Friday, February 03, 2012

"Hungry Town" -- All about New Orleans

Tom Fitzmorris, whom I'd never heard of before reading his memoir Hungry Town, is a food journalist with a widely followed radio show originating in New Orleans. I have only spent a few days in New Orleans in my life, having made several short visits. I already admired the cuisine: he didn't need to convince me of its greatness. Over the years, I've bought regional cookbooks (though none by this author) and remember when NO cooking was a fad in the 1980s.

My slight knowledge of NO food doesn't make me an ideal audience for Fitzmorris's memories, but I found the whole book highly readable and enjoyable. He has a way of making each story vivid and making each dish he describes sound delicious beyond imagining. A small selection of recipes adds to the fun.

Three themes intertwine in the book. First, the history of NO cooking and restaurants, beginning mainly with the mid-20th century food trends. Second, the intense importance of food in NO culture. Fitzmorris makes a pretty convincing case that NO people have a deeper interest in food and what he calls a lust for food than those in other parts of the country. Third, the history of the damage and recovery from hurricane Katrina, the largest natural disaster to strike anywhere in the US, at least the largest in any recent memory. His selection of memories of cooks and waiters who died in the floodwaters or otherwise as a result of the storm is poignant (and I usually hate that word).

I like Fitzmorris's view of food, food fads, food celebrities, and food hype. His observations of trends that started in NO and were misappropriated elsewhere are interesting -- blackened redfish would be one of them. I've definitely eaten some bad burned fish as a result of that fad, and he suggests that I can't blame the originators as much as the pathetic imitations. Since he has spent his entire life in NO (except a few weeks as a refugee from Katrina) his point of view on this is especially enlightening.

Another interesting food trend that Fitzmorris covers is the decline of local and traditional foods; however, what makes this relatively common view more interesting is that he demonstrates that during the rebuilding of NO after the disaster, much of the local food made a comeback. He cites various reasons. For one thing Orleanean's exceptional food fascination is also reflective of their love of their city; when faced with near annihilation, they turned to the past for comfort.

As the rebuilding began and progressed, he describes how the locals recreated local restaurants in difficult circumstances; the fast-food places and national chains turned their backs and didn't necessarily reopen. His tales of heroic restaurant rebirths under terrible conditions are amazing. Within a short time after the waters receded, quite a few restauranteurs began serving free food to the clean-up crews and dedicated residents who remained in town.

Natives felt that their neighborhoods could only rebuild if they had good comfort food, and that the city as a whole also needed the fine dining establishments that gave the city its character. At times, Fitzmorris says, a small diner serving local specialties could be the only sign of life in a vast stretch of ruined homes; the people who were still there were scarcely visible.

I especially enjoyed his stories of east-coast journalists who were convinced that the small restaurants had died out, and how he convinced them that in fact, they were more numerous than before, while the chains were in eclipse. (I wonder what's happening more recently -- his book is a couple of years old, and as the city comes back the predators will surely return, I fear.)

All in all, this is a really good food memoir. I haven't tried the recipes, but maybe I will.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

This sounds like a fun one -- thanks. I might have to get that for Rick, who fell in love with NO when he was there on business. Loved the food.