Monday, August 20, 2007

A Singular Culinary Career


New Orleans has many culinary icons. In the beginning there were Jean Galatoire, Arnaud Cazenave, and Antoine Alciatore. By mid century the Brennan family began to set up shop in North America’s Creole Capital. In the 1970s Warren LeRuth was on top and passed the torch to Paul Prudhomme who began his reign in the early 1980s. Emeril Lagasse opened his first restaurant in 1990, and John Besh brought us into the new millennium. All have left their mark on the Crescent City’s culinary scene.

Countless chefs have passed through the city’s kitchens over the last century. Some became famous and moved on, others stayed. Still others finished their careers as local heroes, or toiled in obscurity in the lesser known kitchens— a career sous chef or line cook— spending decades feeding tourists and locals alike.

Nationally known icons aside, the most knowledgeable culinary personality in New Orleans— the man who has met every chef, eaten every dish, knows the food, has cooked the food, has written about the food, and eventually made a living out of talking about the food, while witnessing every restaurant opening for the last 35 years— is not a chef or a restaurateur.

Tom Fitzmorris knows New Orleans and he knows food. Born on Mardi Gras, he wrote his first restaurant review in 1972, and has written at least one per week ever since.

As one who is responsible for 750 words per week, I am in awe of Fitzmorris, whose daily internet newsletter, The New Orleans Menu — over 4,000 words daily by my count— contains the most informative and up-to-date chronicling in and of one of the nation’s top food cities.

Fitzmorris is the foremost expert on the New Orleans restaurant scene. He is certainly the senior statesman of New Orleans’ food writers. This Creolized version of Craig Claiborne has written for several national publications, served as editor of quite a few local publications, but the strongest witness to his prolific journalistic output is the daily newsletter, The New Orleans Menu.

I began subscribing to The New Orleans Menu, http://www.nomenu.com/, over eight years ago. Each free issue includes a recipe, a restaurant review, a top-ten list (top ten New Orleans steakhouses, top ten places to eat oysters, top ten formal dining rooms, etc), and various musings on New Orleans food and restaurants. Whether you dine in New Orleans once a week or once a year, The New Orleans Menu is a great reference guide for the food, restaurant scene, and culture of New Orleans.

In addition to the newsletter, Fitzmorris has hosted a daily radio show since 1975. The Food Show airs live on WSMB 1350 AM between 2 and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

As if all of the newsletter writing, restaurant reviewing, and radio-show hosting wasn’t enough to fill his day, Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food, a cookbook that encompasses his life in the kitchen and at the table, was released last year.

Many New Orleans cookbooks are written by restaurant chefs who have converted their recipes for home use. Often, the original intent gets lost in the translation. Fitzmorris, not a classically trained chef but certainly an exceptional cook in his own right, developed each of the book’s 225 recipes in his home kitchen for use in home kitchens. They are spot on.

One wonders when Mr. Fitzmorris sleeps.

During the Katrina evacuation, Fitzmorris spent the longest period he had ever spent away from his native city. Though during his temporary relocation he continued to write about the city and the losses incurred during the aftermath. Within a matter of weeks the daily newsletter returned, and once again Fitzmorris, certainly an icon in his own right, was keeping track of the city’s restaurant rebirth.

Today, Tom Fitzmorris is the writer of record for connecting New Orleans’ culinary past to its future. In a time when longstanding family heirloom recipes were lost to the levees, Fitzmorris’s writings, recipes, and recollections carry the torch.

Most of the population living outside of the immediate New Orleans trade area knows the names Lagasse and Prudhomme, yet history might show that one of the most important culinary icons in the Crescent City is not a chef but a chronicler.



Crescent City Grill Seafood Gumbo

5 cups Shrimp stock
5 cups Chicken Stock
5 Gumbo Crabs
3 1/2 cups Tomatoes, diced with juice
2/3 cup Tomato Sauce
2 Tbl. Worcestershire
1 tsp. Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves
2 1/2 tsp. Basil
1 tsp. Oregano
1 1/4 cup Corn Oil
1 1/2 cups Flour
2 cups Okra
3 cups Onion, medium dice
1 1/2 cup Celery, medium dice
1 cup Green Onion, chopped
1 cup Bell Pepper, medium dice
1/2 cup Parsley, chopped
3 Tbl. Garlic, minced
2 Tbl. Creole Seasoning
3 Tbl. Hot Sauce
2 lbs. Medium Shrimp, peeled
1 lb. Claw Crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 lb. Lump Crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 lb. Oysters, with juice

Bring first 10 ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat to a brisk simmer and continue to cook skimming the tomato-like foam from the top of the stock— one hour.

While the stock is simmering, make a dark roux using the corn oil and flour. To the roux add the okra stirring constantly. Once the okra is incorporated into the roux add the onion, celery, green onion, bell pepper, parsley, garlic, Creole seasoning and hot sauce stirring well to incorporate. At this point you should have something that resembles a black gooey mass. Add the shrimp and continue stirring until shrimp turn pink. Add the crabmeat and oysters.

Turn up the heat on the simmering stock. Transfer the seafood-roux mixture to the hot stock and stir until the roux is completely dissolved. Bring the stock to a boil once more and then reduce to a simmer.

Remove the Gumbo crabs and serve over rice.

4 comments:

John Spence said...

Robert,

I've been enjoying your blog for some time, and I rarely see any comments.

Your blog, and before that your column, brought back wonderful memories of my years in the South, in Lousiana, and especially in New Orleans.

While I may be only minor foodie, I recognize the "Good food - good friends - good times" aspect of dining, and we appreciate the way you express this in your writing.

My bride and I even will plan a vacation around the restauants we want to visit and the foods we want to enjoy. Your writing has given us much enjoyment and opened new travel adventures for us.

Thank you for your work!

Anonymous said...

Robert, I read your blog about the Carriage House Restaurant biscuits. My aunt, who is a wonderful cook, tried the recipe (she and my mother love the Carriage House) and they think that the biscuits do not taste quite like the Carriage House's. Do you think that the recipe the Carriage House gives out might be lacking something? Sometimes good cooks hold something back when giving out their recipes. What do you think?

alarose said...

I have heard you speak twice in Natchez, and you are terrific! i have a copy of Deep South Staples and love it. Please keep your recipes on your blog to those that taste good and those that we can obtain and afford the ingredients. I call them rich folks' soul food! Please stay forever human as you are! Love to your family!

Anonymous said...

http://therealtomfitzmorris.blogspot.com