The Essential Guide Tour Pitchapalooza #20: Freezing and Eating in New Orleans

New Orleans opened her beautiful, battered and FREEZING arms to us (it was as cold as a polar bear’s ovary in January in New Orleans, DO NOT come without your woolies!) as we made the next stop on our coast-to-coast pilgrimage listening to book pitchers from America’s citizen authors.

Food. Let’s talk eating first, since this is, after all, N’Awlins. Our first meal was at Cochon (that’s French for pig), recently voted #1 restaurant in New Orleans by the people who live there. Our amazing concierge from the W Hotel (best customer service this side of Zappos btw) snuck us in, otherwise we would never gotten seated.

Alligator. Pig’s feet. Hog’s head. Just reading the menu was an adventure in culinary exotica. We had smothered collard greens whose vinegar greenness melted in the mouth and intoxicated the taste buds. Creamy grits that made you want to cry for joy. Boudin balls crispy fried on the outside and mushy with flavorful sausage and rice on the inside. Black eyed pea and pork soup. A pork pie that made you rejoice to be alive, bursting with thick textures and deep dark gravy flavor combinations all set off by a crisp, crunchy crust. Dessert was a key lime pie that was to die for, with homemade butterscotch ice cream. Plus lime coconut sorbet that was extraterrestrially splendiferous.

On our last night we went to Commander’s Palace. It was the polar opposite of Cochon.

Upscale and formal as opposed to down-home and funky. A hidden kitchen versus the openness and excitement that comes from watching the chefs bustling, hurrying, and slaving over hot stoves. Vests and ties, not t-shirts and jeans. The food was also reflective of this schism. Whereas Cochon took traditional dishes and put contemporary spins on them, Commander’s was strictly old school. We had an appetizer that was simply spectacular – shrimp skewered with a slice of pork smothered in pepper sauce and accented by okra so fresh you expected it to grab your ass and woo you with a snappy pick-up line. But the last meal was sadly pedestrian. The grits were leaden, the gumbo was just above average, and the lamb no different than the lamb we’ve had at upscale joints across the country. Dessert salvaged the meal though: soufflé light and lovely set off by vanilla/whisky sauce; shortcake long on delicate buttermilk goodness and complimented by succulent strawberries and wicked whipped cream. One other important difference: Commander’s was $150; Cochon $60!

Okay, now to the secondary news: our event. Garden District Books is one of the delightful, intimate indie bookstores that reeks of charm and is run by a serious book person: Britton Trice.

The staff is warm, friendly, welcoming, and knows books inside and out. Actually we were scheduled to go there in September 2005 for an event, but were waylaid by Katrina, So it was joyful to finally make it there and to see the bookstore, and indeed N’Awlins not only up and running, but flourishing. It was a freezing night, but to our delight 75 people showed up to pitch.

A very stylish slow talker gave her pitch about a memoir of continually saying the wrong thing at the wrong time with the charming title: The Bumble Gene. Another writer told her story of ½ human, ½ alien hybrids. A trust-funded rock critic gave a lovely presentation about her coming-of-middle age memoir. But our winner blew us away. He pitched his middle school novel called Peaches, starring a “blaxploitation Pippi Longstockings.” It was unique yet familiar, funny and poignant, magically delivered. One of the things that sets this Pitchapalooza apart from dozens and dozens of others we’ve done was that lots and lots of the people told stories in which New Orleans herself was a main character. People there take a real pride in their crazy mishmash of a culture and history. It was way, way cool!
Again, we were blessed with a set of slammin’ judges. Susan Larson, who has her own NPR show after being the book critic at the Picayune for two decades, had a gentle wisdom and wit while dispensing pearls of valuable 411. Kathleen Nettleton of Pelican Publishing was wonderfully no-nonsense, with a real tell-it-like-it-is POV that comes from being in the family book business since she was 12 years old. She told the writers there how critical it is to research a publisher to make sure you fit perfectly on their list.

Writer tip: be nice, not bitter. We were confronted by a writer after the event who was hostile and angry, disgruntlement shooting off her like poison arrows. She complained about how we sucked because she didn’t get to pitch. As we said, there were 75 writers there; we would’ve been at the bookstore until 3AM if we stayed to hear everyone’s pitch. To offset the disappointment some feel, we offer a free one-on-one consultation for everyone who buys a book. But this was not enough for this lady. She snarled and huffed away. An incredibly handsome and snappily dressed doctor approached us full of thanks and gratitude. He didn’t get to pitch either, but said how much he learned by watching and listening. Immediately we wanted to help this guy. So he told us his story. He was a doctor who had overcome drug addiction while treating patients. Great story, told with style and heart.

We were sad to leave New Orleans, but there’s already talk of bringing us back down for the Tennessee Williams Book Fair. We can’t wait!