“I guess it’s a good sign that I don’t know how to use my defroster [standing at the microwave]. Hm, this doesn’t smell good. Oh! There’s metal in here! That was stupid. I’m going to burn down my house — now that will really make for a good interview [laughs].
Yesterday, I happened to be sitting next to Leah Chase. There is this wonderful irony that she and my mother [Ruth Fertel, of Ruth’s Chris Steak House] lived four blocks apart. The two queens — along with Ella Brennan, the third queen — of New Orleans cuisine. Leah and my mother were from two different worlds, but only four blocks apart on Orleans Avenue.
Anyway, I’ve known Leah over the years and as soon as I sat down, she said, ‘I loved your book [The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak]. Someone told me how controversial it was, so I had to read it.’ She said, ‘It’s real, and I love that. I love it when people are real.’ And I said, ‘I know people want to keep the iconic Ruth Fertel, but I felt they deserved to know the three-dimensional Ruth.’
The story of the spinach, it’s an old family recipe. In my research, I went to interview a cousin in Houston, and we were driving along to see another cousin and I said something about how everybody loves the creamed spinach at Ruth’s Chris, and she said, ‘You know that’s Uncle Martin’s creamed spinach.’ I said, ‘It is?’ And she said, ‘Yes, when I was growing up, my mother would give me that if I was sick.’ So I love the fact that this is an old family recipe. Great Uncle Martin was probably born in 1890, two generations back. And I think it was interesting that my mother didn’t—I mean, it would have been good marketing—but I think it was all about my mother’s ego. She wasn’t going to share the fact that it wasn’t her recipe. But my mama didn’t raise no fool. She just thought she did.
My mom cooked the spinach for holidays and, of course, at the restaurant. People swear by it, and it’s very easy. You can have the recipe, but you can’t call it Ruth’s Chris Creamed Spinach, it’s Uncle Martin’s Creamed Spinach. For political reasons. It calls for a quart of half and half. It’s not for no reason that people love it.
Uncle Martin was a survivor of World War I, and he was a great cook. He got shot in his belly in the trenches and swore to his maker that if he ever got out of there, he’d never marry. So he lived with his mother, grandmère. He was a typical Delta guy who fished and planted rice, he was a farmer, and his mother spoke no English. It’s hard to understand today how totally French that Delta culture was, even if you were Yugoslavian. You know, Croatian cuisine is a spaghetti cuisine, a pasta cuisine, rather than rice. I have this theory about the butter that’s put on the steak at Ruth’s Chris. You know, both of the big steakhouses, Crescent City and Chris, were both Yugoslavian guys. My theory is that their butter was a tip of the hat or an adjustment to local taste. In Tuscany, they put olive oil on the steak as a last flourish, and the butter on the steak was probably the Croatian way of putting “oil” in New Orleans. I’ve never had anyone confirm that, but that’s my story and I’m keeping to it.
I grew up eating typical New Orleans fare. Stuffed peppers, shrimp Creole, paneed veal. My mother was a great cook. After she bought the steakhouse, she didn’t cook much at home; it was a big event when she did. But we had this great housekeeper, whom I hired when I was 10. She was going to come for an interview, but she was late, and mom got tired of waiting and went fishing — I love that part — but I’m home reading, and there’s a knock on the door, and there’s this young black woman, ‘I’m here for the job.’ And that’s how Earner came.
I’m a big believer with this dish that you should just taste the white pepper. It should have a little bit of a burn. That’s how we did it at the restaurant. So, try that!“
Recipe: Randy Fertel’s Uncle Martin’s Creamed Spinach
3 lbs frozen spinach
1 stick butter
1/2 cup flour
1 quart half and half
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper (or more, to taste)
a dash of nutmeg
Directions: Thaw spinach and drain, pressing water out of spinach. Melt butter in a large pan, add flour and stir together for a light roux for about 3 minutes. Add half and half, spinach and spices. Simmer for 5-10 minutes. Serve.