Saturday, May 5, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table

New Orleans is my home away from home. I've been visiting since I was in high school, and frequently bring it up hopefully if friends or loved ones are trying to decide on a getaway. My husband and I went over this year over spring break; he had been wanting to plan a trip on a train, and I am always plotting to get to New Orleans.

This trip had been a long time coming. I went to New Orleans no fewer than a dozen times between 1997 and 2005. My friends and I went weeks before Katrina hit in 2005, but I hadn't been back until this year. Some people's memories of New Orleans are tied exclusively to partying on Bourbon Street, catching beads and drinking out of yard-long hurricane glasses. Mine are exclusively tied to food.

New Orleans introduced me to Cajun and Creole foods I'd never tasted before. I now count red beans & rice, gumbo, and etouffee among my favorite dishes. It also opened up a whole new realm of seafood: tuna steak and boiled crawfish, in particular. I recall eating crawfish by the five-pound tray on the shores of Lake Ponchairtrain, indulging in a stuffed artichoke at a Italian restaurant in Metairie, and inhaling beignets at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.

Before we left, I decided I needed some New Orleans reading to get me ready for our trip. I downloaded several Kindle samples, but ultimately bought Sara Roahen's Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table.

Roahen's book details her life as a transplant from Wisconsin who moved to New Orleans as a food writer. To almost anyone, much of New Orleans cuisine would seem odd. To a Midwesterner, raised on eggs, meat, and cheese, the food was even more foreign.

In Gumbo Tales, Roahen introduces readers to the foods that make New Orleans unique from the perspective of an outsider. She discusses the ins and outs of each food, sharing where and when she first experienced the dish, and writes about the tastes, textures, and smells with exquisite detail. She offers restaurant choices and specific home cooks whose versions of the dishes she raves about are worthy of deep praise. She also details her own forays into cooking the dishes, although her recipes are missing from the book.

Among the New Orleans foods she describes are gumbo, po-boys, king cake, red beans & rice, crawfish, stuffed artichokes, and chicory coffee. She relates meals both grand and not-so-grand (but delicious), from Galatoire's to shopping strip holes-in-the-wall.

Although Gumbo Tales lacks recipes, Roahen offers her own versions of New Orleans favorites on her website. Send her an email, and she'll send you some recipes! She also offers a large array of photographs linked to specific chapters in her book. Explore those for some mouth-watering pictures of food, plus plenty of New Orleans city shots, as well.

After finishing Gumbo Tales, I'm itching to go back and explore some of the restaurants Roahen describes. Let's be honest: anything for a return trip to New Orleans!


  1. This sounds like a great read. I love food writing and I don't need recipes to enjoy great food-related essays.

    1. This is a wonderful book, and it absolutely reads like a book of essays. It wasn't necessary to read it in order, even. It was a book I could put down and come back to days later, and still enjoy. Also, it was a good palette-cleanser when I was reading heavier things!

  2. My husband and I went to New Orleans last year and I have to agree that the food was fabulous. Each restaurant we went to was better than the last. We particularly liked The Commander's Palace. If you had told me that I would enjoy turtle soup, I would have said that you were crazy, but it was delicious. Great post!

    1. Thanks! I'm so glad you enjoyed it -- I always love when people have good experiences in my favorite places. Like books, places are so often a matter of taste; there are those who think New Orleans is dirty and don't enjoy it. I'm glad to hear you loved it!

  3. Thanks for reading, and for writing such a flattering post. I hope you get back to New Orleans soon! - Sara



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