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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

New book "Eat Dat" offers readers an excellent guide to New Orleans' food culture, both pre- and post-Katrina

Michael Murphy was an outsider, something he acknowledges in his author’s note introducing his fabulous new book, “Eat Dat New Orleans: A Guide to the UniqueFood Culture of the Crescent City (Countryman Press).”

Like me, Murphy is a Midwesterner who grew up in the 1960s “raised on Steak ‘n’ Shake and Chicken in a Biscuit.” He moved to New Orleans just five years ago, too long after his first visit there in 1983, leaving behind the book publishing scene in New York City.

“Having been in the book business many years and having witnessed memoirs by Joe the Plumber, the nine-year-old Slumdog Millionaire star, Rubina Ali, writing about the trials and tribulations of her first eight years; and George W. Bush writing about decision making. I am less concerned about have the credentials to write a book,” Murphy wrote. 

“But a book about my beloved New Orleans and its iconic food culture was another matter,” he continues. “However, in the writing of this book I have learned that most of the top food critics brought little more to the job at the beginning than a passion for New Orleans and a love of our food. Those I have in spades.”

From all of us Northerners who have had a taste of the South and wish we indulge in it more often, thank you. I bring the same passion to this barbecue blog, when I am able to sit down to write.

I made my first trip to the place Murphy unapologetically calls “the greatest city in America” back in 1987 and sadly have only been able to return a handful of times. As with barbecue, I do my best to replicate some of its flavors here in my Indiana kitchen.

“Eat Dat,” Murphy’s 256-page guide to New Orleans, is more than a restaurant guide. It is a loving re-introduction to a place many sadly still mainly associate with Hurricane Katrina and its legacy. He opens the book with a “brief and (mostly) bona fide history” of the city’s food.

Michael Murphy
Murphy introduces us to the people and places the casual foodie will never see on the Food Network or the Travel Channel – as well as those more commonly known. He writes about nearly 250 hot spots, from the more famous restaurants found in the French Quarter to the po’ boy purveyors, the dives, food carts and sno-ball stands.

Yes, he writes about Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Lea Chase and Paul Prudhomme, but we also meet Susan Spicer, owner and chef of Bayona and the basis for the Janette Desautel character in “Treme.” Murphy calls her place “the best restaurant in the Quarter.”

We meet Johnny Blancher, owner of Ye Old College Inn and the more famous Mid-City Rock ‘n’Bowl. After Katrina left a city-block-long acre of land next to Ye Old College Inn devastated, he bought the property and eventually began planting one of two gardens he draws from for his menu. As Murphy writes, every morning the kitchen staff picks tomatoes, tomatillos and eggplants for the restaurant.

He introduces us to Hugo Montero, an artist and owner of one of the city’s best Mexican restaurants. We learn the story of Ron Zappe and his local brand of kettle potato chips, Zapp’s. We learn why most of the city’s po’boy sandwiches come on Leidenheimer bread. His section about the Brennan family is a terrific example of good reporting, as is the closing piece about the hot sauce wars.

The photos by Rick Olivier also set the scene for Murphy’s reviews. My personal favorites include the shot of Slim Goodies “irregular regulars” and of Marvin Day, a waiter at Camilla Grill. His photos also appear in a great book about one of the region’s musical legacies, “Zydeco! (University of Mississippi Press, 1999), which I am happy to own.

Other city restaurant guides (such as Fodor’s and Frommer’s) will only mention places they recommend and rarely critique the better-known places. Murphy is very direct in offering his opinions and admits to have “knee-jerk reaction against tourist spots.” For example, he says the reason to go to Acme Oyster House is “to say you did,” which I have, I’ll admit.

Murphy is very honest -- some times brutally so -- and lets you know what to expect in terms of the atmosphere as well and offers suggestions about you should order at each eatery. The book is organized according to NOLA's neighborhoods.

“Eat Dat” also includes a series of “best of” lists by local food writers and media celebrities. They include Lolis Eric Elie, the author of the first and perhaps the best book about barbecue, “Smokestack Lightening: Adventures in the Heartof Barbecue Country (try to find it) and editor of “Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing.”

Here’s their list of best barbecue joints in New Orleans (McClure's was not open when judges filled out their ballots):

  1. The Joint
  2.  Hillbilly
  3.  Boo Koo BBQ
  4. Shortail's
  5. Walker's Southern
  6. Ted's Smokehouse
  7. VooDoo BBQ
  8. Squeal's
  9. Saucy's

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