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.