Synopses & Reviews
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak
is the story of two larger-than-life characters and the son whom their lives helped to shape. Ruth Fertel was a petite, smart, tough-as-nails blonde with a weakness for rogues, who founded the Ruth's Chris Steak House empire almost by accident. Rodney Fertel was a gold-plated, one-of-a-kind personality, a railbird-heir to wealth from a pawnshop of dubious repute just around the corner from where the teenage Louis Armstrong and his trumpet were discovered. When Fertel ran for mayor of New Orleans on a single campaign promise-buying a pair of gorillas for the zoo-he garnered a paltry 308 votes. Then he purchased the gorillas anyway!
These colorful figures yoked together two worlds not often connected-lazy rice farms in the bayous and swinging urban streets where ethnicities jazzily collided. A trip downriver to the hamlet of Happy Jack focuses on its French-Alsatian roots, bountiful tables, and self-reliant lifestyle that inspired a restaurant legend. The story also offers a close-up of life in the Old Jewish Quarter on Rampart Street-and how it intersected with the denizens of "Back a' Town," just a few blocks away, who brought jazz from New Orleans to the world.
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is a New Orleans story, featuring the distinctive characters, color, food, and history of that city-before Hurricane Katrina and after. But it also is the universal story of family and the full magnitude of outsize follies leavened with equal measures of humor, rage, and rue.
"Rodney Fertel and Ruth Udstad married in 1947. Their fiery 11-year marriage would be characterized by plenty of spending, gambling, and epic battles, and would produce two sons and years of recriminations. The child of shady New Orleans pawnbrokers, Rodney inherited a fortune and his father's notion that 'stealing a Ã¢Â€Â˜duty,'' though Rodney would later become famous for his attempt to give back: when he ran for mayor in 1969, his only promise was to acquire a gorilla for the local zoo (he lost, but bought two gorillas anyway). Rodney and Ruth used their inheritance to live the good life, but after their divorce, Ruth was left with little. So she did what anyone would do: mortgaged her home and bought a steak house she'd discovered in the classifieds, initially offering an Ã la carte menu of just three steaks, four salads, and a few sides. Raised in the Delta in a tradition of great meat and good cooking, Ruth turned out to have business acumen as well, resulting in Ruth's Chris Steak House becoming the biggest fine-dining group in the world. While the book proposes to be a biography of his colorful parents and the famous restaurant, Fertel who once sued the company and thus, his own mother seems to use the space to air his grievances against his runaway father and emotionally distant matriarch. Still, like the sultry New Orleans streets in which the bulk of the story unfolds, this book is thick with drama and rich characters. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Randy Fertel's soulful southern storytelling captures you instantly. I love how he uses the lens of family and food to tell the rich, complex history of New Orleans."
- Alice Waters, Founder, Chez Panisse Restaurant
"Ambition, abandonment, revenge, the Napoleonic code, broken promises, gorillas, bad contracts, evil intentions, and lawsuits never-ending; they're all here in Randy Fertel's feast of a memoir, served with a healthy side of New Orleans history, and, for dessert, ville flottante! Balzac would be envious, Tennessee Williams would feel right at home."
- Valerie Martin, Orange Prize-winning author of Property and Mary Reilly
"A giant jambalaya of a book that throws into the pot a huge variety of ingredients that surprise, delight, burn the tongue, sear the heart, make you laugh until you cry--and beg for more. Randy Fertel's triumph, as a writer obsessed with history, is to have turned the story of his own disastrous family into the story of the city itself, and of its survival."
-Betty Fussell, James Beard Foundation Award-winner and author of Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef
"Funny, smart, poignant, and richly redolent of New Orleans, Randy Fertel's The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is a brilliant memoir by a very talented writer indeed."
- Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"His mother was the 'first lady of American restaurants.' His father was 'odd, self-centered, and nuts.' Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities."
-John T. Edge, series editor of Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing
"A vivid, engrossing evocation of New Orleans, an exceptional city, in part because of characters like his parents, Ruth and Rodney, the Empress of Steak and the Gorilla Man. A wonderful reading experience."
- Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
andldquo;The Melon Capital of the World
is a very important book. . . . Allmendingerandrsquo;s voice is unique and profound, making an excellent read.andrdquo;andmdash;Margaret Randall, author of More Than Things
andldquo;This story provides a therapeutic framework for envisioning hope in dark moments as well as being very connectable, readable, and enjoyable. . . . Itandrsquo;s a fun and provocative ride.andrdquo;andmdash;Mark Spitzer, author of Season of the Gar
The Big Easy family saga of an eccentric father, a workaholic mother, and the birth of the Ruth's Chris Steak House empire
In this psychologically gripping memoir, Blake Allmendinger returns to his childhood home after a forty-year absence. His homecoming to the struggling farming community of Rocky Ford, Colorado, formerly known as the Melon Capital of the World, forces the author to confront his own sad and disturbing history, one that parallels his hometownand#8217;s decline.
Allmendingerand#8217;s family was dominated by his emotionally and mentally unstable mother, who became depressed while living in Rocky Ford as a young woman. For the rest of her life she abused the members of her family, creating tensions that remained unresolved until the end of the authorand#8217;s visit, when his mother died suddenly, a family member committed suicide, and a secret diary was discovered.
The Melon Capital of the World is a remarkable blend of personal narrative, memoir, and Allmendingerand#8217;s interviews with people who knew his mother and her family. His story is a gritty but compassionate, and at times humorous, portrait of a family trying to survive in the rapidly disappearing rural American West.
About the Author
Blake Allmendinger is a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Imagining the African American West (Nebraska, 2005) and other books. His work on western writers and literature has been featured in the Los Angeles Times.