Book review: Hungry Town

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Hmmmm, I wonder if this would work ….

Hungry Town – A Culinary History of New Orleans, A City Where Food Is Almost Everything – Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Given the not insignificant role New Orleans has played in my life for the past 30 years or so – visiting, writing, reading about, broadcasting and, of course, listening – I shouldn’t be surprised that occasionally a bout of Crescent City fever hits me.

Nevertheless, I’m a little surprised that my latest and ongoing pre-occupation with the city has seemingly bubbled up out of sort-of nowhere.

Perhaps it surprises because I am so very, very content with Melbourne in general and its western suburbs foodiness in particular.

As well, circumstances dictate that a return visit to Louisiana remains some unknowable distance in the future.

Yet I recently finished reading John McCusker’s fine biography of trombonist Kid Ory, which directly led to the purchasing of six Ory CDs to join the one I already possessed under his own name.

Those albums have been joined by 2012 buys of music by Chief John Burnious, Paul Barbarin, Emile Barbes, Thomas Jefferson, Kid Rena, Kid Howard, Big Eye Louis Nelson, Fess Manetta, Johnny Dodds, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and more.

I have yet to succumb to the attraction of once more firing up in the kitchen for the purposes of cooking New Orleans dishes, though I did this week make chicken stock with a view to some time soon getting some gumbo or jambalaya happening.

But having bought and enjoyed very much Tom Fitzmorris’ Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous, I happily broke out the credit card to buy Hungry Town.

And a good, if brief, read it turned out to be, too.

In my opinion, part of the book’s title – “A Culinary History Of New Orleans” – goes close to being an outright lie.

“A History of Tom Fitzmorris’ Involvement In The New Orleans Scene” would be more accurate. There is some detail about the overall history of eating out in New Orleans, but most of the book covers the author’s experiences – and I’m cool with that.

Fitzmorris covers his early days and how he found himself, seemingly more by accident than ambition, becoming a central pillar of the city’s food scene.

There are heaps of fascinating anecdotes and stories about great meals and the people who make them and eat them.

Fitzmorris naturally gravitates towards the more formal and expensive aspects of New Orleans’ food culture, and I’m cool with that, too, even though my own experiences at that end of the city’s food spectrum have been limited by both budget and inclination.

He sometimes seem to give only grudging acknowledgement to the more blue-collar and rough and tumble aspects of New Orleans’ eating.

The book really comes into its own with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and city’s subsequent ongoing fight for survival.

The stories are moving, and I was quite shaken up to discover that quite a few people who had served me marvellous food perished in the storm or as the direct result of its aftermath.

The stories include great yarns about restaurant folk – some of them at the very top end of New Orleans dining – cooking and providing food for all comers during those desperate days.

While exiled in another part of country, Fitzmorris started a list of New Orleans restaurants open for business on any given day – a list he continues to update.

By his own assessment, it’s probably the most significant thing he’ll ever do.

To that extent, while the book seems a tad on the self-serving side, the author’s assertion that food would be just not a key to New Orleans’ survival but THE key is heart-warming.

Along with the music, of course.

I’m not at all sure how I’d go in post-Katrina New Orleans. There’s still parts of the city that will never be more than wasteland.

I yearn for the food, and I’m quietly determined to take Bennie there one day.

But while New Orleans has “ethnic food”, it just doesn’t have the depth or quality to match Melbourne.

But, by God, the city continues to live on in my heart.

Chicken and sausage gumbo, anyone?

For interest’s sake, I’m including a scathing review of the book on Amazon and the author’s response:

Review by “wmgood39648″: “For those who know Tom F. and his ever thinning skin, Hungry Town is not really all about the food scene in New Orleans. Its really about the author. Read the book carefully and you will find that Fitzmorris has let himself get far too close to certain New Orleans restaurantuers to be objective. This would be fine if he would just admit that he is not a critic, but rather an apologist for the industry. He allowed himself to be feed very expensive meals by one restaurant dynasty for decades and then refuses to point out their flaws. Fitting in is very important to Fitzmorris. He might be the only man in New Orleans who actually benefited from hurricane Katrina. By his own admission, he could not get a publisher for his books until the storm. The book is not well written and has no depth. Wait for this book until its in the $3.00 section.”

Rebuttal by Tom Fitzmorris: “The comment is made by a persistent crank who reads everything I write and listens to every minute of my radio show, then attacks every bit of it without exception. I have reason to believe he is the owner of a restaurant that I gave a negative review. I thank him for buying the book and for making me such a central part of his life. Tastefully yours, Tom Fitzmorris.”

5 thoughts on “Book review: Hungry Town

  1. Hi Kenny
    Love your blog and used to enjoy your work on PBS too! I don’t know much about new Orleans but have loved watching Treme. If you haven’t seen it you prob should! Cheers c

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