Simmering for Unity: Red Beans and "Gumbo Tales"



"Unlike politicians, however, food unites with complete sincerity. It harbors no ulterior motives; its power is irreversible. Red beans and rice is my best example."

- Sara Roahen, from "Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table"

A native of Wisconsin, Sara Roahen had a unique vantage from which to learn about the intertwining of food, family, friendship, business, ethnic identity, history and personal politics in New Orleans as restaurant critic for Gambit Weekly from 2000 to 2005.

Her explorations around the region, her research into the creation and development of iconic recipes and the personalities of her food-obsessed friends gave her plenty of material outside of the standard weekly restaurant critique, however, and this she poured into her memoir, "Gumbo Tales," published around Mardi Gras time this year.

Each chapter corresponds with a specific New Orleans food item, like red beans, or a drink, like the Sazerac, but this book is no mere catalog of our favorite things.  Rather, the food and drink set the scene for lively storytelling that gives readers a richer sense of how our everyday culinary traditions came about, their diversity in practice today and how the discussions born from both their commonalities and differences help bind our community together. It may be hard to get two New Orleans cooks to agree on a gumbo preparation, after all, but most of them will agree the spectrum of recipes help build a defining sense of home.

The book's perspective is intensely personal, and therefore also more memorable and meaningful than the many cookbook histories of New Orleans food.  There are no recipes included, but reading it will make you want to eat, and even cook, something local right away.

Ms. Roahen will give a reading from her book and even provide samples of her own red beans and rice this Sunday, Sept. 14, at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.

The event begins at 2 p.m. Admission is $10 and includes the exhibits of both the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and the Museum of the American Cocktail.

- Ian McNulty

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