The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

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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 ...

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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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 is a '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 à 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.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher

"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

"Lots of New Orleans history in this family story, which is wilder than the gorillas and almost as juicy as the steaks."

--Roy Blount Jr., author, Feet on the Street: Rambles around New Orleans

"A vivid, engrossing evocation of New Orleans, an exceptional city, in part because of characters like Randy Fertel's 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

Library Journal
Fertel introduces what can be described only as one of the "royal" families of New Orleans. The author's mother, Ruth Fertel, shot to fame as the owner of the now-famous Ruth's Chris Steak House. Her husband, Rodney, was a character in his own right—a wealthy man who once ran for mayor of New Orleans and promised to buy a pair of gorillas for the city zoo if elected, and he dressed as a gorilla during his campaign. It was a time when personalities such as Ruthie the Duck Girl roamed the streets of the French Quarter—when New Orleans had characters as well as character. Fertel brings it all back in this touching memoir, which offers a painfully true look at the faults and weaknesses of his distinctly New Orleans family. His story reminds us how hard it can be to love and be loved by such larger-than-life characters. VERDICT Recommended for any library with a New Orleans or Louisiana collection. Non New Orleans-based readers may also find this stimulating.—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Randy Fertel holds a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard University, Tulane University, LeMoyne College, and the New School for Social Research. He specializes in the literature of the Vietnam War. He heads both the Fertel and Ruth U. Fertel Foundations. He co-founded, with the Nation Institute, the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling, named for My Lai whistleblower and investigative reporter Ron Ridenhour.

Fertel has been featured in People, Bloomberg, and Esquire, and he has contributed to The New York Times, NPR, Smithsonian, Kenyon Review, Gastronomica, Creative Nonfiction, and The Huffington Post. His latest book, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, was published by Spring Journal Books. He lives in New Orleans and New York.

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