LIFE IMITATES ART
For avid fans of the beloved New Orleans television series “Treme,” waiting for the latest — and final — season hasn’t been easy. Fortunately for fans, lauded New Orleans journalist (and contributing writer to the program) Lolis Eric Elie recently published “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans,” a companion cookbook to the series and a loving ode to the show and its characters that fans will certainly relish.
Why a cookbook? When the idea was first brought to Elie, it seemed natural enough.
“The reason I think this book does so well is that the main character is a chef, we have a city that’s obsessed with food, and also the fact that food is a secondary character in itself,” he said. “I went through all the shows, and identified all of the times everyone talked about food, and started collecting ideas for recipes.”
To celebrate the launch of the book, Susan Spicer — who has also appeared as herself on the series — recently hosted a “Treme”-themed dinner at her restaurant, Bayona, in the French Quarter.
Spicer created a unique four-course meal for attending diners based on recipes from the book, with two options per course.
Cocktails started the evening with the choice of a Sazerac, French 75, or a “brandy crusta,” which featured cognac, citrus, bitters, Luxardo liqueur and a sugared rim. Paired hors d’oeuvres included Kermit Ruffins’ barbecue quail and miniature french fry po-boys with brown gravy.
The dinner began in earnest with what many regarded as a particularly difficult decision: David Chang’s poached egg with caviar, or Janette Desautel’s crawfish ravioli with sea urchin butter.
Fans might remember that particular ravioli as Chef Desautel’s wildly popular dish on the show, as well as her stint in the New York kitchen of David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant. Tasting the ravioli, with its robust crawfish filling and sauced with a rich but delicate flavor of sea urchin, it’s easy to see why the dish was designated by the show’s writers to be a winner, even if, until now, it was fictional.
A second round included “LaDonna’s smothered turnip soup” and “Annie’s salad ‘without papers.’ ” Diners immediately recognized the latter dish as the New Orleans “wop” salad, the name originating from the derogatory term used for Italian immigrants.
Spicer added fresh Gulf shrimp to the classic preparation of lettuces with red onions, carrots, tomatoes, olives and a traditional vinaigrette, for a refreshing mid-course.
Entrees included a choice of bacon-wrapped pork loin with cane syrup jus and Creole succotash, or “Poppy’s Trout Farci” (a recipe courtesy of local food writer and personality Poppy Tooker) served with Soa’s vegetable fettucini. The pork — wrapped in more pork — delivered plenty of porcine pleasure, while the crispy fried trout, filled with crabmeat stuffing, was similarly outstanding.
A pair of desserts rounding out the meal gave diners an option of either yeasted calas with fresh fig preserves and New Orleans Rum ice cream, or “Pound Cake Paul Trevigne” with orange sherbet.
Elie, making rounds to each table and genially sharing conversation with diners, said he couldn’t be more pleased with the response to the book.
“The reception’s been great,” he affirmed. “I’ve been doing a lot of interviews around the country, and the most gratifying thing is hearing people say that this is more than just a TV show companion, but also a statement about contemporary New Orleans cooking.”
The author was more than pleased with the dinner, as well as Spicer’s interpretation of the recipes, and he was enthusiastic when asked about some of his other favorite selections from the book.
“I’m excited about the fried chicken. It has an Asian influence on traditional Southern cuisine. Jacqueline Blanchard, the sous chef at August, came up with that recipe.
“We see our chef (Janette) on the show serving that dish at Momofuku; she did a creative dish based on Korean fried chicken, double fried with a glaze that combines cane syrup and hot pepper sauce. So it’s really east meets west, New Orleans meets Seoul.
“Also, of course, the gumbo recipe,” Elie continued. “It’s my mother’s. She makes the best gumbo in the world. It’s not as thick as most of the gumbo you get these days. There’s not as much roux. Also, the mix of seafood and sausages is just great, and it’s an okra gumbo, too. I think gumbo should have okra. Period, paragraph.”
Elie is currently on tour to support the book, driving throughout the South and appearing at bookstores and restaurant events similar to Spicer’s celebration at Bayona, with various chefs creating their own interpretations of the recipes. New Orleanians can catch him back in the Big Easy at 6 p.m. Friday at Le Musée de FPC (Free People of Color Museum) on Esplanade Avenue.