Friday, January 08, 2010

Memoir Review: Gumbo Tales

Where to begin? Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, a scrumptious memoir by Sara Roahen, is one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, I started reading a library copy of this book last year and loved it so much that I set it down and returned it because I knew this was a book I had to own, a book I’d want to read again and again. My husband gave it to me for my birthday this year, and I recently finished it during my trip to Oklahoma. It was one of those books that I never wanted to end; I read every word, including the acknowledgments and index (how could I not love a book whose index goes from Abita Amber beer to Zulu Social Aid Club?), then hugged it to me with a satisfied sigh.

Like me, Roahen is a transplanted northerner who moved to New Orleans, and, like me, the city cast its spell on her and changed her life. Although Gumbo Tales is ostensibly about the food of New Orleans (certainly a worthy topic on its own), it’s also about the city’s unique culture, history, and people. Woven into the stories about Roahen’s discovery of New Orleans’ culinary riches are tales of the unique characters she meets and the devastating toll of Hurricane Katrina on the people and on the city itself.

Each chapter is devoted to a unique aspect of New Orlean’s food culture, from the expected (gumbo, crawfish) to the lesser known (sno-balls, red gravy, and Le Beouf Gras) to the downright bizarre (turducken). I savored every word of the book as I used to savor every bite of New Orlean’s wonderful food, smiling at the mention of old favorite foods and restaurants and grabbing my pen and notebook at the mention of as-yet undiscovered treasures. I was reading Gumbo Tales on the plane and was starving by the time we landed!

Here, in the first chapter, Roahen explains the magic of gumbo:

Gumbo is the most important dish in the Louisiana lexicon for its prevalence and dependability alone. It’s difficult to come up with a single regional-leaning restaurant in New Orleans with a menu of any substance that doesn’t serve some version of it at least once a week. Gumbo’s pervasiveness does not, however, diminish the dish’s mystique; just as its variations are infinite, so are gumbo’s controversies and questions.

Every native can, and is dying to, describe her quintessential gumbo down to the final grain of rice, rice being the single constant among gumbos. Usually. There are at least as many definitive gumbos in Louisiana as there are accents, and like accents, definitive gumbos are established at home. It’s an intensely esoteric topic, as personal as pie crust and pimento cheese: whatever style a person grows up eating tends to remain her ideal for eternity. If you disagree with that ideal, it’s clearly because you’re impaired in some sad, fundamental way.

Roahen’s words bring you deep into the history and hearths of New Orleans. Foodies, travel buffs, and Louisiana enthusiasts like me will love her warm, funny, touching memoir. It reminded me of all that I love about New Orleans and why we’ve brought our kids up on red beans and rice and jambalaya here in Delaware. We’re planning a spring break trip to Louisiana this year (we took our sons two years ago, and they fell in love with it, too!), and I can’t wait to get back there to try some of Roahen’s favorite dishes and restaurants. I feel like I’ve made a new friend.

268 pages, W.W. Norton

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