I have never been to New Orleans. The boyfriend has, and he dubbed it the worst place he's ever been. That said, it's hard to believe after reading Sara Roahen's delightful Gumbo Tales. Focused on New Orleans food and the struggle to fit in as a transplant to the city, Roahen divides her book into chapters that each focus on a dish or beverage and a theme that goes along with it. For example, the chapter about Sazeracs focuses on parallels between New Orleans and Roahen's native Wisconsin as well as the evolution of the cocktail. The history of all the dishes are dug into, though for most of them there's a lot of ambiguity about how the food really came to be, such New Orleans hosts such a mish-mash of peoples and always has.
Roahen clearly started writing this book pre-Katrina, which leads to an odd and heartbreaking duality. She has a lot of nostalgia for the city "before the storm" and a lot of heartbreak for how it's suffered "after the storm," as the history of New Orleans has become divided, but there's also a lot of hope there, too. She notes which restaurants and stands have closed their doors, seemingly never to return, but also the ones that have opened again stronger than ever, or the ones that aren't open yet but show signs of life, slowly stirring. Even the rebuilding of the city's Vietnamese community is touched upon, with the revival of the street market and the Tet festival. Carnival is described, both pre- and post-Katrina, in a way that most who are not native to New Orleans could possibly imagine.
But of course, this is primarily a book about food, and Roahen's descriptions are tantalizing. She manages to make foods that I would likely never try, like tripe and turkey necks, sound delicious. The only dish that even she couldn't make me crave was fertilized eggs--yes, eggs that actually have chicks in them. That one brought up a shudder, but aside from that, I think every single thing she mentioned sounded delicious. And it was educational, too! She clearly did a lot of research here, citing various books from various time periods as part of her research into the evolution of New Orleans cuisines (including Cajun, Creole, Vietnamese, and all sort of hybrids and others that pop up here and there) and some of them seem like they could be great reading on their own. Additionally, she provides a lot of insight into how some of the dishes are actually prepared, in their many preparations--something that she learned as someone trying to cook New Orleans style. For example, I'd never known that the color of a roux affected a gumbo so much! Or that so many different types of meat were supposed to go into red beans and rice! This book has definitely inspired me to try some more New Orleans-style recipes, though I can't by any stretch call myself a New Orleansian.
Overall, this is another great addition to my trove of food books. I don't think it's something I'd go back and read again and again, but I definitely made some mental notes about things to look into further, and it was certainly an enjoyable read.
4 stars out of 5.