Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen.
W.W. Norton & Co. 2008. 293 pages.


This is the fifth book I've read for the Foodies Read 2 Reading Challenge this year, and I loved the book.  I bought Gumbo Tales several years ago, and it is another one that sat on my library shelf waiting for the right time for reading. Unfortunately, hurricane season in Louisiana is the apropos time to read this series of essays on the food culture of New Orleans area, because Roahen's book discusses venues destroyed by Katrina and the elderly restaurateurs who didn't survive the evacuation. 

Today, as I write, people in New Orleans are digging out after Hurricane Isaac, while others in South Louisiana are evacuating because of broken or breached levees.  The destruction wrought by hurricanes, even supposedly low level 1 hurricanes, wreak havoc on a state still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish exactly seven years ago to the week (Katrina was a slow developing catastrophe).

While some stories in Roahen's book are tragic, she uses humor effectively to prevent the essays from being too depressing,  pessimistic or maudlin.  She divides her book into chapters on emotion-laden subjects, at least in my household--topics, such as:  gumbo, po-boys, crawfish, coffee and chicory, and red beans and rice.  Other important subjects she scrutinizes are sno-balls (snow-cones);  red gravy (Italian tomato sauce); turducken (if you watch football, you should know this one); and oysters.  Other chapters include Sazeracs, vegetables, poisson meuniere amandine, pho, coconuts, king cake & y-ka-mein, le boeuf gras, and turkey bone gumbo.

Roahen's descriptions will interest anyone wanting to know more about the melting pot of New Orleans inhabitants as told through their food.  Roahen does explain in her foreword that some of the places mentioned were washed away, and she doesn't know if or when they might return, e.g. the Vietnamese market area outside the city, but they were so much a part of the fabric of the New Orleans she experienced that she couldn't leave them out.  Roahen herself no longer lives in New Orleans, but the reader knows that the city has become part of her so she will return often.

Anyone familiar with the Crescent City will undoubtedly see favorite neighborhood venues mentioned.  I know we rarely visit New Orleans without stopping by Mandina's, an Italian-creole neighborhood restaurant on Canal that has been totally revamped since Katrina.  And drinks on the porch at The Columns on St. Charles will become part of our ritual after our recent visit. 

This book to be one to be read slowly and savored, and I plan to pack it to use as a culinary guidebook for our next visit to NOLA.

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