New Orleans: A Food Biography.
Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2013. Pp. xx + 191, foreword, preface, timeline, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Elizabeth Williams’s New Orleans: A Food Biography is the first in a series of US “Big City Food Biographies” published by the Altamira Press, a division of Rowman and Littlefield with a list of more than a dozen food studies books (including forthcoming food biographies of San Francisco and New York City). According to the series editor, Ken Albala, titles in the series are meant to be “real biographies” rather than guidebooks, intended to explain “the urban infrastructure, the natural resources that make each city unique, and most importantly the history, people, and neighborhoods.” For the most part, this volume follows through well on those intentions.
The book contains ten chapters, the first of which discusses the most common images of, and commonplace notions about, New Orleans cuisine, including the national marketing of “Creole” and “Cajun” foods and cuisine. The next three chapters explain the geography, climate, and material resources of the surrounding natural and man-made environment, and the food traditions of the region’s early inhabitants, with particular attention to those from France. The fifth chapter contains sections on the contributions to local foodways of a number of immigrant groups. The remaining five chapters describe, respectively, New Orleans food markets and retailing, restaurants, the place of drinking—especially drinking alcohol—in local culinary tradition, cooking at home and New Orleans cookbooks, and the signature foods and foodstuffs of the city.
I can’t imagine a better city than New Orleans to put first on the list to receive this sort of treatment. Williams, the director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, a New Orleans non-profit living history organization (southernfood.org), draws upon insights from history, economics, the law, and geography to craft a compelling book-length narrative from a considerable variety of data. For the most part this is all done very well. For me, the strongest sections of the book were those describing the history and economics of food markets, food vending, and food shopping (called “making groceries”—derived from the French faire marcher—in New Orleans). The description of local foods in the final chapter and the bibliography are both also very useful, and the book is notable for its attention to more contemporary developments in New Orleans restaurant culture.
There are several sections, though, that would have benefitted from greater focus on the vernacular and at street level. The chapter on restaurants, for instance, provides useful capsule biographies of the canonical New Orleans establishments—such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, and the various enterprises of the Brennan family—but has very little to say about the mom-and-pop businesses that characterize and serve New Orleans neighborhoods and communities (many of them, like Metarie or Slidell, well beyond the tourist zone): Casamento’s, Johnny’s Po-Boys (and its many po-boy brethren throughout the city), Mosca’s, Mother’s, Pascal’s, and (the late, lamented) Uglesich’s, to name just a few.
Of course, there are many New Orleans neighborhood restaurants that might serve as evidence for a distinctive local food culture, and no one book can include them all. But as Williams herself notes, more than forty years ago Richard Collin’s The New Orleans Underground Gourmet covered this neighborhood territory in detail and with respect; readers would have appreciated greater attention in the present volume (even though it is not a restaurant guide) to this very important swath of local eating culture. Finally, at a technical level, the copyediting for the book missed a number of repetitions of the same facts and descriptions, which detract from the progress and impact of Williams’s narrative.
With all that said, though, New Orleans: A Food Biography is a book well worth reading and using. It evidences its narrative by a range of useful information from several fields; it includes the basics on many of the key people, institutions, and foods of the area; and it presents a picture of local foodways that will be accessible and interesting to students and general readers as well as scholars. I look forward to more books in this series.