THE GORILLA MAN AND THE EMPRESS OF STEAK: A New Orleans Family Memoir, by Randy Fertel. University Press of Mississippi, $28.
By JOHN DeMERS
I am from New Orleans.
After a decade in Texas – looking forward, I hope, to the rest of my decades being in Texas – I can finally say those words with neither pride nor shame. I can simply say them, like describing the weather outside, and feel better. And feel truer to parts of myself that will always define who, what and how I am, not to mention how I eat and drink. In this pursuit, I have a lot of reasons to thank Randy Fertel, who in telling the clear-eyed yet also emotional story of his mother (who founded Ruth’s Chris Steak House), his father (a ne’er-do-well in ways too many to count) and a slew of other relatives, has given me a kind of permission to ponder my own.
If all you know of New Orleans is Mardi Gras or Jazzfest, or even if all you know is borrowed from Treme with a side order of Anne Rice, you have no idea, really, about the city Randy and I grew up in. New Orleans is, as always, both better and worse than you’re thinking. The towering figure in this memoir, as in Randy’s life, is his pint-sized mother with the Old Testament powerhouse of a name, Ruth. In food circles, it’s well known how she ended up a single mother before that was normal, with two sons to raise and an ex who had money but couldn’t be counted on to share any of it. And we know how she mortgaged her house to buy a down-and-dirty, inner-city steakhouse called “Chris,” learned all the jobs, acquired a toughness none of her steaks would happily ever know, and sold the resulting success story shortly before her death for hundreds of millions of dollars. Lucky? Sure. The lady played the horses at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, so she knew all about luck. Yet no one who knew Ruth Fertel, as I did over many years, would bother mentioning luck at all.
Still, in the tangibly Shakespearean/Greek tragedy Fertel chooses to tell, you have to have a father figure – and young Randy and his brother Jerry had to have one too. The Gorilla Man (his top billing in the title is interesting) is a troubled, haunted shadow of a man who passes in and out of the author’s life over the decades, pretty much never when he was needed. Rodney Fertel came from a New Orleans few have ever described: a family of Jewish pawn brokers who lived and worked in the poor, mostly black neighborhoods where artists like Louis Armstrong emerged. Rodney inherited a good deal of money and, as related now by his son, never held a job a day of his life. Probably what we’d now politely call a “gambling addict,” Rodney followed the ponies and anything else that promised adrenalin and a quick, easy profit. The only three things he never followed worth a damn were his wife and two sons.
In some ways, this is a new story, while in other ways, it’s the oldest story there is: a grownup child trying to understand all the good and horrific things his parents did, trying to somehow encounter them face-to-face as human beings rather than parents, and trying to embrace their stories and forgive their failings from the world of the living into the world of the dead. No place on earth seems better suited to this bittersweet journey than New Orleans. My hometown. The fact that there’s so much incredible red meat in these pages is, as Ruth surely learned to say in her hometown of Happy Jack on the Mississippi River, gravy.