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

Randy Fertel, Author
Randy Fertel. Univ. of Mississippi, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61703-082-6
Portable Document Format (PDF) - 288 pages - 978-1-61703-083-3
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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. (Oct.)
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