Shortly after I moved to New Orleans, the first southern city I'd ever inhabited, I lucked into the position of restaurant critic for Gambit Weekly newspaper. This hastened the need for some authority on the subject of gumbo, and soon I realized that while accumulating native friends would introduce me to a variety of gumbo styles, I possessed no vocabulary with which to break it down. I needed a crash course. Sara Roahen's debut as Gambit's restaurant critic is as simple as that, and her submersion into New Orleans' culinary culture was as focused as that. She had a background including restaurant kitchen work, a degree from a liberal arts college, and no writing experience except for the sample review she'd dashed off that could've been published that day with minimal editing. And she sported a curiosity about New Orleans food that remains as insatiable as her appetite; overcoming a formidable learning curve through a steady diet of restaurant visits and countless hours of research as she hosted dinners and pressed locals for information. The result was an unprecedented three food-writing honors from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, among other state and local nods.
To write about her debut food memoir, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table (W.W. Norton), without acknowledging a personal connection to Roahen would be about as pointless as it would be for her to write about New Orleans food without mentioning her personal connection to it. Just as it was impossible for Roahen, who left Gambit in early 2005 to pursue her book idea, not to write about New Orleans food with a post-Katrina nod. Initially, she'd resisted the idea, she told me. I think she worried about not having the proper perspective upon her return from her evacuation. Her editor convinced her otherwise.
In Gumbo Tales, Roahen succeeds at managing a very difficult balancing act: one part food criticism, one part culinary anthropology and one part autobiography. The book as it evolved also became a little bit postmortem and an update about New Orleans restaurants after the flood. (Though she and her husband relocated to Philadelphia, she finds as many reasons to return as she can, including checking up on the house they still own together.)
There are chapters devoted to gumbo, the red gravy of the area's rich Italian tradition, the Vietnamese specialty pho and the sno-balls of the neighborhoods. Some chapter titles might seem painfully obvious ('Red Beans and Rice," "Coffee and Chicory," etc.), but within each chapter is a slice of the city's history, present and uncertain future, as she melds an outsider's love affair with a very insider culture.
New Orleans natives are often thought to be leery of this kind of relationship (How authentic is this outsider's love, when a native's starts at birth and rarely ends till death?), but Roahen backs up her love of the city's food with a journalist's exhaustive research. (A glance at her bibliography should either scare or embolden any aspiring food writer.)
"Crawfish have a long history in Louisiana as a poor man's food in reputation, in stigma, and in reality," she writes. "In Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine, Marcelle Bienvenu and Carl and Ryan Brasseaux record that even as recently as the 1930s, Cajuns limited their crawfish harvests to times of flood, when they were too plentiful to ignore, and Lenten periods of fasting."
That comes from the head, but what stirs the soul is when Sara Roahen writes from the heart. One of the things I was most impressed by when watching her work was how she watched others. She seemed like a spy on a case at a restaurant, watching other diners eat and gossip, subtly quizzing servers without giving herself away. At the time, I thought it was just note-taking and general nosiness. I didn't know at the time it was the stirrings of a love letter to a city too many of us can't seem to get out of our hearts, no matter where we are.