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EAT DAT : Michael Murphy on New Orleans at Its Best

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If there's one place I love, it's New Orleans and nobody I know knows it better than author and former book publisher, Michael Murphy. I had the privilege of being guided to the city by Murphy when I came last year and although it was the second time I had been to New Orleans, he showed me sides to it that I had no idea existed. He told me he was working on the book Eat Dat at the time and so when it finally launched, I couldn't wait to hear all about it.

In my interview with Murphy, we discussed what makes Eat Dat so unique, why he fell in love with the city and about the changing book publishing industry.

There are other books about New Orleans and its food but what makes your book so unique?

EAT DAT is built around stories rather than recipes or menus. Ann Treistman, a senior editor with Countryman / W.W. Norton, approached me to do the book because Norton’s sales people asked for an update on Pableaux Johnson’s 2005 book, EATING NEW ORLEANS. Pableaux didn’t want to do it. Ann used to work for William Morrow when I was Morrow’s Publisher. She knew my love of New Orleans. I first came to New Orleans in 1983 to work with Anne Rice, was completely seduced by this amazing city, and finally got to move here in 2009. I am never leaving. She also knew I could write. As a literary agent I sold her a book and then had to write it when we both discovered my author could not deliver the book I proposed & she acquired.

In considering the book, I felt a general restaurant guide would not sell when potential readers can go on line to Urbanspoon, Tripadvisor, and yelp for restaurant recommendations.

I felt, and they agreed, a book in 2014 needed more narrative elements to sell any copies.

I feel as much as the stories, maybe more so, the book is brought to life by Rick Olivier’s stunning photographs. They alone are worth the cover price.

I had such an amazing time touring New Orleans with you. You knew which chef works on which day and what to order exactly on the menu. How did you become so knowledgeable?

I’ve been dining in New Orleans since my first visit in '83. By day two, I knew I was “Home” and came here once or twice a year, every year, until I finally got to move here in 2009. Each and every visit was built around food first and music a close second.

New Orleans is a food culture. Make that, New Orleans is the food culture of America, so says Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, SAVEUR, FOOD & WINE, and all 343,000 residents of the city. We revere our restaurants, chefs, even waiters and oyster shuckers. It’s not just me that’s knowledgeable. Pretty much every hotel room attendant, street car driver, and any local riding that street car could have told you as much about our restaurants.

The restaurant experience for you is more than just food on a plate. How does the restaurants' stories and the ambiances affect you personally and why did it lead to this book?

Food in New Orleans is like music in Austin or Nashville, fashion in New York or LA, or high school football in Odessa or Massillon. It is our religion. You cannot live here and not care (way too) deeply about what makes a “real” roux. More than anyplace I’ve ever lived or visited, including New York and Paris, restaurants and hole in the wall food joints in New Orleans are identity.

You are so passionate about food and New Orleans but you're not originally from the area, what lead you to this particular passion?

I love everything about New Orleans. The cracked plaster walls, sagging balconies, the rich vegetation, often creeping between those cracked plaster walls, music (and really good music) playing in the streets, amazing music in the clubs (40-50 venues every night of the week), the opportunity to be stuck for hours in an impromptu parade, the amazingly gregarious and story-filled residents, even the light. To quote actor turned resident, John Goodman, “There’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.” To quote New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain, “There is no other place on earth even remotely like New Orleans. Don’t even try to compare it to anywhere else.” To be passionate about New Orleans starts with being in love with our food.

Out of all the restaurants and all the dishes you've eaten at in New Orleans, which is your favorite?

This is the one unanswerable question. One, and only one, favorite is impossible. We have too way many options. The brisket sliders at Cochon Butcher, the bacon wrapped dates at Bacchanal, the Coctel de Camarones at Casa Borrega, a ginger lime sno-ball with can cream at Hansen’s, the Dark & Stormy poboy at Killer Poboys, a dozen oysters at Casamento’s. That’s a half dozen where I easily could have rattled off a dozen dozen.

How has Hurricane Katrina affected the restaurant industry and community in New Orleans?

We did suffer the tragic loss of Austin Leslie and Joseph Casamento, plus restaurants like Mandich and Barrow’s Shady Inn. However, overall the restaurant industry has exploded since Katrina. New Orleans had 809 restaurants just before Katrina. Today there are 1,359 (this week). The rebirth of restaurants like Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Mandina’s, McHardy’s Chicken, and many many more are inspirational tales and highlight the amazingly resilient nature that is so at the core of our character.

If someone is not a "foodie" but they're curious about New Orleans in general, why would your book be the perfect fit for them?

The back cover states “over 250” eating establishments are profiled. After editing it down to fit in 256 pages, I counted only 204 made the cut - but it’s still a lot.

I’ve stuffed the pages with as much quirky history and well worn chestnuts of stories as I could. Hopefully, without sounding too schmaltzy, I tried to make the book as close to a love letter to New Orleans as I could (while keeping within the framework of a restaurant guide).

And then there are the pictures by Rick Olivier. They alone are worth the cover price.

You worked as a publisher and a literary agent and yet the publishing industry has changed so dramatically in the last few years. How has this affected not only gaining attention and support of bookstores but reaching readers for you in particular with this book?

Getting attention has been ridiculously hard for any new book for years. What are there now, nearly 900,000 self-published and POD titles each year on top of the 275,000 new titles published by “real” publishers? One of my favorite authors, Max Apple, had a new book out for over a year before I, his core market, knew anything about its existence.

You do as much as you can handle and maintain enough time for eating, sleeping, and remain on speaking terms with your family.

I’ve created a Facebook page for "EAT DAT New Orleans" and was excited to get 178 “likes” the first day ... until I started digging a bit. Jesus Christ has 8 million likes. The Beatles have 32 million likes (I guess John Lennon was right). And Justin Bieber has 56 million.

I am desperately trying to craft a website. My designer had to bail for personal reasons. I’ve yoked my very limited skills to web.com.

I looked up on-line reviews for similar books, GUMBO TALES by Sara Roahen, LOUISIANA EATS by Poppy Tooker, and TREME COOKBOOK by Lolis Eric Elie (all three writers significantly more talented than me) and then I emailed each reviewer & blogger to consider my book.

I shamelessly called upon all my old contacts in the book business. The results so far are two radio interviews and a number of print reviews and or interviews in places like Huffington Post, Book Page, and, of course, the Examiner.

Then, as an ex-marketing and sales guy, I conceived events & then sold the idea to venues. I’m moderating a panel at the Tennessee Williams Festival on FOOD WRITING IN THE ERA OF URBANSPOON & YELP. I’m moderating a panel at the Jazz Heritage Festival, which draws 500,000 visitors each year. My panel is THE SOUL OF NEW ORLEANS FOOD. I’m finishing up plans with other New Orleans food writers, New Orleans musicians, and local food trucks for a Road Show to Louisiana Books-A-Million stores - which I’ve named a BAYOU ODD-YSSEY. I was working on LA COMES TO LA (Louisiana comes to Los Angeles) for the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, but it became too much work and too much expense.

Where can we get a copy of this book?

Any bookstore in New Orleans -- and I do encourage out-of-towners to use their websites to “buy local” and support New Orleans. Area indies include (in alpha order) Faulkner House Books, Garden District Bookstore, Maple Street Books, and Octavia Bookstore. I hope bookstores outside of New Orleans carry EAT DAT. There’s always Amazon. And the area wholesaler, Forest Sales, carries copies. If I can get my website up and functional (www.eatdatnola.com), it will link to a source allowing one on one sales.

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