I’m headed to New Orleans a week from today. It’s a spiritual journey that I try to make at least once a year, just to recalibrate my taste buds with true American cookery. My point, before I get too carried away with thoughts of New Orleans cuisine, is that I discovered a discounted copy of “Hungry Town” by Tom Fitzmorris last week, which seemed like a fortuitous coincidence. What better way to get into the proper New Orleans mindset than by reading the culinary memoir of one of the Crescent City’s most important food critics? A native of New Orleans, Fitzmorris has authored countless magazine articles on New Orleans cuisine, as well as a comprehensive restaurant guide, and a weekly newsletter, The New Orleans Menu, that spans more than 30 years (the newsletter is now published online). Fitzmorris has also hosted a radio show in New Orleans since 1975, simply called “The Food Show,” which is currently broadcast on WWWL 1350.
Although “Hungry Town” provides an excellent first-person account of the last half-century of New Orleans cuisine, the book actually places its emphasis on Hurricane Katrina and the resilient spirit of New Orleans. From my own perspective, I had been living and working in the Crescent City for the six months leading up to Katrina, having returned to culinary school just a few weeks before disaster struck (I spent my CIA externship cooking at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, a restaurant that figures prominently in “Hungry Town”). Having established a deep connection with New Orleans during my short time there, I had followed the Katrina aftermath very closely from New York, both through the national media and also via first-hand reports. It’s a saga that I know rather well, at least for someone who’s not a true native of the city (and who didn’t suffer any loss of property through the flooding).
Of course, plenty has been written about Katrina over the past several years, but despite all the coverage surrounding the United States’ worst natural disaster, one of the key strengths of “Hungry Town” is its unique portrayal of the hurricane through a culinary perspective. Indeed, for a city that places so much emphasis on eating well, the state of New Orleans dining has provided an accurate metric for the city’s astounding recovery. According to Fitzmorris, there are more restaurants open in New Orleans today than there were just prior to the hurricane, an amazing statistic, considering that number was reset all the way back to zero following Katrina. But then again, eating well is part of the very fabric of New Orleans culture, a fact that has revealed itself not only historically, but even more so in recent years.