Book Knowledge, Part One
The third annual ‘Bon Vivant’ Summer Reading Roundup
Each summer, I compile a list of books for beach or lakeside entertainment or to while away those many, many hours spent luxuriating in the air conditioning instead of sweltering in the New Orleans heat. Two summers ago, it focused on must-read Southern authors and last summer, it was a roundup of books from the “Read+Spin” feaure in New Orleans Magazine that until recently was penned by yours truly. (My colleague Jessica DeBold took it up this month, so look for her picks from here on out.) Meanwhile, I combed through the 2015 and 2016 archives for this year’s list for your reading pleasure. As with the 2016 list, it features Louisiana authors or subject matter. From fiction and architecture to cooking and history, there’s a little something for everyone. Bonus: Reading makes you smarter. Happy reading!
Lovers of Southern literature, its authors and their hometowns, which often wind up as central locations and characters in their novels, will want to read and plan trips based on Margaret Eby’s, “South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature.” Eudora Welty’s garden in Jackson, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks are but a few points of interest in the journey. As luck would have it, fans of John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Confederacy of Dunces” now can enjoy a tour of the hot dog carts frequented by the book’s slovenly, eccentric Ignatius J. Reilly. With considerable biographical and historical background included, Eby’s prose plays to an audience who likely has already embarked upon more than one pilgrimage to a literarily significant locale and gives the fans what they crave and perhaps inspiration for a few new vacation destinations.
In 2014, New Orleanian, Tulane University adjunct professor, author and New Orleans Magazine People to Watch Class of 2014 alum Katy Simpson Smith gained widespread recognition on a grand and national scale with her debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea,” which was on last year’s Bon Vivant summer reading list. February marked the release of the 30-year-old Jackson, Mississippi native’s second novel, “Free Men.” Having earned an M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the two novels have allowed Smith to flex her muscle as an historian and gifted writer.
“The fiction that I love is fiction that takes me to places that are completely unexpected and that I don’t have any experience of,” Smith tells Garden & Gun Magazine in its February/March Southern Hot List issue. “So when I started writing, it seemed natural to go to places that I wanted to explore.”
For Free Men, Smith explores a true historical incident the author discovered while researching south Alabama. Set in 1788, the novel centers on a white South Carolina man running away from a tragedy; a black man escaping a Pensacola sugar plantation; a Creek tribesman defending his family’s honor; and the French tracker sent to retrieve the men after they commit murder.
“I was magnetized by the cultural implications,” Smith says in a press release. “When people want to know what it was like back then, this is it; people from widely varying backgrounds enmeshed together, laboring to define their nations, their families and themselves.”
Smith’s sharp prose has a sense of urgency, propelling the story swiftly forward, but not without exploring the complexities of the South and of America’s own challenging and often violent beginnings.
“Centuries of discrimination based on race and class have sifted the South into its current state, polarized and segregated in many respects, but these men I’m writing about show the rich colonial soup out of which we hardened,” she says. “And writing in the voices of such different characters, while full of pitfalls and challenges, was the only way I knew to give each of their histories an equal claim.”
“In The Gates of Evangeline,” author Hester Young leads the reader through a dreamy, Southern gothic mystery from the East Coast to Louisiana. The story follows Charlie Cates, who’s grieving over the death of her preschool-aged son, Keegan. When Cates begins dreaming of children in danger, she travels to a small town in Louisiana and delves into the 30-year-old case of a missing 3-year-old and the wealthy Deveau family’s plantation. Inspired by a family tradition of haunting premonitions, Young’s novel is powerful and captivating.
“In My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South,” journalist and Pulitzer prize-winning author Rick Bragg spins tales of the region with heart, soul and a lot of wry humor. From his home state of Alabama to Cajun Country and the Gulf Coast, Bragg covers everything from football fanaticism to his obsession with notebooks. Charming, hilarious and sometimes tear jerking, the essays will especially appeal to Bragg’s fellow Southerners, but also anyone who loves a good story. Over a decade of essays, some never before published, are included in the collection. Bragg’s work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Food & Wine, Southern Living and The New York Times. A former newspaper reporter, Bragg covered high school football for the Jacksonville News for decades. He currently is a professor of writing at the University of Alabama. His other books include “All Over But the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man” and “The Prince of Frogtown.”
“Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect,” by Robert S. Brantley with Victor McGee is a book decades in the making. Brantley, noted New Orleans architectural photographer, researcher and historian, first met the architect’s grandson Victor McGee in 1978. The two men, along with Brantley’s wife, the late Historic New Orleans Collection photographer Jan White Brantley, embarked upon what wound up being a lifelong project for McGee and Jan Brantley, who both died before the book’s completion. The five-pound tome offers a comprehensive look at Howard’s work and life and features striking color interior and exterior photos, historic images, the architect’s own illustrations and watercolors and historic documents. Howard immigrated to New Orleans from Ireland in 1837. His designs borrowed heavily from Roman and Greek architecture. The prolific architect is known for countless private commissions, including the Belle Grove Plantation, and other notable plantation homes, as well as scores of grand houses in the Garden District and ecclesiastical and civic projects, such as the Pontalba buildings on Jackson Square. The Historic New Orleans Collection and Princeton Architectural Press published the book in 2015.
“In Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans,” by Elizabeth M. Williams and Chris McMillian, the authors lead readers through New Orleans’ storied relationship with the bottle, glass, mug and – well, you get the picture. Williams, founder and director of the Southern Food & Beverage Institute, and McMillian, a world-renowned bartender, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail at SoFab and co-owner of Revel in Mid-City with his wife Laura, cover the culture, history, myths and legends of cocktailing in the New Orleans, as well as offering up recipes and recommendations for cocktail bars. With black-and-white illustrations and a glossary of mixology terminology, this boozy little book is bound to become an invaluable reference in your cocktail library.
“Essential Emeril: Favorite Recipes and Hard-Won Wisdom from My Life in the Kitchen,” is the latest tome in the Emeril Lagasse cookbook cannon. More than 100 updated and refined recipes are included in the book, which Lagasse deems his most personal, and it also includes instructions on technique, a list of basic cookware for every kitchen, what to have in the pantry and step-by-step photo tutorials, making it the perfect starter cookbook or gift for a more experienced home cook. Personal stories and anecdotes are peppered throughout the book, including the story of being lured to New Orleans by Dick and Ella Brennan to take the helm at Commander’s Palace as a successor to Paul Prudhomme. Not only is the book a glimpse into the life and cooking of this famed chef, but it’s also perhaps the one you should buy if you’re only going to own only one, as evidenced by Lagasse’s own words in the forward where he writes, “I am very proud of this book – it’s my ultimate collection, curated over a lifetime of cooking.”
“Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes,” is John Besh’s most approachable effort to date and has become a staple in the Bon Vivant kitchen. The 101 recipes in the book, Besh’s fourth, are easy to follow, include home cooked meals familiar to Louisiana natives and simple to execute for those new to the cuisine. Uncomplicated, easy to find ingredients are at the heart of the recipes. Besh, a father of four, writes, “It’s a true reflection of how I cook at home today, much more like my mother and grandmother did, often using as few ingredients, pots and pans as possible.” Crawfish beignets, Mardi Gras morning pork shoulder grillades, turkey gumbo, grilled okra and all of the crab, crawfish, trout and shrimp your heart desires are included, as well as a dessert chapter straight out of your grandmother’s playbook, featuring crowd pleasers such as bread pudding and hot buttered rum sauce. With a soft cover – which Besh writes is by design so readers will keep it off of the coffee table and in the kitchen to be used, splattered and dog-eared – fabulous food photos and images of New Orleans, plus a clean, unfussy design, it’s a basic Louisiana and New Orleans cookbook to keep handy for reference or to try a never before attempted old favorite.
New Orleans writer, cook and “Louisiana Eats!” radio show host Poppy Tooker’s newest effort, “Tujague’s Cookbook,” offers up 100 recipes from the famed French Quarter institution and the stories behind each one. The 192-page collection features 70 color photos and focuses on New Orleans creole dishes, including trout meunière amandine, shrimp remoulade and bread pudding. No book on Tujague’s would be complete without cocktail recipes. Sazaracs, Pimm’s Cups and Grasshoppers are all included, the latter of course having been created at Tujague’s.
The food writers and editors who did their part in the Hurricane Katrina restoration by recovering and rebuilding the city’s lost recipes reissued a favorite tome. The 10th anniversary edition of “Cooking up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans,” edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, is a 368-page, hardcover celebration of New Orleans, its food, chefs and people. From classic to contemporary and everything between, it begins – naturally – with cocktails, including the beloved Sazerac, and sizzles, bubbles, simmers, grills and fries its way through appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, casseroles and desserts. If your Big Easy kitchen isn’t already stocked with this book, now is the time to remedy the situation and get cookin’, New Orleans style.
COOKING AND ENTERTAINING
“Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long,” by author, Garden & Gun and Elle Décor contributing editor and James Beard Foundation nominee Julia Reed, is a gorgeously packaged, 224-page tome, with 150 envy- and hunger-inducing photos by photographer Paul Costello. Reed and Costello, both based in New Orleans, take readers from a sandbar picnic in Mississippi and citrus-laden Christmas “cocktail supper” (a term Reed credits to her mother) in New Orleans to a formal dinner for a “Visiting Dignitary” (or those who are “Very Dear,” she writes) and a lovely spring luncheon al fresco. The stories are keenly knitted with a journalist’s attention to color, detail, history, fact and conciseness and center on parties for 11 different seasonal occasions. “It’s more entertaining to me as a writer to add in things that are interesting,” says Reed. “I wanted to show a little more about what the places mean. I wanted to show a sense of place. It’s not just about me. It’s more about a generosity of spirit and having fun. We basically went on an extended road trip.” Reed sets the scene, offers up the menu, recipes, cocktail and wine pairings, as well as notes on everything from table settings to playlists. The recipe list is comprehensive and includes appetizers and desserts, simple Southern staples, as well as Creole favorites such as shrimp rémoulade and more elevated cuisine, including a delectable roasted boneless leg of lamb with herbs. The stellar source list at the end will become your go-to for finding everything from stationery and linens to tableware and food items in New Orleans and beyond.
“Milk and Sugar: The Complete Book of Seersucker” by Bill Haltom delves into the history and iconography of the storied Southern staple – including its New Orleans roots – and explores the role of “wash suits” in fashion for both men and women. Haltom pays homage to New Orleanian Joseph Haspel, the clothier and master tailor credited with making seersucker a must-have in the closets of businessmen and lawyers in the South and ultimately an essential hot weather fabric all over the world. Haspel manufactured and sold seersucker suits through his eponymous Haspels of New Orleans. Haltom devotes a chapter to the company’s history, including the family’s sale of it in 1977, and slow reacquisition and path back to ownership of the brand by 2012. The 208-page, illustrated volume celebrates seersucker in all of its devil-may-care, dapper versatility.
Next week, stop by for a list of books I’ve been enjoying at home over the past few months, along with picks from my fellow bookworm family and friends.
What books are you reading? Share in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.