As often as people talk about food in New Orleans, it shouldn't be surprising that local authors dwell on it as well. But that was a surprise for novelist Sheila Bosworth.
"With my first novel (Almost Innocent), the first time I went to a book group, the lady organizing it had underlined all the food references in the book," Bosworth says. "She made some of the dishes for the event. I hadn't realized I included so much food in my writing."
For the fifth installment of Native Tongues, it's a deliberate choice for participating writers. Director Carl Walker proposed the theme of food and an array of veteran Native Tongues participants and newcomers took the bait. The evening of monologues blends fictional stories and short memoir pieces by contributors including TV journalist Cokie Roberts, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge, Randy Fertel, Bosworth, Gambit editor Kevin Allman, All Kinds of Theatre co-producer Suzanne Stouse, Mindy Mayer and many others.
"Food is something that's interesting to everyone," Bosworth says. "The challenge is to make food into something you can use dramatically rather than descriptively."
Bosworth found it was an easy challenge to embrace and cooked up a long first draft in two days. She's since trimmed her piece "Forbidden" down to size. In it, Catherine is a convicted felon who has been assisted by a priest who hired her to cook for him. But she's still struggling with temptation.
Bosworth participated in the original Native Tongues in 1993. Walker organized the initial one as a group of monologues on life in New Orleans.
"The idea was to enlist people who didn't write for theater," he says.
The run filled True Brew Theater and then moved to a larger space at Tulane University and ran for three more months. The fourth Native Tongues was in 2005, and the run was ended by Hurricane Katrina.
Another returning alumnus from the first installment is novelist Robert Olen Butler. Two weeks after the opening of the first show, he won a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of stories about the Vietnamese community at Versailles in eastern New Orleans.
"In that book, I was doing voices," he says. "Even as a fiction writer, I'm known for stuff close to monologues."
Butler has never lived in New Orleans, but he has visited often. He estimates he visited New Orleans at least 15 times per year when he was a professor at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, and just as frequently now that he teaches at Florida State University.
"New Orleans has been my creative and spiritual home for 26 years," he says.
His story about a woman who's trying to get over a series of failed marriages revolves around memories of food. It also includes a nod to his former favorite restaurant, Uglesich's.
Not all the pieces in Native Tongues are fictional. Both Cokie Roberts and cousin Suzanne Stouse wrote pieces reflecting on how food was a focal point in their extended political family. A longtime reporter for National Public Radio and commentator in Washington, D.C., Roberts has not lived in New Orleans since leaving for college, but among the ways she maintains her connections to the city is cooking.
"I'm a good New Orleans cook," she says. "I make great red beans and rice."
The piece she's contributing also reflects reporting on news after Hurricane Katrina.
"After the storm, people were sifting around in the debris for recipes," she says. "Clotheslines were set up and people were drying out their recipes. ... Only in New Orleans are your family recipes treated the same as your family photos or family jewels."