A Falstaff in the French Quarter

The first (and still foremost) chef of note from Mississippi was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian from Winona named Howard Mitcham. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain (of all people) called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a writer, scholar and an artist, we should remember Mitcham well. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook (1976), written with a cheerful, gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts, but as his brother Mississippian, Mitcham’s Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978) strikes much closer to my heart, a work that stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretention alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore.

Creole Gumbo is arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In this book, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, given that Mitcham himself became deaf when he was 16, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you encounter Mitcham the bohemian, the Falstaff of the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for the bounty of life. The work could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes garnered from reliable sources, but more so it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures. He also describes other people whose foods melded in the great cauldron at the mouth of the Father of Waters: the native Choctaw peoples, the French,the Spanish, British, Albanians, Sicilians, Chinese and Filipinos. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson.

In her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant” as well as  “unusual folklore dishes” such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s. “At our last big party,” Howard writes, “we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”. Howard couldn’t hear the music, but he saw the people laugh and dance, watched them eat and be happy together. He was in his element. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes, “We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”

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