie McKeown of McKeown’s Books said I was writing honestly about both the good and bad of the city rather than idealizing or trashing it as tends to happen). Roahen, on the other hand, writes honestly about trying to mask her outsider status, thus ironically outing herself , which in turn makes her all the more charmingly local for what is more New Orleans than masking and folly?!
In a mere 268 pages Roahen manages to share her life story, the city’s history, the history of native cuisine, an overview of unique cultural traditions, and recommendations on some of the best local spots (such as the Liuzza’s BBQ Shrimp po-boy I raved about last post!) It’s an impressive feat to a verbose blogger, and if I come across a better book to initiate you to New Orleans, I’ll let you know. Just don’t hold your breath. Or give up gulf oysters while waiting, because apparently Sara and her friend wouldn’t give up 10 years of their lives if having to choose between that or losing gulf oysters, but they’d consider 5!