Long before “locavore” was a word, before the Food Network made cooking a spectator sport, before Chez Panisse and California cuisine, before even Julia Child and James Beard—a good century or two before what we now think of as the seminal moments on our culinary timeline—there was New Orleans.
It’s true that rich and diverse food cultures could be found from sea to shining sea, but New Orleans food was the haute cuisine of America. Jambalaya, brimming with andouille sausage; shrimp gumbo, thick with okra or file; crawfish étouffée, creamy, savory and utterly delicious; less fancy but no less satisfying muffaletta and po’boy sandwiches; oysters so rich (and green) they were named for Rockefeller; sweet, delectable pralines; boozy, buttery, flaming bananas Foster—these are but a few of the reasons that New Orleans was long the culinary destination of the nation.
Today, food has become our national obsession, and a visit to NOLA is just one of a multitude of boxes to be checked on a foodie bucket list. Really, though, New Orleans should still be near the top of that list. As Michael Murphy reports in Eat Dat: New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City (Countryman Press), the Big Easy is still—even after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005—one of the most vibrant food towns in the United States…or anywhere, for that matter.
Murphy, a former publisher of William Morrow who moved to New Orleans in 2009, has written a guidebook to more than 250 of the city’s eateries. Yet, while it’s organized like a traditional guidebook, with chapters on the city’s neighborhoods and their notable restaurants, it reads like a cross between a work of culinary anthropology and the foodie-gossip column of your dreams.
Murphy recounts the history of various New Orleans culinary institutions and tells about the people behind them, both past and present. He sides with New Orleans culinary historian Lolis Eric Elie, who recalibrates the French contribution to the city’s Creole foodways and says that its African citizens should get as much, if not more, credit for its most famous dishes. Murphy chronicles the long-lived feud that fractured the Brennan family, renowned for such restaurants as Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Noted chefs Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, the late Jamie Shannon, and Susan Spicer appear on the book’s pages, as do local legends Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton.
Murphy tallies the food community’s losses to Katrina—and its inspiring recoveries. And he tells of the city’s grudge against GQ magazine’s restaurant critic, Alan Richman, who visited the city a year into its recovery and gave its foodways a thorough dissing. (He compared it to Tijuana and wondered if, among other things, it was worth rebuilding. Naturally, the citizens of the Big Easy reacted with outrage.)
Murphy himself is New Orleans booster, but a clear-eyed critic of both his adopted city and its restaurants. And a darned amusing one. Of the famed Cafe du Monde and its menu of beignets and chicory coffee, he marvels,” In a city loaded with must do restaurants, bars, music clubs, historical buildings, and horse-drawn or airboat-propelled tourist rides, somehow sitting under a green-and-white awning at a too-small, unclean table, served by waiters who seem more suited to wordlessly taking your ticket at the Superdome, eating a small square hunk of deep-fried dough smothered with powdered sugar has become the #1 must do experience in New Orleans.” (Of course I laughed out loud at this, but I am one who thinks it’s fine for tourists to do touristy things. I have a golden memory of my breakfast at Cafe du Monde some years ago. The sun was blazing so brightly that the air around us seemed to shimmer; the beignets were moments out of the fryer, tender-crisp and sweet; and a jazz trumpeter of modest talents was serenading us with all his heart and soul from the street. It was hardly the best food of my visit, but all together, the morning was just about perfect.)
If you are headed for New Orleans, Murphy’s guidebook has several useful features. An appendix offers best-of lists in 25 categories, selected not by Murphy, but by a panel of local food commentators that he convened for the book. And he concludes each restaurant entry with a pithy “Reason to Go” and “What to Get.” Just one example: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but well-loved eatery (it received a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic” award a few months before being destroyed by Katrina, and was rebuilt by volunteers with donations from around the country) gets this summation: “Reason to Go: A fried chicken Holy Shrine. What to Get: In line early (before the 11:00 a.m. opening). The place only seats 28 people.”
You’ll wish he could sit in one of those seats next to you. With his deep knowledge of New Orleans and irreverent wit, Murphy makes a delightful travel companion. You will read this book with pleasure, whether you are actually traveling to New Orleans or just dreaming of that perfect beignet while curled up in your armchair at home.