Bibliophile: Reviewing Gumbo Tales

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table – Sara Roahen

Certainly this was the ideal book to read prior to and on my recent trip to New Orleans. But on its own merit, Gumbo Tales is a tender, well-crafted memoir that caused my mouth to water and my heart to constrict with bittersweet longing. One of the better memoirs I’ve read in a while.

New Orleans fascinated me since I was girl as the city of the South I really wanted to know, confirming its place in my heart when I finally scoured its old world streets and neighborhoods in person. It’s a place obviously scarred — permanently — but one with a heart beating so strongly, it cries out in its food, its streets, its people and certainly its music.

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Ms. Roahen describes past-worshiping customs of a place that, thank God, continues to breathe life into traditions that have died elsewhere in the country. Roahen digs into the variety of foods that originated here, the region’s tenacious embrace of all things hearty (in true Southern fashion), such as the po boy, turducken, food “Stuffed, Smothered, Z’Herbes” (the title of one chapter), as well as the right placement of classic cocktails at the top of worthy drinking, the city’s own Sazerac among the most revered.

Gumbo Tales highlights treasures of New Orleans’ rich culinary history as themes for each chapter, with stories of Roahen’s fast and fierce fall into love with a city she isn’t native to. Each chapter stands alone, valuable on its own merit, but the collection goes beyond the already commendable joys of food and traditions to the depths of loss in a place profoundly marred by nature’s (and human injustice) havoc. She weaves into each food theme reflections we all share in our humanity on death, life, the past and future. Whether you have any attachment to this Queen of Southern cities or not, it’s plain good story-telling… and food writing.

Many of her anecdotes stick with me. “Red Beans and Rice” elevates her friend, Pableaux, to level of hero with his communal, inclusive Red Bean Monday nights, a tradition the likes of which I’d love to simulate myself [years later, I would meet the wonderful Pableaux myself, savoring a communal meal at his home of soulful red beans and rice].

I relate to her self-analysis as a lightweight who’s crazy about cocktails, particularly “brown liquor”, who can “stretch one and a half [drinks] over the course of a… meal”. Perhaps my favorite tale is “Sno-Balls”, about New Orleans’ Summer-soother, sno-balls (don’t call ’em sno-cones!), and the legendary Hansen’s where some of the best are made over the last century. Ernest and Mary Hansen’s granddaughter, Ashley, who took over their business, encapsulates the bittersweet nostalgia and tenacious spirit of New Orleanians (including many I talked to) when she says why she hasn’t moved away or on to other things: “There are too many benefits, there are too many memories… too many smells and scents that I couldn’t live without.”