On Alan Richman’s Appearance on Treme

I like to think that our relationship is intimate, reader. That we know each other, and that should we meet in a restaurant or a wind-swept alley, we would kiss on the cheek. Because we are comfortable. We are familiar. We appreciate each other. I picture you now, alone in your bedroom. Perhaps you have just bathed? Is your hair still damp? Do droplets of water still cling to your skin? Perhaps you have poured yourself a glass of wine; perhaps you have deployed the sandalwood candles given to you by a distant relative, to be used only on special occasions? Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “What the holy hell is this guy on about because it is beginning to really creep me out?”

What I am “on about,” fickle reader, is sharing. Hereafter I will share my thoughts on a recent episode of the television show Treme in which the author Alan Richman appeared. Mr. Richman wrote about the experience here. Mr. Richman was cast because in the November 2006 issue of Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Mr. Richman wrote a vicious piece attacking New Orleans and questioning whether it should be rebuilt.

I have characterized Mr. Richman and that article uncharitably in the past. I called him a penis and a toad, among other things. (I am not withholding a link to what I wrote, by the way; a hard drive crash on the computer that hosted my Web site at the time led to a gap in my archives from August 2006 until September 2007. You will have to trust that I was extremely profane.) I have apologized for the language I used but not for the sentiment I expressed. Mr. Richman was generous enough to allow me to interview him (also no longer available) following the publication of his article, and although I still appreciate that gesture and although he was very polite in his interactions with me, it did not change my opinion. Put bluntly, Alan Richman doesn’t know shit about cooking. He is an excellent writer, and he is funny when the ox being gored is not one you have raised from a calf, but apart from the venom dripping from every page of his piece on New Orleans, he displayed appalling ignorance about our city, our culture and our cuisine.

In the aftermath of his appearance on Treme, he wrote of his 2006 article, “What I wrote, in summation, was that New Orleans was a mess and wasn’t doing much to get itself out of the mess.”

I appreciate revisionist history as much as the next fellow, but that is not what Mr. Richman wrote. The man started his article about New Orleans restaurants with the sentence, “I’ve never had much luck eating in New Orleans.”

There is settled law in the United States that an opinion, regardless of how inflammatory or odious, cannot be defamatory. That is because an opinion is not capable of being proven true or false, and generally speaking in our legal system, only a knowing falsehood can be defamatory – all of which is to say that while I disagree with much of what Mr. Richman wrote, I can’t really criticize him for disliking New Orleans.

He said, for example: "New Orleans was always a three-day stubble of a city, and now, courtesy of Katrina, it’s more like five. The situation is worse, of course, in the devastated areas, where the floodwaters and the winds did their work. I know we are supposed to salvage what’s left of the city, but what exactly is it that we’re trying to cherish and preserve? I hope it’s not the French Quarter, which has evolved into a illogical mix of characterless housing, elegant antiques stores, and scuzzy bars, a destination for tourists seeking the worst possible experience. The entertainment values are only marginally superior to those of Tijuana, Mexico."

I can’t disprove that he feels that way. What I can do is call him an asshole for expressing that opinion and for expressing it when he did.

But what continues to irk me are the factual errors in his 2006 article. He said, for example, “Maybe roux is magic to locals, but as a thickener, I don’t see that it’s much different from cornstarch.” That indicates he doesn’t know much about cooking. He also wrote in 2006 about the garlic soup at Bayona: “Spicer’s famous garlic soup was reddish brown as well as plenty thick, two attributes that almost certainly derived from one source, a long-cooked roux. (We’ve all heard of roux, the legendary Louisiana fat-and-flour mixture, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it so visibly in action.)” There is no roux in Spicer’s garlic soup. The combination of fat and flour that goes into a roux, particularly a dark roux, gives it a distinctive nutty flavor in addition to its thickening properties. Cornstarch is flavorless in comparison and provides no color to dishes in which it is used. Those aren’t the only factual errors in the piece, but they are some of the most glaring. You may think that these are petty errors on which to focus, and I suppose they are, but I would like to think that a writer with as many accolades as Mr. Richman could distinguish between a dark roux and a cornstarch slurry.

When I wrote about Richman’s article in 2006, I was a different person. I think all of us who lived through Katrina were on edge even a year after the event. In the months before I wrote my rant, the software I used to track visitors to my Web site told me that I had about 1,000 unique visitors a day. After my interview with Mr. Richman, and for a long time thereafter, the software told me I had closer to 10,000 unique visitors a day. I suppose I should have been grateful to Mr. Richman; indeed, in one of the emails we exchanged after the interview was picked up by media Web sites, he told me how proud he was at what we had accomplished. I was, he said, the first person to actually request an interview with him rather than simply calling him an asshole. (He did not, clearly, read the initial piece I wrote.)

I have two regrets about what I wrote at the time. I regret being quite as profane as I was in my original piece because I think it weakened the points I was trying to make. And I regret not being more aggressive in my interview.

When I started writing this tonight, I intended to comment on a couple of other items I’d seen recently, including this ridiculous story titled, “Dude, Where’s My Magazine?” But Richman’s article still, after all these years, has the power to piss me off, and it is now past 2 in the morning. I have to get my son to school tomorrow by 8, and I have spent most of the day reviewing thousands of pages of documents for a case in which I am involved. I am weary in mind and body, reader.

I am, as I said, a very different person than I was in 2006. I did not know at the time that New Orleans would recover from Katrina. I felt a sense of guilt that I was writing about something as relatively frivolous as food and fine dining when so many people had lost so much. That may explain in part why I was so angry at Mr. Richman. Maybe I was afraid that his assessment of New Orleans (“It was never the best idea, building a subterranean city on a defenseless coastline. Residents could have responded to that miscalculation in any number of conscientious ways, but they chose endless revelry. New Orleans fell in love with itself and acted accordingly, becoming a festival of narcissism, indolence, and corruption…”) was more accurate than I wanted to believe. But what Richman said wasn’t true, and it was an insult to the many New Orleans residents who worked tirelessly to rebuild lives destroyed by a storm and by government ineptitude. We have our problems, but Katrina didn’t kill us, and the city and its restaurant scene have never been as vibrant as today. Moreover, while I recognize that what I write is not as important as journalism that uncovers corruption, addresses rebuilding the city or analyzes our murder rate, food is an important part of New Orleans’ culture. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Not long after I wrote about Mr. Richman’s piece, a man named Ashley Morris emailed me with words of support. Ashley is reportedly the basis for the character played by John Goodman on Treme. In Ashley’s memory, I offer this to Mr. Richman, with no apologies for the profanity therein.

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