Sunday, January 31, 2010
The Underground Gourmet’s Platonic Legacy
New Orleans lost one of its longest-standing food legends this week with the passing of 78-year-old Richard H. Collin, otherwise known as the Underground Gourmet. Collin died in Birmingham, where he relocated after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But the Philadelphia-born Collin was a consummate New Orleans man, and his contribution to the food culture of the city was defined by his game-changing “Underground Gourmet” guidebook to the city Arguably the cities first real restaurant critic, beginning at the New Orleans States-Item in 1972, Collin's legacy will loom large in NOLA's culinary world for a long time to come.
The first “Underground Gourmet" New Orleans guidebooks first appeared in 1970, as part of a series first originating in New York City, published by Simon and Schuster. The ambitious and food-obsessed Collin wrote to the publishing company to ask if he might do a New Orleans version, and to his surprise, the publishers awarded the as-yet-unproven restaurant critic the contract.
Collin enthusiastically rose to the challenge, tirelessly researching, eating, and exploring the food of his adopted city, drawing from luxury epicurean palaces, low-rent po-boy joints, and ethnic restaurants in almost equal numbers. The resulting guide was written in Collin's characteristically laissez-faire style, perfectly suited to the character of the Crescent City - the book proved an immediate success. Opinionated, hyper intelligent, and adventurous, the Underground Gourmet books provided a fantastic introduction to the cities food for tourists and locals alike.
Collin was an adventurous eater, as well an opinionated one. His book was one of the first to devote attention and affection to the city's smaller hole-in-the-wall restaurants, moving beyond the traditional French-Creole stalwarts into the soul food joints, poor boy houses, and working mans lunch-spots of the general public. Collins didn't mince words or hang fire on lousy restaurants, either: one chapter is, after all, entitled "The Great Center City Disaster Area," enumerating Collin's justifiable disdain for the poor food served to the business lunch set (one can only hope that matters have improved). Collin's disapproving descriptions include such damnations as "Keystone Kops levels of amateurism," "watery Northern coffee," and just plain "absolutely awful."
But Collin's praise could be as potent as his criticism: when a restaurant really got something right, The Underground Gourmet's enthusiasm was marvelously obvious: as he himself explained in the introduction to the guide, he approached restaurants as an "incurable optimist," and was capable of waxing rhapsodic about a "heady" shrimp remoulade at Galatoire's, an "exquisite" raw oyster, or a "beautiful" dish of butter-soaked barbecued shrimp at Pascal's Manales. Needless to say, New Orleans restaurateurs of the era quickly learned to both respect and fear the Underground Gourmet's criticism.
New Orleans food buffs of all stripes will appreciate a browse-through of the easy to find 1973 revised edition of the guide: the book provides a fascinating time capsule into what New Orleans cuisine was and represented in that particular era, and Collin's remarks on still-existent restaurants are illuminating and often highly entertaining. Antoine's, Pascal Manales, the Camellia Grille and other modern-day stalwarts are addressed here, as well as a cotorie of gone-but-not-forgotten eating emporiums, some dearly missed and some not so much. Collin's dining world in 1970's New Orleans contained considerably more aspics and "tropique" salads then our own does, and startlingly cheaper prices. One cannot help but long for the days when you could still order a nice sirloin steak for the princely sum of $5.50. (One also wonders where the remarkable assemblage of fine Chinese restaurants the city used to possess have gone).
Collin’s notion of a "platonic" dish was perhaps his trademark eating thesis and the most fascinating idea to come out of his food writing: to the Underground Gourmet, a "platonic dish" was "the best imaginable realization of a particular dish," a preparation that perfectly captured the essence of New Orleans cuisine, a dish that could not (and would not) be equaled anywhere else or in any other locale. Commander's Palace Oysters Bienville, Galatoire's trout meuniere amandine, and Casamento's New Orleans oyster loaf were all awarded this philosophically-meaningful honor: Collin’s was not afraid to make it clear when a dish did meet his always-stringent expectations.
Richard Collin's wife, Rima, was herself a formidable food authority. A former Fulbright scholar in France, she founded the New Orleans Cooking School in 1980, and provided counsel, advice, and delicious food to her husband for the entirety of their long and prosperous marriage. The two self-described “oddball academics” worked well together inside and outside the home: Richard and Rima authored the classic “New Orleans Cookbook” in 1975, an ambitious tome that gathered what the couple felt to be the most authentic Creole recipes in existence. The two tirelessly researched the book's contributions, attempting to gather, test, and perfect "platonic" versions of iconic Creole preparations, ranging from gumbos to oyster loaf to baked quail and other classic Creole specialties. Their efforts paid off. The resulting two hundred and eighty-eight recipes included remain excellent examples of real-deal Creole cuisine, a quality the public immediately recognized upon the book's release. The Collin's couple’s “New Orleans Cookbook” remains in print to this day and is estimated to have sold over 100,000 copies. Another little known fact: the book was edited by legendary editor Judith Jones, best known (of course) for her work with Julia Child.
Richard and Rima also collaborated on "The Pleasures of Seafood," an extensive treatment of seafood preparations from around the world. After Rima's passing in 1998, Collin wrote the 2002 “Travels with Rima," a celebratory and poignant elegy in travelogue form, a book that remains a testament both to the couple's love and to their shared adventuresome spirit.
Collin's expertise ranged further then food. He served as a well-loved emeritus professor of history at UNO, and was a highly regarded Theodore Roosevelt scholar, publishing "Theodore Roosevelt's Caribbean" in 1990. He delighted in travel (especially with Rima), the opera, and fine art, as well as enjoying the many delights of his native Crescent City: Collin’s life was not one lived without a consideration of pleasure.
The multi-faceted and multi-talented Richard H. Collin will doubtless be fondly remembered and revered for his contribution to New Orleans’s food culture. Let us hope that the Underground Gourmet’s platonic dishes will be enjoyed in the city he loved for a long, long time to come.