Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My new favorite book: Gumbo Tales

I used to date a guy who grew up in New Orleans; consequently, he was obsessed with gumbo. Making roux was his biggest passion and he would stand hours at the stove stirring his mixture of flour and butter until it turned the perfect chocolate brown, just a shade away from being burnt. He was of the anything-goes school of gumbo and into his pot would go oysters, chickens, shrimp, sausage, turkey necks and (to my dismay) sliced hard-boiled eggs. But despite the eggs staring out of my bowl, I loved his gumbo and ate it any chance I could get.

It’s been a while since I dated this guy, and even longer since I’ve been to New Orleans. So thank goodness for Sara Roahen’s wonderful new book, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, a love letter to the author’s adopted hometown.

Roahen moved to New Orleans to join her boyfriend (now husband) who was doing a medical internship in the Crescent City, and she soon found work as the restaurant critic for the Gambit Weekly newspaper. But as her fascination with New Orleans grew, she realized she wanted to dig deeper into her subject:

“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, I had created a comfortable world in which it looked and felt as though I were really doing it—becoming one of them, a New Orleanian. But my rusty cast-iron skillet told a different truth. I was like those expats who eat France out of Camembert and croissants but continue to read Satre in English. In Louisiana, cooking is a foreign language. It was time to step up.”

As she works her way through the foods (and drinks) of New Orleans, you’re charmed by her voice. She soon becomes your adventurous friend, one who’s a fast learner and seems to know everything, but is still very gracious and warm. And she’s not above poking fun at herself, such as her struggles with the live crawfish when she has her first-ever boil (by herself!), or when she deftly slices off a bit of her finger when making red beans and rice.

As she introduces you to the city’s various populations—the Cajuns, the Creoles, the Africa-Americans, the Vietnamese and the Italians—she’s an expert interviewer, eliciting fascinating stories from each about their various cuisines. And the people of New Orleans clearly love to talk and share their history, so there’s no shortage of anecdotes. Sadly, however, some of the places and people she writes about don’t return after Katrina, yet the book’s tone is not mournful but instead honest and hopeful.

She structures her stories around iconic New Orleans’ dishes—such as gumbo, the Sazerac cocktail, sno-balls and po’ boys. But while this is ostensibly a book about food—it’s more a book about roots, community and the nature of home. I can’t think of a better homage to this great city and an explanation on why its existence is vital to American culture than this wonderful memoir. Like the gumbos Roahen describes, New Orleans is a mixed-up stew comprised of many disparate ingredients, and yet, when it all comes together it works. So if you haven’t been to New Orleans in a while (or ever), plan a trip because they need you! And in the meantime, read this wonderful book and then cook yourself a pot of gumbo.

P.S. This may be a book about food, but there are no recipes included. That’s just fine, however, as there’s a new cookbook that includes almost all the dishes mentioned in this memoir. And I’ll talk about that excellent book next time.

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18 comments:

jwade said...

My mother was the youngest of 9 kids growing up during the Depression. She loves chicken necks (and backs) to this day.
My daughter was a chef for a while in New Orleans. I love the food, especially Gumbo, but roux is hard to make - at least for me.

Bee said...

Really personal memoirs about food are my favorites. This sounds like a good one!

P.S. On my way back to England from Houston I met a couple who were coming back from the Jazz Festival in New Orleans. They raved about the food.

Rebecca said...

i'm reading this now, too. just up to chapter 4 or 5. can't wait to return to new orleans now.

Julie said...

Oooh, I've been wanting to read this. Food and stories are simply one of my favorite combinations -- but isn't that probably true for those of us of the food-blogging persuasion?

Kacie said...

If you enjoyed that one, you might also like the 'Ruby Slipper Cookbook' by Amy Cyrex Sins. She is a New Orleans resident who went through Katrina. The book includes beautiful New Orleans photography, vignettes about life in New Orleans and, of course, recipes. A great book!

Rebecca said...

Sounds like a great foodie read! Thanks for the recommendation. I have always been fascinated from afar with New Orleans and I'm longing to go!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

This is already on my nightstand, right below Jennifer 8. Lee's Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which I recommend to anyone who's even a little bit into American Chinese food.

Sarah said...

Oh, you make this sound fantastic. And I agree with bee that memoirs about food are the best.

Not sure if you do the meme thing and no offense will be taken if you don't, but you've been tagged!

Cynthia said...

I too love food memoirs. I definitely have to get my hands on a copy of this book.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Food memoirs are always the best because those tend to be our strongest memories. How do we celebrate? With food. How do we mourn? There is a reason people bring food when a loved one dies.

One of the reasons I love this blog so much is the memory aspect so many of the posts have.

The recipes are terrific, but the obvious love of your heritage and the culture which gave birth to those recipes is what keeps me coming back.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Bee - looks like we have another one to add to the stack on the nightstand huh?

Miss Meat and Potatoes said...

There's nothing I love more than a good food book! In fact my favorite cookbooks are fat and filled with narratives to go with the recipes. Looking forward to reading this and its accompanying recipe book. Thanks for sharing!

Olivia said...

I really want to read a food memoir now! Food is a wonderful and sensual thing. Amazingly, I spent the first few years of my life not eating enough, and you might like to know that I only learned what an appetite was when I moved to TEXAS!!!

Anyway, speaking of Cajun cuisine, did anyone used to watch Justin Wilson on PBS? Ah gaaronteee!

chefjp said...

I agree with you--- Gumbo Tales is a wonderful book. Now, more than ever, New Orleans cuisine should be celebrated on food blogs everywhere.

Lindsey said...

Olivia, Justin Wilson also created a "cajun-translation" of traditional fairy tales that I grew up on. Wonderful, wonderful man!

Also, I haven't read it, but Gumbo Tales looks like the thesis of why I moved back to Louisiana. For me, Louisiana is all about family, food and LSU football (in that order).

DaWei said...

I love New Orleans food. I used to go twice a year just to eat, but haven't been in 10 years, now.

Mudbugs, po'boys, muffalettas, étouffée; I'm dying here, almost as much as when you talk about Texas food.

I love these NY yankees, but some food just isn't available out here in the central sticks.

Homesick Texan said...

JWade--Roux is tricky for me too, but I keep trying!

Bee--Everyone that goes raves about the food--apparently there are about three huge tents devoted to it--it's where are the food geeks congregate. Being a food geek myself, I aim to go next year!

Rebecca--I know--this book totally makes you want to go there.

Julie--I agree, food and stories are a delectable combination.

Kacie--Excellent--I'll look for this!

Rebecca--If you love food, New Orleans is your kind of town.

Lydia--Ha! That's next on my list!

Sarah--Thanks for the tag! I'm pretty awful about memes but usually have the best intentions.

Cynthia--I know that you'd love this book!

Brave Sir Robin--How insightful, I'd never thought about it that way but it's true that food is always a part of our most significant life events.

Miss Meat & Potatoes--Yep, if a cookbook doesn't have stories I don't want to own it.

Olivia--Justin Wilson was a hoot. And yea for Texas that it taught you how to appreciate good food, though I'm not surprised!

ChefJP--Isn't it a wonderful read? And yep, the city still needs our help.

Lindsey--You sound like my Cajun friend. He feels the same way about his home.

DaWei--You should go! Their wonderful food just doesn't taste right anywhere else.

edamame said...

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TulipGirl said...

As a native born New Orleanian, this book is something I MUST have after reading your review.

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