Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Subject Was Absinthe, Part 1

By Pat Browning

Peter King whips fact and fiction to a fine froth in his book ROUX THE DAY. I mix his visits to New Orleans gustatory palaces with tidbits from my own book, ABSINTHE OF MALICE, my recollections of a trip down Bourbon Street, a jazz podcast and a few recipes. Oysters Rockefeller is still a secret after all these years. Does it or doesn’t it call for spinach?
(In two parts)

Peter King’s main character in ROUX THE DAY is never named, but describes himself this way:

“I operate under the name of The Gourmet Detective. I seek out lost recipes and rare spices, find substitutes for disappearing or suddenly expensive food ingredients. I advise on topics like the food to serve in a film set in the seventeenth century or at a suitable ‘theme’ banquet for the fiftieth anniversary of a department store.”

While at a food fair in Los Angeles, the Gourmet Detective is persuaded to stop over in New Orleans on his way home to London. In New Orleans a potential client treats him to an elegant meal at Arnaud’s restaurant.

I Googled my way onto Arnaud’s atmospheric web site, happy to learn that Arnaud’s is still in business. It’s moving with the times by adding a small, more informal Jazz Bistro. You can pop in there for an appetizer called Pompano-Duarte at $32.95. The recipe is at a general New Orleans news site; or go right to the recipe at
and you’ll understand why it costs $32.95.

For a jazz podcast of easy listening blues and Dixieland jazz, go to Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro page at

Pretend you’re sitting in The Jazz Bistro nibbling at Pompano Duarte and maxing out your credit card.

In ROUX THE DAY, over food and drink at Arnaud’s, the Gourmet Detective agrees to search for and recover a purloined chef’s book from the defunct Belvedere Restaurant, once famous for its Oysters Belvedere.

Antoine’s and its famous Oyster Rockefeller dish come immediately to mind. Fortunately Antoine’s is still alive and thriving. The dinner menu at its web site lists dishes at a modest rate for a legendary restaurant, and yes, it still serves Oysters Rockefeller.

The recipe for Oysters Rockefeller is still a closely guarded secret. Theories abound. Does it or doesn’t it contain spinach? Nobody’s talking. During my gourmet cooking days I frequently made Oysters Rockefeller according to the best recipe I could find, and it did call for spinach.

My old cookbooks are long gone, but here’s an easy recipe like the one I remember. It was given to Life magazine by Roy Alciatore, one of Antoine's previous owners, for THE PICTURE COOKBOOK, published by Life magazine more than 30 years ago. I found this at
The Gumbo Pages

Roy Alciatore’s Oysters Rockefeller
(as published in Life magazine's cookbook)
36 fresh oysters on the half shell
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons finely minced raw spinach
3 tablespoons minced onion
3 tablespoons minced parsley
5 tablespoons bread crumbs
Tabasco sauce to taste
1/2 teaspoon Herbsaint, or substitute Pernod
1/2 teaspoon salt
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add all the ingredients except the oysters. Cook, constantly stirring for 15 minutes. Press the mixture through a sieve or a food mill. Cool. Line six pie tins with rock salt. Set 6 oysters in the rock salt on each pie tin. Divide the topping into 36 equal portions. Place one portion on each oyster. Broil until topping is brown. Serves 6.

Listed on Antoine’s dinner menu under Appetizers:
“Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller (notre creation) 13.75
Oysters baked on the half shell with the original Rockefeller sauce created by Antoine's in 1889.”

To put it delicately … ahem … original sauce … well, maybe. The original sauce was made with absinthe, and although absinthe is once again legal in this country and quite trendy, it’s not entirely the same old mind-messing absinthe.

In the years that absinthe was banned, as King’s fictional Gourmet Detective explains it:
“(T)hey … came up with several substitutes – anise was the most popular, sometimes mixed with hyssop. Another plant known as ‘herbsaint’ was used, too, but to an addict all of these were weak and unsatisfactory. Only absinthe gives the results they want, for drinking purposes as well as cooking…. The oysters Rockefeller that made Antoine’s famous used absinthe but then lost its popularity when absinthe substitutes had to be used.”

To talk about absinthe’s place in ROUX THE DAY and its role in the strange and surprising ending would be to give away the plot, so I’ll leave it there. I’ll probably always wonder if King’s fictional Belvedere restaurant is pure fiction or a thinly disguised version of Antoine’s.

I researched absinthe up one side and down the other in 1999 when I was writing FULL CIRCLE, now republished as ABSINTHE OF MALICE. I boiled all those hours spent with Internet search engines down to a character who made Oysters Merrily for a Chamber of Commerce fund raiser and snuck a bit of homemade absinthe into a particular oyster.

(Move down to Part 2 for more about absinthe, plus my own trip down Bourbon Street.)

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