David Simon on Great Food, Pure Writing, and the Politics of Eating

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David Simon
Photo courtesy the MacArthur Foundation

Don’t get jealous, Baltimore — David Simon loves New Orleans, too. Just… in a different way.

Though Simon’s most lasting geographical tie will probably always be Baltimore — this is where he lives, and much of his work is set here — the writer/producer/benevolent pessimist has a huge spot in his heart for New Orleans. That’s where he’s been spending much of his time in recent years, since it’s the home his most recent HBO show, Treme. As the series winds down (its final episode is slated for December 29), Simon is doing his best to pay tribute to the place he’s called Baltimore’s sister city.

While Treme celebrated New Orleans music, Simon has now turned his eye on the city’s remarkable food scene. Simon and the Treme team paired up with famed food writer Lolis Eric Elie to pen a Treme-themed cookbook, featuring dozens of recipes that draw from the city’s diverse food culture. Recipes include everything from crawfish ravioli from rising star chef Janette Desautel, slow-roasted duck from Gabrielle, and sweet potato turnovers from La Spiga. And yes, of course, there’s a recipe for Sazerac. (In case you’re worried, Baltimoreans, Simon isn’t a total convert. He still believes that we know how to cook crabs better: “The crab is much more vibrant when it’s steamed,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year.) Simon and Elie will be appearing at Johnny’s in Roland Park on Sunday, Dec. 15 from 2- 4p.m. for a book signing. (More info on the book signing at the bottom of the story.)

We grabbed a few minutes with Simon to ask him about the role of food in his life, among other things:

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

“I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.”

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

Tell some good, honest stories, raise a couple kids into good people, and leave the world a little better than I found it.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Experience some of life, pay attention to the lives of others, and then, when you’ve acquired some understanding, write purposefully.

What is the best moment of the day?

Reading, if there is time and the day isn’t otherwise ruined.

What is on your bedside table? 

Right now?  “Sister Carrie” Drieser on a reread.  And “The Financier” by him as well.  Also a couple of New Yorkers and a compendium of I.F. Stone essays that is a few years old.

What is your favorite local charity? 

In Baltimore, the Ella Thompson Fund of the Parks and People Foundation of Baltimore.   In New Orleans, the Roots of Music or the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.

What do you hope readers (and cooks!) will take away from the cookbook?

If they live in New Orleans, some small increment of local pride at being part of the only improbable city in the United States.  If they live elsewhere, some small, incremental notion that they need to come here and share and honor some of what New Orleanians have managed to create and sustain.

Do you have a favorite recipe from the cookbook? 

Not yet, but I am an awful cook.  My wife and son are deft in a kitchen, whereas I can make passable chili, reheat pasta and sizzle a steak, at best.   My relationship to great food is akin to that of a lover of sports cars who has no clue what lies beneath the hood of a Porsche.  He just drives them; he doesn’t care what makes them go.  And when I put food in my mouth, I’m pretty much saying the same thing.

What are your favorite things/places to eat  in New Orleans? 

This is a big question.  I am a fool for Mosca’s in New Orleans, and a devotee of Willie Mae’s and Casamento’s.  It grieves me that I no longer share this blighted vale of life with Uglesich’s.  If Uglesich could come back, I would, in the tradition of my people, find an unblemished heifer and sacrifice such on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Your work is often grounded in political critique. Is food political for you? Or is it an escape from the political? 

Food is cultural and social.  Issues of hunger, or environmental sustainability are political and economic.  Everything touches on the political, I suppose, but thank god a meal can stay a meal if we wish.

Your current series, Treme, is in the process of wrapping up. Is finishing a series cathartic? a letdown? a relief? 

All three!

In a recent interview with the Baltimore Sun, you talked about the challenge of “writing characters who are life-size.” What do you think is the best medium for that kind of writing these days?

For reach, television or film.  And for money, television or film.  And for pure writing?  Prose, without a doubt.

David Simon will be at Johnny’s, 4800 Roland Avenue, on Sunday, Dec. 15 from 2 -4 p.m. for a book signing with Lolis Eric Elie. Tickets are $50 and include a signed copy of “TREME: Stories & Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans” by Lolis Eric Elie with a forward by Anthony Bourdain and a preface by David Simon. Inspired snacks and Treme cocktails will be served. To purchase tickets, call Johnny’s, 410-773-0777 ext. 2.

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  1. I have always believed that I love Baltimore because it reminds me of my one true love, my hometown of New Orleans. Both cities share a history of strong neighborhood communities, have a diverse mix of ethnic and cultural groups, are port cities, have a large park with historical buildings, and both have really cool forts to explore (Baltimore has Fort McHenry and New Orleans has a couple of Spanish forts in New Orleans East.)

    The people of Baltimore are also fun loving, relaxed, and willing to laugh and enjoy life without critiquing other lifestyles and despite the critique of others!

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