- Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, and: You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans, and: New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City
American folklorists have been sensitive to regionalist perspectives for a long time, although they might not always be able to agree on exactly what America's regions are or where to draw the boundaries between them. Can a region, for example, be as small as a county, town, or city? I would argue that a region can, and suggest that, although the field of folklore has overwhelmingly favored rural areas, the city of New Orleans (like other American urban areas) constitutes a folk region—a place with a solidly developed sense of its self and a culture very much its own. Among the many obvious manifestations of its own folk cultural forms are patterns of speech, the brass band music that comes out of street parading traditions, the ritual complex of the Carnival season, and, of course, its famous food. That food is the focus of several recent books, including two of the [End Page 347] three under review here. Neither is meant as a work of scholarship in a narrow sense of the term (although one was published by a university press), but both should definitely be of interest to folklorists, students of foodways, and others concerned with the study of culture.
Sara Roahen is a journalist, at one time the restaurant reviewer for the New Orleans weekly newspaper Gambit, and a Midwesterner who found herself in exotic New Orleans when her European husband came to the city to pursue a career in medicine. Ultimately, her book Gumbo Tales is about her acculturation, and notably this topic is explored by discovering, investigating, and preparing New Orleans foods, sharing them with others, and trying to understand their context in the city. Although her style is a breezy journalistic one with an edge of bemusement, she is a natural ethnographer with an intense curiosity and a penchant for wanting to explain and describe what she uncovered in her discoveries about food. Trained ethnographers tend to think of cultural journalism as superficial and, indeed, an ethnographer probably would investigate New Orleans cuisine in a different way. Roahen's "study" of New Orleans food was more haphazard, more closely connected to her personal discovery of a new place in which she happened to find herself, including a job that involved food. Indeed, her status as an ignorant but passionately interested outsider put her in a position not unlike that of a folklorist or anthropologist—a person who often must find his/her place at some literal or figurative table. Although it is expressed in a very personal way, her book is a very rich overview of the food traditions of New Orleans. A text like Susan Tucker's recent New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) may provide a more considered overview with much more historical information and cultural data, but Roahen discusses so many facets of her topic and does so with such enthusiasm that it is difficult to imagine a better introduction to the range of New Orleans cuisine and the local context in which it is prepared and eaten. Although intended for humor, Roahen's amusing flashbacks to her native Wisconsin food traditions—"where a packet of dried onion soup was the ultimate in seasoning" (p. 129)—provide some useful cultural contrasts.
Each chapter of Gumbo Tales is devoted to a type of food or several related types...