Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cookbook review: My New Orleans by John Besh

You know, I used to be a somewhat normal person. (Stop laughing.) I used to get excited by normal things: pretty shoes, drinks out, a new dress, the new Chuck Palahniuk. Then one day, I realized I was walking right past Jimmy Choo to go drool inside Williams Sonoma. I quit buying cashmere sweaters and started buying Le Creuset. Now when I have money to spend on books, I skip the front of the bookstore entirely and make a beeline straight for the cookbooks section. I haven't spent money on an actual book in at least two years--I get those from the library. But cookbooks? Kitchen stuff? Fancy salt and stinky cheese and wild boar sausage? Fuggedaboutit. It's like crack.

And if regular cookbooks are like crack, My New Orleans by John Besh is like...heroin. A fresh batch of crystal meth. Chocolate. Insert insanely addictive substance here. It's food porn at its best. It's a 374-page monstrosity, with over 200 of his recipes, along with stories and some of the most beautiful food and landscape photography I've ever seen in a cookbook. It doesn't hurt that New Orleans cuisine is near and dear to my heart. (I probably wouldn't get nearly as excited over a cookbook featuring, say, Russian cuisine.) Plus I'm now in a place where I can get fresh seafood, so I got that going for me now.

It's not a beginner cookbook, but it's also not a complicated or difficult cookbook. If you know what a roux is, you'll get good use out of this one. (I've already got shrimp gravy stains on several pages.) If you don't know what a roux is, but know that you like gumbo (or etouffee, or jambalaya, or beignets), it's still a great book to have. If you've ever been to New Orleans, or wanted to go, see above.

I also love the fact that Besh features regional specialties: mayhaw jelly, rabbit, redfish, frogs, turtle soup, head cheese. Not that I'll be making head cheese anytime soon: but it's nice to know that these old recipes are being preserved and utilized somewhere in the world. New Orleans is one of the few cities left in the country that can be said to have its own cuisine, which is why I love the Big Easy so much; most of America has succumbed to a particularly bland food hegemony in the form of fast food and big-box chain restaurants (Applebee's, Chili's) in which quality has been sacrificed for predictability. It's the Wal-mart-ization of food, and it sucks. Don't get me started.

Besh has also included some modern touches in the old standbys--lemongrass in the shrimp creole, for instance. Which I've gotta try. Grilled redfish with a corn and ginger salad. Truffled spoonbread. Crab fat butter. I ate at Restaurant August, his flagship restaurant in New Orleans, a couple of years ago. The service was off that night, but the food was great. At the time, the menu there was much more high cuisine (foie gras, venison) and not so much adaptations of home cookin'/regional specialties. The menu now seems much more like the stuff in this cookbook. I may have to go again.

Anyway. Five stars on this cookbook. I foresee an immediate weight gain of at least five pounds. Much as I love New Orleans, I don't think I could ever live there without getting enormously fat.

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