Near the beginning of food writer Alan Richmond’s article about New Orleans restaurants in the November issue of GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarterly) magazine, he says this about the concept of Creole:
“Supposedly Creoles can be found in and around New Orleans. I never met one and suspect that they are faerie folk, like leprechauns, rather than an indigenous race. The myth is that once, long ago, Creoles existed.”
Several paragraphs later Richmond waxes on about his encounter with Leah Chase.
Note to Alan Richmond: Leah Chase is a Creole.
Following the headline “Yes We’re Open” is a wordy subhead that attempts to explain the article’s mission, which is to visit some of the city’s reopened restaurants so as to answer the self-imposed question, “Can Food Save New Orleans?”
To fast forward, Richmond answers that question in his last paragraph:
“I can’t think of many cities more identified with cuisine then New Orleans, or more dependent on its restaurants. They can help save the city, but first they have to help save themselves.”
That’s the kind of conclusion that says nothing and that can probably be best explained by fatigue on the part of the writer or the editors, after having worked themselves through such an opus. The same reasoning can be applied to doctors, lawyers, accountants and Hubig’s pie makers. We are a city of people facing the challenge of saving ourselves and in doing so, saving the city.
His conclusion though, is not what has caused the buzz around town but rather the things he says on the way towards that conclusion. He is harsh on some restaurants – notably Susan Spicer’s Bayona and Brigtsen’s – but offers high praise for others – especially Liuzza’s by the Track and John Besh’s restaurant, August. For Galatoire’s, he admits to a guarded appreciation (more for the ambience than for the food) which is how most people seem to appreciate Galatoire’s.
He is critical about the confusion between Creole and Cajun cooking, and he’s not wrong about that. Truth is, New Orleans never was a Cajun town, neither in terms of its culture nor its cuisine. Paul Prudhomme changed that somewhat, but only by creating a new style of cooking, “Nouveau Cajun” if you will. “Creole” depends on how the word is defined. Richmond may have confused a Creole for a leprechaun because he didn’t know what he was looking for. In contemporary New Orleans the term is used to apply most often to blacks with European roots. They have had a major influence on local cooking as did the first generation white Creoles who introduced the techniques of their home countries. Nevertheless, there is no stopping cultural co-mingling and over-exaggeration, either in New Orleans or in a world that willingly orders Buffalo Chicken wings with Thai sauce.
There is an overall bitchy tone to the article, especially when he says he’s not certain if food in New Orleans is as good as its reputation. He suggests that perhaps New Orleans diners have not been sober enough to fully evaluate what they have eaten. Fair enough, but then at least give credit to the city’s bartenders.
He does concede that the city’s cuisine can be appreciated for distinctiveness and historic significance, though that’s faint praise since the same can be said about Scottish blood pudding.
He missed the point – what does distinguish New Orleans’ cuisines are the indigenous food products, particularly area seafood seldom found on other menus (such as pompano and native crabs and oysters) as well as produce, including the Creole (there’s that word again) tomato. Then, there’s the amazing cross-cultural influences of peoples with great cooking traditions, including: French, Spanish, Caribbean and Sicilian. No other city brings that combination to the kitchen.
Overall, the article is not as devastating as some local responses suggest, nor as important as the editors might have hoped. (Because he was here in July, many important restaurants had not yet opened – including the very innovative, yet incredibly indigenous, Cochon.)
Strangely, in the end we found ourselves uplifted by the article. No one cares about the quality of food in Baton Rouge, Houston or Memphis. The very fact that the article was written only underscores the city’s importance to the nation’s culinary psyche. As a wise leprechaun once told us, it is better to be criticized than to be forgotten about.