Randy Fertel’s The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak opens with a quintessential New Orleans scene of his mother’s funeral, complete with a second line. Thus he assures the reader that this will be no ordinary family memoir, and also confirms my belief that there is no place like New Orleans on this planet. While those of us familiar with New Orleans will find the scene quite familiar, readers from other places might well shake their heads in disbelief at the scenes of the family dancing to the sounds of the brass band. Well, if they think that is not very believable, I would love to be a fly on the wall a page or two later when they will encounter the scene of the “tomb picnic,” an event so wonderfully weird and outrageous that it managed to slightly shock even the citizens of New Orleans. Yet I can assure you that what Mr. Fertel is writing about is an accurate depiction of the fantastic gumbo pot of Louisiana, and more specifically its grande dame, New Orleans. He had the great fortune, as well as the great misfortune, to have two extremely colorful characters for his parents, and his family memoir will take the reader on a truly magical tour of this unique place, as well as on a number of extremely bitter side trips into his family’s past and his own experiences of growing up in a totally dysfunctional world.
I have enjoyed Mr. Fertel’s storytelling enormously, and I found myself laughing out loud more than I expected I would, despite the pervasive discomfort I felt every time he lamented the chasm between his parents and himself. It was clear that some wounds could and would never heal. The narrative went from fast-paced and very engaging in many chapters to some that held preciously little interest to me, and those seemed to drag quite a bit, yet the overall sense of time and place Mr. Fertel invoked were such that I kept wanting to know more.
In many ways I think the recipe for crawfish bisque, which he graciously provided midway through the book, illustrated both the book and story within quite well. See, this recipe starts with 40 pounds of crawfish. And yes, one is supposed to shell them and clean the heads for stuffing. So much work, yet so delicious – and this was exactly how I felt about Randy Fertel’s The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak . Just like the bisque is worth every minute of time invested in it as well as any calorie consumed, this book is well worth your time, as long as you can keep in mind that it is not an impartial biography of two extraordinary people, but rather a deeply personal memoir by their child.
I would highly recommend The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak to anybody who has ever been intrigued by New Orleans, and particularly to those who have had the great luck to experience the original steakhouse, before it was sold to the corporate investors. Hilariously funny, poignantly sad, and uniquely New Orleans, this is a welcome addition to the books about my favorite place on Earth.