For mythological heroes “the call” comes as they are just entering manhood. I was rushing toward my 60s and trying to re-direct my life after 30 years in book publishing had hit a dry patch, a dry patch the size of the Sahara Desert. Maybe the Kalahari. I don’t want you to think I’m prone to exaggeration. In my rearview mirror, I’d been a vice president at Random House, the publisher of William Morrow, and established my own literary agency, Max & Co. In front of me were roughly sewn-together jobs as a tour guide, a concierge, ghost writer, barely a literary agent, receiving a few paltry royalty checks while failing to sell any new book projects. All of these piecemeal jobs, really gigs, were not so much to keep me afloat as to drown at a more leisurely pace.
“The call” usually comes in the form of a burning bush, or at least in the middle of the night. Mine was an email. On a Tuesday. The Norton sales department wanted an update of Eating New Orleans, a restaurant guide written by Pableaux Johnson in 2005. He didn’t want to do it. Ann Treistman, a senior editor at Norton and a former editor at Morrow (maybe she was an associate editor back then—I don’t want you to think I’m prone to exaggeration), (A) knew my love for New Orleans, (B) knew I could write. As an agent I’d sold her a book where we both learned my author couldn’t deliver a full manuscript so I jumped in. And (C) it wasn’t hard to detect my love of food. I tell people I’m the same size as LeBron James, just a foot shorter.
"At the time of Katrina, there were 809 restaurants in New Orleans. At the time I’m writing, there are 1,389. No other city has experienced this explosive growth of restaurants over the past eight years. I think no other city is so food obsessed that they actually count their restaurants each week."
I was pleased to read her email request, excited about the idea of getting an advance to drown at an even less hectic pace, but uncertain. Does the world need another book about New Orleans and food? I went to Amazon.com, brought up the books category, typed in “New Orleans food” and stared at 1,544 entries. Would there be anyone left to read my 1,545th entry? Then, I typed in “vampires” and saw 35,604 entries. Maybe.
My bigger concern was not if there was a market, but who am I to write a food book in this city of so many superior chefs, restaurants and critics? I hardly have the pedigree of an official foodie. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s and ’60s, raised on Shake ’n Bake and Chicken in a Biscuit.
On the one hand, a hand filled with vainglory, I felt “destined” to write this book. I first came to New Orleans in May of ’83 to work with an author, and by day two, I knew I was home. At first, (The Hook) was the physical beauty of New Orleans, all the cracked plaster and balconies ”sagging like rotting lace” (I steal that from Walker Percy). New Orleans looks like nowhere else in America. The second wave (The Line) was the people. People here are remarkably friendly and will bring you in on a very deep level very quickly. The third and love-you-forever wave (And Sinker) is New Orleans’ cray-cray history, filled with bizarre events and twisted stories. I tell anyone who will listen, “New Orleans is as far as you can get from America, and still be in it.”
Through a few traded emails, my editor, Ann, and I decided a mere update of Eating New Orleans wouldn’t do well in the current market. With Urbanspoon, Trip Advisor and Yelp, there’s no longer a need for a book that describes restaurants. We decided the new book, Eat Dat New Orleans, would be built around stories. And that perfectly fits New Orleans where everyone has a story to tell, and they’re really good at telling them.
In profiles for restaurants like Galatoire’s, Eat Dat would be light on its history since 1905 and its signature dishes like Crab Maison and Trout Almandine, and instead focus on waiter John Fontenot, who’s been serving food, drink and a steady diet of cornball Cajun jokes since shortly after the Earth cooled. John would ask diners at what level of bawdiness (1 to 10) they would like their jokes during dinner. I’d write about the time Charles De Gaulle visited New Orleans. When he tried to call for reservations and was told Galatoire’s did not accept reservations, the French president complained. “Do you know WHO I am?” They replied “Why yes, Mr. President. But, do you know WHERE you’re calling?”
The next big hurdle, and it was a major one, was to decide which restaurants to include and which to leave out. At the time of Katrina, there were 809 restaurants in New Orleans. At the time I’m writing, there are 1,389. No other city has experienced this explosive growth of restaurants over the past eight years. I think no other city is so food obsessed that they actually count their restaurants each week.
To include all restaurants would require a book the size of the old two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. I decided to stay within the city limits. Choosing the final list would test my integrity. What to do about Acme Oyster House, Cafe du Monde and Mother’s? These are far and away the most popular spots for tourists, recommended by every cab driver and tour salesperson huddled in a kiosk booth. But for most of us living here, they are no better than a local version of Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s. They feel about as must-do as going to Vegas to hear Wayne Newton sing "Danke Schoen" one more time. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Acme and Mother’s, it’s that we can do so much better. A simple rule in New Orleans is that if you see a line waiting to be fed, don’t go.
I signed my book contract in mid-May. My manuscript was due September 15th. Forget about an intense writing schedule, that’s a whole lot of eating in a very short time. And this was New Orleans’ eating. Here we offer Praline Bacon at Elizabeth’s, Maple Bacon donuts at Blue Dot Donuts, Buckboard Bacon Melt at Cochon Butcher, Quail stuffed with Boudin, wrapped in Bacon at Atchafalaya, Bacon, duck and jalapeno poppers at Borgne, the Oysters Slessinger, grilled with Bacon, shrimp and Provel cheese at Katie’s, and for dessert, Praline Ice Cream with Bacon at Green Goddess. By the end of writing my first draft, I had gained 12 pounds and looked like a bearded Shelley Winters impersonator, or as I think they prefer to be called, Shelley Winters “tribute artists.”
My four-month journey through our culinary landscape also introduced me to many new favorite restaurants like Maurepas, Casa Borrega and Killer Poboys, renewed my vows to love and honor older restaurants where I’d eaten long before there was a book contract, and reminded me, in so many ways, why I love New Orleans.
Food here is not nutrition, it’s a lifestyle. It’s an art.
Having accepted “the call,” I am now in “the yelling” phase. My book is on the shelves. I’m doing all the usual things to let readers know it’s there: four bookstore signings, two panel discussions, annoying email blasts, shoutouts to meetup groups, an author page on Amazon and a Facebook page for the book. I was thrilled to get over 170 Facebook "likes" on Eat Dat’s first day. But then I saw that Jesus Christ had more than 12 million likes. The Beatles have more than 38 million. (John Lennon was right.) And Justin Bieber has 63 million. Competing with 1,544 other books about New Orleans food seems a lot less daunting than competing with Justin Bieber’s likes.
Michael Murphy, a book publishing professional, has been a vice president at Random House, publisher of William Morrow, and founder of the literary agency Max & Co. By day two of his first visit to New Orleans in 1983, he knew he was home. He finally moved to New Orleans in 2009 and will never leave.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.