Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table
by Sara Roahen
Another day, another travel book finished (my obsession may be growing out of control – I regret nothing other than the fact I don’t have more time to read!). Except this is no ordinary travel book. Nor is it regular foodie journalism. It’s a bit of both, and it is anything but ordinary.
This is an ode to the culture in New Orleans that has been brought about by its very unique food, and the traditions and stories surrounding it. Sara Roahen, an ex-line cook, a restaurant critic, a Wisconsin native and a New Orleans transplant, found herself living for many years in New Orleans (pre-Katrina), and quickly became submerged in a city where the food culture runs deeper than most of us could possibly imagine.
Clearly a woman besotted with her adoptive city and it’s food, she writes beautifully and tenderly about a different, traditional New Orleanian dish in each chapter, covering everything from gumbo to po’ boys, oyster to Sazeracs, red beans and rice to the slightly more unconventional turducken. But more importantly, she writes about the characters behind the dishes, the New Orleans stalwarts like Leah Chase, Chef Paul Prudhomme, and the Hansen family, among countless others. She tells of their histories, their traditions, how they each left their mark on the city so profoundly, that not even Katrina could take that away.
Given that this book was completed post-Katrina, I found the way she wove that secondary story of loss and tragedy in to be really incredible; she writes about it not with anger or fear, but with reverence and humour. She gives a really beautiful insight into how those horrible events re-shaped the city’s food culture, how it managed to bounce back relatively quickly (comparatively), writing with nostalgia about the places that never had the chance to re-open (at time of publishing anyway) and the changes that occurred to some of the places that were back up and running at the time. She also really hits home that food has the power to heal, to bring people together, to make the good times so very much better and the bad times a little more manageable – the simple act of sharing a meal is one of the most understated, yet powerful acts there is.
I didn’t want this book to end, truly; I don’t think I’ve ever felt so connected to something I’ve been reading about as I have to this. Strangely enough, and for reasons I can’t possibly fathom, I’ve always had a bit of an affinity to the city of New Orleans. I’ve never been there (although I will finallybe visiting in January 2015!!!), never actually known anyone who has been there, come to think of it, never had a tangible connection with it, but I’ve always instinctively felt it would be somewhere I’d instantly be at home. And that’s how I felt reading this book; warm, comfortable, familiar. Maybe it’s the food culture that I relate to so strongly, maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the personalities, maybe it’s the macabre of the voodoo and cemeteries, maybe it’s the fascinating history. Hell, maybe it was a past life… Whatever it is, I, like Sara, feel like I’d manage to find a spot for myself at the New Orleans table… hopefully they have room for me once I get over there!
Get your own copy right here, and start reading it immediately!