Customer Reviews: Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table
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on February 25, 2008
As a long-since transplanted--and not particularly "foodie"--native New Orleanian, "Gumbo Tales" reads like vivid, technicolor personal history to me: snowballs, Stage Planks, mirliton dressing, crawfish boil escapees... and how they all tie together a very specific, food-centered community. Since the hurricane, I've felt wierdly like part of my past was obliterated. (Yes, that's maudlin and self-indulgent considering what happened to those who lived in and around the city at the time of the storm, but there it is). This book can't bring back that missing part, but it certainly reminds me, all the more sharply, of what we've all lost.

A note about a previous reviewer's complaint of poor copy-editing: I can get pretty outraged about others' crimes against the language (while forgiving myself similar sins, of course). I spotted a few misdemeanors--and maybe a felony or two--in this book, as in a lot of published material. They didn't overwhelm my ability to enjoy it. You can best judge whether they'll overwhelm yours.
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on March 27, 2008
I learned of this book from Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post. We were out of ideas for our son's Spring Break and we hit on New Orleans: an eating vacation with Sara Roahen as our guide. I studied the book on a stationery bicycle as I tried to lose 15 pounds to get into shape for six great meals at Commander's Palace, Herbsaint, Bayona, Palace Cafe, Antoine's, and Galatoire's (listed in order, from greatest to merely great). Plus a few po' boys, lesser meals, and snacks, constrained only by our appetites.

This is a delightful and worthy book. It is organized around New Orleans' principal food groups with chapters on gumbo, red beans and rice, po' boys, etc. For each Roahen researched vintage cookbooks to trace origins, variations, and controversies. She uses this framework to interweave stories of her life in New Orleans and her experiences with the food and the people who make it, eat it, and live by it. She is a good writer, and her book served my purpose well. Every meal tasted better because of the context she provided.

That said her "menu-item framework" is awkward for the story she is telling. The book needs introductory chapters to describe New Orleans cuisine today, its evolution, and why it is unique (and superior!)

The introduction should follow easily from her careful research, but she doesn't even take up the fundamental distinction between Cajun and Creole until a chapter about poisson meuniere amandine, 159 pages into the book. The introduction should lay out the basic taxonomy of New Orleans food purveyors from the traditional five star restaurants, through contemporary innovators, to cafes and po' boy shops and street vendors. It would be a logical place for some of the personal vignettes of people who influenced her life in New Orleans which are awkwardly shoe-horned into chapters about food (e.g., the restaurant critic, Tom Fitzmorris in le boeuf gras) with which they have only a passing association.

Finally, I question her choice of menu items. There is a boring chapter on Vietnamese cuisine and another on a Mardi Gras coconut-trinket that I would gladly have traded for some missing chapters on traditional New Orleans cuisine: jambalaya, bread pudding, hot sauce. What is New Orleans without Tabasco?
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on February 18, 2008
Sara Roahen has written a kind, sweet, humble, and humorous book on New Orleans food culture. Its full of wonderfully human stories about food passion and connection, the region and its people. One dreams of getting down there, and I could taste the food. Its a scrumptious book, and a great read. Each chapter is beautifully finished with the lines of its last sentence. Pass the red beans and rice, please.
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on March 30, 2008
I'm always searching for books about and related to New Orleans which can put me in a New Orleans state of mind even from the Northeast. It was fortuitous, then, that I selected Gumbo Tales as my most recent reading material.

I fell in love with the city of New Orleans on my first visit four years ago, and I try to visit as often as possible. When I can't, a book or a movie is the next best thing, and I eventually plan to call New Orleans my home. Gumbo Tales provides the perfect window into the culture of New Orleans, and I was sad the book was over when I finished.

One of the things I liked most about the book is that it's from the perspective of a non-native New Orleanian such as myself. That I could really identify with, moreso than I can with books and stories written by people who were born and raised. I identified with the process of coming from the outside, becoming enchanted, and wanting desperately to be part of the culture. I identified with Roahan's first experiences of New Orleans traditions as a newbie. I cackled out loud reading about her crawfish mishap. I cried several times because of the book, especially when she wrote about the city's struggling spirit in the wake of the events of 2005.

Besides the sentimental feelings the book gives you about the city, the descriptions of food are really the main ingredient here- and they are brilliant.

Roahan's book was the perfect find for leaving-town-reading, for keeping the feeling of NOLA going even when you're far away. Gumbo Takes made me feel not alone in my New Orleans experience and stubborn love for the place. I recommend this book to anyone who calls New Orleans home, once called it home, plans to call it home, or just wishes they did.
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on February 13, 2013
Going on my first trip this month to NOLA in almost 20 years and found this book absolutely fascinating. Everything I had wondered about with the origins of New Orleans cuisine was in there, including cajun food vs creole food. Did not understand that until now. There is an absolute passion for food in New Orleans and the author brings this all to light in a very entertaining way. Thank you Sara for taking me on a food journey through New Orleans before I even get there.
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on November 5, 2014
Forgot to post this here. From a bit I wrote on Rowley's Whiskey Forge in 2008. As true today as it was then:

During Tales of the Cocktail this past July, author/distiller Mike McCaw and I mosied up to a table where a lithe young woman was talking to all comers and mixing Sazeracs and brandy old fashioneds for any who cared to sample. Bottles of brandy, whiskey, bitters, and the local anise spirit Herbsaint were at the ready, though running low, as the hordes of reveling attendees wound down Cocktail Hour.

Suddenly, she went wide-eyed. “Oh my gosh! Did that guy just steal my book?” Sure enough, the russet-and-red hardback she had authored with its cover of a time-worn cocktail sign was now nowhere to be seen, nor was the unsteady admirer who had been thumbing it moments before. That week, with the Hotel Monteleone was awash in premium swag, some thieving cad absconded with Sara Roahen’s personal copy of Gumbo Tales.

Just because the thief was in his cups doesn’t mean he was wrong. In fact, he might have made off with one of the choicest take-aways in the hotel. If New Orleans has ever been good to you, then take his lead and beg, borrow, or, buy a copy of Gumbo Tales without delay.

Roahen, a Wisconsin transplant, has proven her food chops—as a line cook, restaurant reviewer for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and, tenaciously, in her attempts to trace Wisconsin’s brandy old fashioned cocktails back to the Sazerac through an anonymous Mississippi riverboat captain.

She has written a book at turns both gut-wrenching and bust-out-loud funny about finding her place at the New Orleans table (and, apparently, not a few bars). In the process, she wrestles with defining gumbo, boiling live crawfish, the city’s seeming disinterest in vegetables (unless breaded, fried, cooked down, or dressed up with crab, ham, sausage, and cheese), its cult-like following of Hansen’s sno-balls, its robust St Joseph’s Day feasts, po-boy sandwiches, and an influx of newcomers, learning how and why, as she does, to remain in that postdiluvian city.

Those of us interested in the drinking and food cultures of New Orleans savor classic cookbooks such as Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole for shedding light on the origins of creole cooking. Others help explain the growth of both creole and Cajun cookery, such as Paul Prudhomme’s 1984 Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen or John Folse’s recent encyclopedic tomes on South Louisiana cookery (all of which, by the way, contain an abundance of recipes for alcoholic beverages, sips, and nips from absinthe drips to brandy milk punches).

Roahen’s book belongs on the same shelf, though it is something else. For one, it has no recipes. Like the city itself now, Gumbo Tales is defined by what some have called the federal floods, but which many just call Katrina. Here, the floods are both a lens for examining, and a touchstone that unites, everyone with connections to the city.

Katrina doesn’t mean just the 2005 hurricane itself, but also its evil twin Rita. It means the broken levees, the flooding, the deaths, the harrowing devastation, the political ineptitude, the broken families, and displaced lives that followed the storm and which continue to affect daily life in the city. All of that is enough to make even courageous constitutions turn to drink.

Listen to her take:

Earlier this week, from my car, I saw a man walk past a water-stained sofa that someone had hauled to the curb weeks ago. He got a few feet beyond it and then doubled back to arrange two of the sofa’s cushions that had gone askew. My throat tensed at this small gesture toward fixing our overwhelming mess.
Your throat may tense while reading Gumbo Tales, too. Mine did. It also prodded me to mix a Sazerac, made my mouth water, my stomach growl, and the walls echo with belly laughs as she readily points out her own foibles and outright lies:

"No one but my kindergarten teacher flinched when at six years old I mentioned my desire to become a cocktail waitress when I grew up."

Or, in an effort to convince a reluctant Vietnamese restaurant owner that she was a seasoned trencherman:

"I eat duck blood all the time."

Concerning a certain New Orleans fascination with a revered sno-ball queen:

"Most of her followers do not want to date Ashley Hansen. We want to be her."

Some have said “Let New Orleans sink. It’s their own fault for living there.” The first chapter alone lays open that imbecilic rationale that could only be meant by those who’ve never been or, having been, never left the French Quarter and who know it only as a modern Gomorrah of tacky t-shirts, cirrhotic livers, hustles, and corruption.

To think that way is to say that humans are all teeth, toenails, and elbows. Yes, of course, we have those things—and what would we be without them?—But that’s so laughably far from reality nobody could seriously believe it.

Intentionally or not, the book is an eloquent argument for why the Crescent City is worth saving. Even after the storms, it remains one of the most vibrant cities in the United States (I’m not unbiased: my own mother recently referred to the place as “your beloved New Orleans” so take my endorsement with a grain of rice). Read the book, but when you’re done, put it away and high-tail it to New Orleans. Go for the first time, go for the tenth time. Just go.

Though she denies Gumbo Tales is a guidebook, a newcomer to the city or an inquisitive visitor who wants to get to know the place more intimately than a casual conventioneer does could do worse than to get a map, a highlighter, and a notebook to mark out, neighborhood by neighborhood, a hit list of po-boys, sno-balls, esoteric cocktails, bakeries, miscellaneous eateries, and watering holes.

New Orleans is one of the world’s great culinary destinations because of the people who love it so much. Roahen nailed it when she writes that people love the city as they love a person. And few have captured its residents’ obsessions with eating and drinking more poignantly and lyrically than a transplanted Midwesterner who has embraced the New Orleans table with the zealotry of a convert.

Sara Roahen has found her place.
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on May 14, 2015
I am drinking a Sazerac cocktail as I write this review. Roahen moved to New Orleans with her medschool student husband. With a limited background as a line cook, she becomes food editor for a local paper. In the process she explores the little nooks and crannies of New Orleans cuisine , learning to cook it as she goes. Each chapter focuses on one item, e.g., the Sazerac or poboys, but extends to people and origins. In the process of transforming herself into a native through the culture of food, she drew me back to a city I always have loved. Although the book spans pre- and post-Katrina the hurricane and its damage do not dominate the book or the spirit of the people in it. If you love New Orleans and its food, this book will give you a laundry list of new eateries to try on your next visit.
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on November 7, 2011
Fantastic and lovely reading here. Can't say enough about this book. Sara Roahen writes beautifully; every essay makes you curious and hungry! NOLA is a town with so much culture and food to discover. I'm there at least once a year to visit friends and in-laws. After 8 years of visits, there's still so much to discover. I turn to Sara's book often, for good reading and for suggestions on what to eat next and where to eat it! Thanks for a gorgeous book, Sara. I've loved every word, and have enjoyed, too, giving your book as a gift.
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on June 24, 2012
for those of you who want one book about nola and its food, forget it. you must read several including cookbooks. there are many. sarah wrote this book the way she saw fit. i am from louisiana and lived in nola over 4 years and was an eager and early foodie during the reign of richard and rima collin and the new orleans underground gourmet in the local paper there; subsequently underground became a paperback guide book, and i believe, the first of its kind. . i love this book sarah has written. she lives in nola in the uptown area and knows what she is talking about. other books i would recommend are rima and me by richard collin, a confederacy of dunces by o'toole, new orleans cookbook by rima and richard collin, encyclopedia of cajun and creole cuisine by john folse, ny new orleans by john besh, new orleans food by tom fitzmorris, creole feast by nathaniel burton, uglesich's restaurant cookbook. get to ordering and reading. i can tell you that after living in new orleans, san fran, washington, d.c., denver, nashville, and travelling all over france, there is no tastier, better quality food at a better price than in new orleans; and there are more restaurants per sq. mile than anywhere i know except maybe the left bank of paris. d.gremillion
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on January 26, 2014
Yes, I read this baby 5 times .. I'm a writer and a former chef, living in New York. I've thraveled all around the World and to New Orleans 7 times .. I love the city, the people, the food, and when I can't get there, I just pull out my copy of Gumbo Tales and read it again .. It takes me back .. It's a wonderful book with lovely stories of New Orelans, its food, it people, the places (restaurants, cafes, bars and such) .. If you're going to New Orleans, if you love this wonderfully unique city, then Gumbo Tales is a "Must Have" book for your library and memories of New Orleans, Gumbo, Jambalaya, Beignets, and Ettoufee . Get it !
Daniel, NY NY
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