Every delicious food fight needs an impartial referee. Upon arriving in New Orleans, that’s the role I’ve given myself. The Brawl in the Big Easy involves two of the country’s more highly regarded food critics, Alan Richman of GQ, Brett Anderson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Richman started the fight with several stinging jabs at New Orleans in the magazine’s November issue. He writes that while touring the city in July he found the restaurant scene neither authentic enough nor inventive enough. He suggests the city’s restaurateurs have gone soft and lazy, that too many places are stuck in the grim eddy of “French-hotel food of the ‘50s,” and that the city’s reputation for fine dining has been exaggerated because the people singing its praises likely were too drunk to really know what they were eating.
He asks what the city is trying to cherish and preserve. He frets that the answer is “Creole theme park.”
In one curious aside he says he saw just one person helping tidy up the town. He should have spent more time in the French Quarter, which he really doesn’t like, dismissing its entertainment venues as “only marginally superior to those of Tijuana.” True, the French Quarter can be a sorry spectacle corrosive to the spirit, but only if you ignore its antiques shops, art galleries and jazz clubs. Though the district escaped much of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, it was bruised, physically and financially. But today the sprucing up and revitalization of the district is proceeding at such a pace that construction Dumpsters line the streets like Mardi Gras floats.
What seems to have irked Anderson the most is Richman’s broad, cavalier and mean spirited painting of the town as “a festival of narcissism, indolence, and corruption.” The piece is replete with cheap shots. Anderson also criticizes Richman for inaccuracies, vague conclusions and shallow reporting; given the length and display of the GQ article, he expected more substance and thought.
And, yet, in rereading the piece I was struck by the number of restaurants that Richman found to his liking, including Vaughan’s Lounge, Liuzza’s by the Track, Parkway Bakery, Galatoire’s, Lilette, Upperline and August.
Oh, and historic Café du Monde, celebrated for its coffee, beignets and Southern hospitality. It was my first stop. The last time I sat in that café was in the spring of 1970, when Moon Landrieu was about to be inaugurated mayor. A monument to Landrieu is nearby, along the walkway besides the Mississippi River. It quotes his inaugural address: “Let us create a city where neither the choice of religion nor the accident of color is an obstacle to opportunity and advancement, nor a substitute for effort and ability.” By all the jackhammers I’ve been hearing and the paint brushes I’ve been seeing, Hurricane Katrina didn’t blow away “effort and ability” in New Orleans, and I have a hunch that next time Richman visits the city he will be writing a more upbeat assessment of the restaurants.