New Orleans on the Page
The books that helped me grow from tourist to local
For many people, the only way they can travel is by reading books. Affordability, time off from work, family size, illness and physical accessibility are just a few of the barriers that keep people close to home. I was nearly six years old before I traveled farther than 100 miles from my house — a vacation to Niagara Falls my grandparents paid for that involved eight hours in the car each way and visiting extended family. I wouldn’t see another state that wasn’t bordering my own again for 10 years.
Books were my airplanes. The library was my passport. In the time before search engines and social media, there were fewer images and videos of travel destinations, so we relied upon descriptive language to imagine how a place looked and sounded. Growing up in the Midwest, I turned to Mark Twain to show me the Mississippi River and to Tennessee Williams to make me feel the thick air of the French Quarter.
This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event that reminds us how important it is to have free and open access to information. The freedom to read allows our minds to travel, to create informed opinions and walk this world in other people’s shoes. Banned Books Week has reminded me of my love of books and how they helped me explore the world, especially the world in which I now live.
Because I didn’t grow up in New Orleans, I have used books to help me learn about my chosen home. Some I read long before I ever thought I would live here, and some were intentional once I got here and realized where I lacked knowledge. Here are a few of my favorites.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole
I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, and likely anyone reading this blog has already read this book. But, have you read it twice? Toole died 50 years ago and his book — published after he passed due to the gumption of his mother — went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. I first read it in college and it seemed just a bit too unrealistic. I read it again after I lived in New Orleans for about a year and found it shockingly accurate. Oh, that hard trip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge…
“Frommer’s New Orleans 2010” by Mary Herczog
This travel guide, which is now obviously out-of-date, was affectionately called “The Bible” in my house for a few years. I purchased the book at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in Manhattan in preparation for my first trip to New Orleans. I dog-eared pages and made notes in the margins of restaurants I wanted to try, walking tours I wanted to take and museums I wanted to visit. Going through it now is a bit like time traveling. I will never forget the first morning I stepped out of my hotel room and into the August air of a French Quarter courtyard. Guides like this are still incredibly helpful for visitors to New Orleans, and Frommer’s publishes them annually.
“Gumbo Tales” by Sara Roahen
I bought this book during that first trip to New Orleans. In a sadly “ain’t dere no more” example, Kitchen Witch Cookbooks was an incredible shop in the French Quarter and I browsed it for nearly an hour. I started reading “Gumbo Tales” on my flight back to New York. Roahen’s story made me feel like as long as I allowed New Orleans to teach me and shape me, I would stand a good chance of making my home here.
“Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” by Paul Prudhomme
Roahen taught me that to acclimate to New Orleans, I must learn the region’s foodways. After I moved here, I went back to the Kitchen Witch in the French Quarter and asked the always-kind owners Debbie and Philipe (who still operate their spice blend business now that the second location of Kitchen Witch also closed) what cookbook I should buy to start cooking New Orleans food. Philipe was thoughtful and declared there was only one chef to start with, and that was Paul Prudhomme. Philipe picked a gently used copy of the cookbook for me, put his card inside and said, “You have any questions about any of these recipes, you call me.” I am proud to say that even my step-mom, who grew up in Gentilly, is proud of my gumbo.
“The Accidental City” by Lawrence N. Powell
The history of New Orleans is intrinsic to her modern identity. When this book was published in 2012, I was able to attend a talk by Powell at Tulane University, where I met him and he personalized my book based on our chat. The book is incredibly detailed but with a clear narrative flow. It’s pretty incredible to learn about the ambitions of the people behind the neighborhood and road names in our region.
Three other works of nonfiction are important to understanding New Orleans today. They are “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry, “The World That Made New Orleans” by Ned Sublette and “Empire of Sin” by Gary Krist. For fictional insight into our place and our people, there’s a wonderful collection of short stories edited by Julie Smith called “New Orleans Noir.” I haven’t yet read it, but “The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom was nominated for a 2019 National Book Award, and I look forward to reading it soon.