"Fitzmorris makes a damn good case for why we should all care about the food in New Orleans—and want to eat some of it immediately."
I have always wanted to go to New Orleans. A native New Yorker, I'm not one to concede that another city is necessarily cooler or has better food than my own. But there's something about New Orleans that draws me in—a small-town feel, a passion for food, the love of a good party.
And after reading Hungry Town, by Tom Fitzmorris, I'm completely sold. Fitzmorris has been a food writer and host of The Food Show on New Orleans radio since before his life's passion even yielded recognized professions. He has written extensively and critically of New Orleans food for decades, celebrating its undying loyalty to Cajun and Creole tradition. But his life, and the future of his beloved city, were vastly altered after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is from this lens that he writes this book, as much a testimony to New Orleans's heritage as to its ability to rebuild.
Now, don't think this is a book just about Katrina. I couldn't help but wonder whether the book would get caught up in the traumatic details of such an awful event—but Fitzmorris' intent is not to wallow. He describes a city that, as of 2010, has more restaurants than it did before the devastating storm (955 vs. 809 in 2005). Rather than dwell on the destruction left behind by the storm, he uses the city's plight as a jumping-off point to highlight the citizens' unshakable desire to rebuild. And as Fitzmorris describes it, the way New Orleans rebuilt itself was through clinging to its sacred food culture and filling restaurants as soon as they reopened.
There are several narratives in Fitzmorris' ode to his city. One is his own—his development from aspiring disc jockey to floundering journalist to pioneer in the world of food reporting. He created a newsletter called The New Orleans Menu, which has been running for more than thirty years. And he made it his business to keep thorough account of the restaurants across the city. There are many stories in the book about Fitzmorris's hob-nobbing with chefs and feasting endlessly on the area's great seafood—perhaps too many. But these tales do nothing if not paint a picture of the joie de vivre and appreciation that all New Orlineans feel for their food.
Fitzmorris reports that it took him years to learn how to cook, seeing as his career necessitated constant restaurant meals. But soon he reached a roadblock—he couldn't answer readers' or callers' questions about food preparation. As he notes, "traditional Cajun and Creole food takes a lot of time and work. And it takes real cooking." So he set out to become a worthy cook, starting by replicating restaurant dishes and later moving on to his own recipes. The book is studded with these recipes of classic New Orleans cuisine, which provide a nice supplement, allowing the reader to better taste and visualize the foods being described.
Also highlighted in the book are prominent New Orleans chefs, notably John Besh and Emeril Lagasse. I enjoyed reading about Emeril's early career, which Fitzmorris tracked closely. He cooked very serious food in his years as a young chef, which was nice to read after years of being slightly unconvinced by his on-air presence. And Besh continues to be the current all-star chef of the city, quickly reopening his landmark Restaurant August after Katrina, and opening several new restaurants in the years since.
After Katrina, the city faced billions of dollars in damage and a huge depression in morale. But Fitzmorris tells a story of hope. Pulling together, leaving old grudges behind, and knocking down the doors of half-renovated restaurants, the city turned to food for a sense of community and normalcy. Fitzmorris celebrates this sentiment, and was a key player in keeping track of the number of restaurants reopening after the storm. He traces the trials and successes of some of the city's most beloved restaurateurs, and nearly every story has a happy ending.
There are some who suggest that New Orleans may have lost some of its centuries-old food culture in the flood waters and debris of summer 2005. For them, Fitzmorris has this to say: "It's essential that Creole and Cajun should remain the default cooking styles in New Orleans...The genius of [our] cooking is not that we cook better than anyone else. It's that nobody else in the world cooks our local specialties...The day that our food fails to be flagrantly distinctive is the day we become Anywhere, USA." It is this passion and certainty that is shared among New Orlineans, and which I admire. Fitzmorris makes a damn good case for why we should all care about the food in New Orleans—and want to eat some of it immediately.
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