Cultural Wars: Tujague's Saved
Sometimes there are victories in the wars to save the culture. Last week there was such a win. Tujague’s, at 157 years old, the city’s second oldest restaurant (after Antoine’s) and the last of the old-style Creole food purveyors will survive.
That the restaurant persevered into this century was due to Steven Latter, its most recent owner, who worked to maintain the dignity of the old place. After Latter died last February there were rumors that his brother, Stanford, who owns the building in which Steven ran his business, was going to make a deal with someone who would turn the place into a T-shirt and trinket shop with the extra indignity of selling fried chicken. Where Tujague’s kitchen prepared classic indigenous dishes, the pre-packaged, deep fried greasy chicken would probably be plopped on Styrofoam plates. That would have been a desecration of the restaurant's history.
No one really talked much during the episode, so we will never know how close the T-shirt/fried chicken idea came to being implemented. There were also rumors that Chef John Besh, at the urging of area foodies, looked into buying the building. Besh has pulled off many amazing entrepreneurial deals but not this time.
Then there was a period of silence. Central to all the rumors was that Steven Latter’s son, Mark, who had moved into a management position at the restaurant even before his father died, wanted to run the business.
Stanford Latter, if the rumors are correct, had to choose between big bucks tinged with gaudiness or family pride tinged with preservation. Whatever the deal making was, in the end he did the right thing. He signed a lease, which is reportedly long-term, with his nephew. In the end, Stanford Latter will not be remembered as the man who killed Tujague’s; to the contrary he apparently helped save it.
Mark Latter has promised to spiff up the old place and add some new dishes to the menu, but to keep the old Creole specialties in place, too. Nowhere else does a slice of beef brisket precede practically every meal. Horseradish was never in such good company. Preceding that was a serving of chilled shrimp to be dipped in a savory house-made remoulade sauce. The seven-course meal journey through history was just beginning.
Several years ago the former New Orleans symphony was on the rocks. I remember reading a column by a music critic who complained that with the symphony in such a shaky condition he felt there was no point in his critiquing the music – survival overshadowed that.
That’s how I have felt about Tujague’s. Why gush over the food when it might not be served much longer? Now that the restaurant will survive I would like to say a word about one particular dish: Chicken Bonne Femme. That word is “definitive.” I have tried the dish at several other old-line, big name restaurants and no one comes close to Tujague's where the serving has a rich garlicky flavor and the accompanying potatoes and veggies burst with flavor. In the confused and fused new world of tilapia with pesto sauce, and chipotle-flavored Buffalo wings, the dish is a reminder about how great some of the old, and practically forgotten, Creole dishes could be.
That there always seems to be another cultural battle in New Orleans may be due partially to there being so much culture worth saving—and that is due to victories from the past. Now it is time to celebrate at Tujague’s bar. If Mark Latter is there give him a high five. And if you see Stanford Latter, buy him a Sazerac.