Apr/May 2010

Gumbo Jumbo

New Orleans and its people know adversity, and the local food culture serves up solace.

Melanie Rehak


My first visit to New Orleans didn't happen until 2002, in my early thirties, shamefully late in life for someone who likes to eat as much as I do. What I found when I arrived, at least culinarily speaking, did not disappoint: the roast-beef and gravy po'boys on Magazine Street, the oysters as big as my palm at the Acme Oyster Bar, the crabmeat-covered everything at Galatoire's. I also discovered something else—New Orleans is in many ways a small town, albeit one that acts like a metropolis during Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. After a few days there, I began seeing the same faces over and over again, and not just in the lobby of my French Quarter hotel.

Tom Fitzmorris has been a prominent eater around New Orleans for some thirty years, yet the city for him has retained a similar provincial quality. In his new book, Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans, the City Where Food Is Almost Everything (Abrams, $25), he writes, "I believe there are only 500 people in New Orleans. . . . You constantly run into the same people, playing different roles." This theory comes into play as he describes a network of relationships that spans the insular little world of New Orleans restaurants and chefs, where his role is that of restaurant critic for the New Orleans Menu, which began as a newsletter in 1977 and is now his website, and host of The Food Show, a radio program that runs for a full three hours every weekday (and sometimes on weekends, too).

Fitzmorris is a native, and he embodies all the expected biases of one, both good and bad. Hungry Town covers the history of New Orleans dining culture from nineteenth-century Creole cookbooks to the city's founding restaurateur families and through and beyond Hurricane Katrina, including a healthy serving of Fitzmorrisiana (his birth on Mardi Gras is a recurring bit). Fitzmorris is both ardent about his hometown and prone to hyperbole. About the openings of three five-star restaurants over a span of four months in 1990, he writes, "It was as exceptional a time as the week the Beatles held all five of the top spots on the pop charts."

Nevertheless, Fitzmorris remains an important witness to and chronicler of the evolution of dining in the Big Easy, from traditional home-cooking Creole standards like red beans and rice, crawfish étouffée, gumbo, barbecued shrimp, and the Sazerac cocktail (a combination of rye whiskey, Peychaud's bitters, absinthe, and lemon that was invented in the early 1800s by a pharmacist, and for which Fitzmorris includes a recipe) all the way through Paul Prudhomme's arrival in town in the mid-1970s and then the rise of what Fitzmorris calls "gourmet Creole bistros" and Emeril, who took the city by storm in 1990 and has never—bam!—looked back. This was not just an increase in numbers, though one of Fitzmorris's self-assigned jobs, which took on new urgency after Hurricane Katrina, is to keep a running count of open restaurants. It's also a shift in culture. As he writes about Galatoire's, one of New Orleans's venerable old eateries, "[it] didn't really have a person who could be called a chef during most of its history. I once wrote a story about that, and interviewed one of the key men in the kitchen, Charlie Plough. 'Before I start talking to you, I want to tell you that I am not a chef!' he said. 'I am a cook! That's it!'"

The '90s brought media-friendly chefs and, according to Fitzmorris, a general dumbing down of menus all over town, and it wasn't until the early 2000s that restaurants rediscovered what made local food so great and abandoned trends like pork belly for traditional fare like andouille. "The genius of New Orleans cooking is not that we cook better than anyone else," Fitzmorris writes. "It's that nobody else in the world cooks our local specialties—except when they consciously imitate us (usually badly, I've found). The day that our food fails to be flagrantly distinctive . . . is the day we become Anywhere, USA." Or, to put less fine a point on it, as Prudhomme told him, "What makes Cajun food great is that for a hundred years we had to sell all our best fish to make a living. We ate the trash fish ourselves. But we learned how to make it taste good."

Indeed, all you have to do is scan the recipe list of Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food (Abrams, $20), a cookbook published in 2006 and now reissued with additional recipes, to know the truth in Prudhomme's statement. Caviar on Savory Lost Bread, Crabmeat Ravigote, ten kinds of oysters listed in the appetizers alone, frogs' legs, Andouille-Cucumber Salad—these are just some of the delights that await anyone willing to undertake them, and the food comes to life here in ways it doesn't in Hungry Town, not least because it's free of claustrophobic local gossip. Fitzmorris admits that not all change is bad, even in local cuisine: "Creole cooking evolves. Gumbo is much thicker and spicier than it was 20 years ago. We cook with ingredients unavailable back when . . . the recipes here [are] written with the latter-day food cornucopia in mind."

He is less generous about other changes, like the demise of dinner attire. At Galatoire's now, not only is ice no longer "chiseled with ice picks," as it had been "since the Cretaceous," but neckties are no longer mandatory for dinner, and he doesn't like it one bit. "The final blow to formality," he carps, "was the breakout of 'Katrina casual following the hurricane. All restaurants dropped their dress codes with only one exception" (at Galatoire's, a jacket is still required).

And while I see his point, it's oddly insensitive to blame a natural disaster for a sartorial downgrade in a book that is otherwise dedicated to the idea that food and restaurants played a huge role in saving New Orleans after Katrina hit in 2005. In the days, weeks, even months after the storm, Fitzmorris recalls, whatever New Orleanians remained longed to visit their favorite dining rooms and partake of a meal: "The idea that people wanted only clichéd comfort food right away proved to be a fallacy. Customers set restaurants straight about that. Soon enough, the steaks, seafood, and poultry were once again napped with sauces and topped with clever garnishes." A year and a half later, when a beloved neighborhood café finally reopened after a massive renovation, "just knowing you could sit down to Mandina's shrimp rémoulade, turtle soup, and soft-shell crabs amandine made living in the still lightly inhabited Mid-City neighborhood a rational proposition. It had the same effect on other neighborhoods, as well." If the food was really the point, should it have mattered that people were leaving their wrecked houses in jeans to seek it out? And now that the New Orleans food scene is revived, isn't that more important than what people are wearing when they dine?

It's his deep understanding of the roots of New Orleans food as a local, communitarian phenomenon that makes it possible to swallow Fitzmorris's score settling and less than egalitarian flourishes. He admits to being relieved that, unlike the people trapped in the Superdome, he never had to eat an MRE brought in by boat (he and his family evacuated to Atlanta before the storm hit). But on returning home, he worried that food critics from other cities would "swoop in too soon and say New Orleans wasn't what it used to be."

All of which is to say that Fitzmorris's small-town New Orleans is, like the one I experienced, very specific. Good food is available in every kind of venue imaginable, from white-tablecloth rooms to kitchens in shotgun houses, yet he writes from a downward-looking vantage. Still, the most moving section of Hungry Town is a series of portraits of restaurant workers who did not survive Katrina, everyone from soul-food chefs to "hamburger slingers," which is more than democratic and heartfelt enough to make up for it. May they rest in peace.

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