This profile originally appeared in Research Matters.
Rien Fertel — now a historian, James Beard Award-nominated writer, and teacher based in Louisiana — arrived in New York City as a self-described Hurricane Katrina exile in 2005.
The storm had swept away his business — a small grocery store that he ran in New Orleans — as well as his home. Like many of the one million individuals displaced by the storm, Fertel wondered whether he would ever make it back to his hometown.
“I spent nine months feeling lost and emotionally affected by Katrina,” he said in an interview with Research Matters.
During that period, Fertel stayed in New York on the couches of his cousin and uncle, the latter of whom was teaching on a part-time basis at The New School. Already familiar with the reputation of The New School for Social Research, Fertel applied to the MA program in Anthropology in hopes of adding structure to his time in New York.
When he was accepted to The New School for Social Research, Fertel discovered that wires had somehow become crossed, and he had been offered a scholarship to attend the Historical Studies master’s program. Although he had the option to transfer into Anthropology, Fertel decided to stay in Historical Studies, and the error turned out to be fortuitous. It connected him with his advisor — professor of history Oz Frankel — and set him on a course that would provide space for him to work through his intellectual and emotional relationship to post-Katrina New Orleans while building a foundation for his future career.
“I grew up in my family’s restaurant in Lafayette, New Orleans,” Fertel explained, “and when I started at The New School for Social Research, I was worried about New Orleans and about its culture, which seemed threatened with disappearance.”
Frankel’s class introduced Fertel to historiographic methods and motivated him to think about the centrality of food to the distinctively mixed cultural setting of New Orleans.
“In my thesis, I looked into foundational texts — cookbooks, for the most part — that wrote Creole cuisine into national and global vernaculars,” Fertel said. Against the backdrop of questions about how cuisine solidified the culture of the Gulf, he took another class with Frankel on the history of books as objects. Fertel’s thesis evolved into what he described as “a textual history of cuisine,” engaging at the same time with broader questions of myth making and the construction of race.
“Part of what was going on in New Orleans in the 19th century — specifically after Reconstruction — is that you have these first cookbooks that codify recipes,” Fertel said. What emerged in his research was a kind of racial and ethnic hierarchy that privileged French and French-derived recipes, alongside what Fertel called “melting pot” recipes that often included elements of African and Caribbean traditions.
“The books gave credit to French chefs,” Fertel explained, “in part because they seemed invested in the representation of French ethnicity in New Orleans.” Stories of French chefs who masterminded hybrid recipes — at least according to the mythology constructed by these texts — tend to obscure the influences of racially marginalized cultures whose influences were in fact central to the evolution of the region’s cuisine.
Although he had taken only one history class as an undergraduate, by the time Fertel finished the Historical Studies program at The New School for Social Research, he had become a convert to the discipline. And despite his skepticism about the future of New Orleans, he ultimately decided to return to the city.
“It honestly felt like a really bad idea to go back,” he recalled. But he had applied to the PhD program in History at Tulane University and had been offered full funding.
“At The New School, I had taken classes about capital and about class dynamics and about war on the poor. And I was writing about race,” he recalled. “I saw all of these things happening in New Orleans. And though I knew that I had seen them happening before, I definitely became more aware of them in grad school.”
When Fertel returned to New Orleans, he said that he realized the city already changed — and would continue to change as Katrina receded into the past — for better and for worse. As a doctoral student, he developed a dissertation on white Creole literature in New Orleans. His work returned to questions about the creation of the city’s myths and racial identities in books — this time in novels, plays, and poetry.
Thanks to the advice of a mentor, Fertel also became involved with an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance, which connects academics and writers with individuals in the restaurant industry. Fertel said that the purpose of the organization is to recognize the people, places, and events in Southern culinary history that have been “ignored, suppressed, or erased.”
At the Southern Foodways Alliance, Fertel collected oral histories in Memphis about the history of barbecue — a regional cuisine with its own set of rich and complicated mythologies that resonated with his academic work. These oral histories quickly began to produce a full-on set of research questions about the traditions of barbecue in the South, occupying an increasing amount of Fertel’s attention.
“I had a deal with my advisor,” he joked. “Every time I turned in a dissertation chapter, I could go back on the road. I really loved talking with these people — going deeper, beyond asking, ‘How long do you cook this piece of meat and at what temperature?’”
The result is The One True Barbecue, which deals with the often behind-the-scenes labor at barbecue restaurants. Fertel focused on a practice called whole-hog barbecue, in which a pig is cooked slowly over the course of 24 hours. At the time of his research, the number of whole-hog restaurants was dwindling. Today, just a few years later, Fertel points to whole-hog’s resurgence, with restaurants opening even in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
“It has become a really hip food style for a lot of reasons,” Fertel said, adding that the book tries to explain the tradition of the process and complicate the popular histories of barbecue’s origins.
“It’s about the myth making that is placed front and center at a lot of these restaurants,” Fertel said. In the course of his research, he explained, “I talked to individuals who have worked in restaurants, the people whose names are not on the front of the building. Their pictures don’t hang on the wall. A lot of them have been working there for 50 years — but customers don’t know their names.”
In many cases, the actual cooking has to take place in a structure that is physically separate from the restaurants themselves. As Fertel put it, the back-of-the-house employees that he talked to, who are often the individuals responsible for the recipes and high quality of the food, “were so outside the restaurant itself that a lot of these people were foreign to their own restaurant.”
Fertel traces the roots of his emphasis on underacknowledged physical and cultural labor — similarly done by individuals from racially or ethnically minoritized communities — to The New School for Social Research.
In addition to conducting research and writing, Fertel teaches at the University of Mississippi and has taught history at Bard Early College in New Orleans. At Bard, roughly 100 students attend public high schools each morning. According to the school’s website, students “spend the second half of every school day as undergraduates of Bard College, completing the first year of a Bard education during the last two years of high school.”
In his work at Bard, Fertel had the chance to teach archival research methods, taking his students to museums and archives and challenging them to deliver research presentations — all in the city that he had worried he’d never come home to again.
“New Orleans has always been seen as exceptionally different from everywhere else, not just in the South but in the country,” he reflected, adding, “It looked different; it was built differently. The people talked different. We had a French background. We have an exceptional history. We invented jazz. We invented Creole cuisine.”
Fertel’s ongoing work — in his research, writing, and teaching — deconstructs many of the founding myths responsible for public conceptions about the cuisine and culture of his hometown. He credits The New School for Social Research for teaching him some of the skills that have made this work possible. But in talking to him, it is immediately evident that his efforts to tell underacknowledged stories and to restore forgotten figures to narratives about Southern culture, cuisine, and identity are motivated by a much deeper connection to the hometown that he loves.