Food & Drink

‘Treme’ cookbook is worth a read

"Treme" by Lolis Eric Elie.
"Treme" by Lolis Eric Elie.

Serious home cooks may turn up their noses at a cookbook based on a television show. But to do so with “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans” would risk missing a gem.

The cookbook based on the critically acclaimed HBO series is written by Lolis Eric Elie, who will be in Chapel Hill Sunday night for an informal book party at Crook’s Corner. Elie is a former writer on “Treme,” which chronicles the lives of a handful of New Orleans residents who struggle to rebuild their homes and their lives after Hurricane Katrina. HBO will begin airing the final five-episode season in December.

Music and food are central themes in the show, developed by Eric Overmeyer and David Simon, who also created “The Wire.” “Treme” is filled with guest appearances and recurring roles by a who’s who in the chefs’ world, including David Chang, Eric Ripert, Emeril Lagasse, Wylie Dufrense, Tom Colicchio and too many more to name. (One of the main characters is a chef who goes to New York to work after the storm, which only increased the chef spotting on the show.)

“Food is very much a main character,” said Elie, the cookbook’s author, in an interview Monday.

Elie, a New Orleans native, has serious food credentials before becoming a television writer. He is the author of “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country,” and co-produced and wrote a documentary based on that book. He also was an editor of “Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbeque,” a food writing anthology. For 14 years, Elie was a columnist with the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune.

Despite his expertise in New Orleans foodways, Elie said he wasn’t sure that he had a cookbook in him.

But when the show’s executive producer came to him with the idea, Elie said he saw it as an opportunity to highlight New Orleans’ food traditions that have not received much national attention, such as the history of the po’ boy sandwich, the name of which dates to a streetcar workers’ strike in 1929.

The 240-page book is an odd read, as most cookbooks are when they’re based on fictional television shows.

Elie writes in the voice of the characters, sharing their personal histories and recipes culled from story lines or handed down in the character’s families. (Yes, character Janette Desautel’s crawfish ravioli is among the recipes.)

But there are other recipes tucked inside its pages: a few from Elie’s mother and grandmother, from restaurants that have closed since Katrina, and many shared by New Orleans’ chefs, such as John Besh, Donald Link and Susan Spicer.

The cookbook also intersperses essays on topics such as how bread pudding became identified with New Orleans and the diversity of Louisiana’s oyster farmers, many of whom are black, Croatian, Vietnamese and Cambodian. There’s even an interview with New Orleans musician Kermit Ruffins on his family’s food traditions.

“I’ve been writing about food for certainly about 15 years or so,” Elie said. “I didn’t want to put out a cookbook that I didn’t think was worthy as a stand-alone cookbook.”

Don’t worry, Elie, you didn’t.

To see printable versions of these recipes, click on the link below:

Creole Stuffed Bell Peppers