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Monday, March 8, 2021

WHO THE HELL WAS ABE RITMAN?

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MEET THE MAN WHO TAUGHT SHREVEPORT TO EAT CRAWFISH…

Let’s say that you are the Louisiana Restaurant Association in 1979. You are the governing body that ostensibly represents dining establishments in a state revered around the world for the exceptional quality of its cuisine.

The year 1979 will turn out to be a fateful one for Louisiana cuisine. Paul and Kay Prudhomme opened K-Paul’s, one of history’s great gumbo joints, in 1979. A 23-year-old named Emeril Lagasse assumed control of the kitchen at Commander’s Palace. An hour’s drive due west, John Folse celebrated the first anniversary of Lafitte’s Landing, a restaurant that would go on to fill the pages of countless travel maga- zines and produce several category-defining cookbooks.

Amid all of this excitement, you – the Louisiana Restaurant Association members – announce a new, annual award recognizing Louisiana's Restaurateur of the Year. Surely, you must realize that the first recipient of this honor will occupy a special place in the history of your organization.

And yet, when you etch that first name into Louisiana’s gastronomic record, the name that you select is that of lifelong Shreveporter Abe Ritman. The award is handed out during the annual LRA convention in New Orleans, where at least a few celebrants must have turned to their tablemates to ask, “Who the hell is Abe Ritman?" Ritman was born in Shreveport on July 11, 1928, to Meyer and Sarah. Meyer ran a dry goods store. Sarah, active in the Agudath Achim Synagogue and its Hadassah, died when Abe was a teen.

He graduated from C.E. Byrd in 1945 and went to work for Harry Diebner and Siegfried Grossman at Derby Liquor, a squat, yellow brick building at 1614 Market St. (This address is presently occupied by a biker bar called Coyote’s.) By 1951, Ritman owned the place.

And what a place for a 23-year-old newlywed to own. Abe's Derby Liquor was a package liquor store that also allowed on-premises consumption. A single pinball machine served as entertainment. By the mid-’50s, classified ads began to appear seeking kitchen help, indicating that Abe's food counter was growing.

Here's how Abe told it to Bob Griffin in 1983:

"R.S. Allday, who owned a brickyard in Atlanta and was a good friend and customer of mine, had an office across the street. One rainy day, he came in with five pounds of shrimp. He said, 'Abe, it's raining too hard to go home. Would you cook these for me?' I had a little hot plate, so I boiled the shrimp for him, and we all – neighbors, customers and so forth – sat down and ate with him.

“The next Friday, we did it again. We invited a few more people, bought a chunk of cheese, some pickles and some French bread. That went on for about 30 days. So, we decided that we were gonna get some crawfish for a change. I had never seen a crawfish before in my life. The first order I ever placed was for 1,700 pounds. It was really something, that many crawfish. So, we had to invite a lot of people to help us eat them.”

"He just fell into the restaurant business," Abe's partner and widow, Janet Ritman, told me during a phone call from her home in Florida. "We never intended to open a restaurant at all."

The night that Abe’s Derby – not the liquor store, but the seafood restaurant that it spawned at 1900 Market St. – opened in 1960, Shreveport’s Highland neighborhood was in an uproar. Curbside parking was packed, bumper-to-bumper, for several blocks in any direction of the new restaurant, which everyone just called “Abe’s.” It would eventually be renamed Abe’s Sea and Sirloin.

Janet welcomed customers at the entrance. Abe walked the floor in a short-sleeved dress shirt, cracking jokes with each table.

“He was kind of a shy guy,” Janet told me. “But, when he was in the restaurant, he was totally different. He was in his element.”

He taught free classes on raising, cleaning, cooking and eating crawfish at his restaurant several times each year. During an International Science Fair held on the campus of Centenary College, Ritman used a loudspeaker to lead 600 competitors – many of whom were visiting the U.S. for the first time – through the process of peeling and eating crawfish.

"These kids were from Japan and all over the world, and they'd never seen crawfish, but Abe wanted them to have a taste of Louisiana," Janet said. "He loved teaching people how to eat oysters and crawfish; he just loved it."

Every interview he gave to local media, every crawfish-cooking demonstration and tableside visit on a Saturday night was a performance. The restaurant's five dining rooms became the set of the Abe Ritman Show.

As the popularity of Abe's increased throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ritman's showmanship manifested itself in new, unusual ways. When a crawfish gave birth in one of his lobby aquariums in 1978, he took out a birth announcement in the Shreveport Journal to "report the arrival of 500 infinitesimal infants … mother and children are recovering well." He encouraged a long-running prank wherein downtown Shreveport office workers would bring new hires to the restaurant to celebrate their first day on the job. Abe would insist on serving the new staffer his "house specialty," which would turn out to be cow testicles.

When asked about his penchant for tableside theatrics, Ritman deadpanned to Lois Norder of the Journal, "People think that I'm a funny person, but I am not a funny person. I just look like a funny person."

For two decades, the restaurant thrived. Janet and Abe's daughter, Ruth, recounted memories of famous patrons like Terry Bradshaw, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the entire University of Oregon Ducks football team.

"I fed Paul Revere an oyster; I actually placed it in his mouth," Ruth said.

In 1981, 30 years after Abe began boiling shrimp on a hot plate at a liquor store down the street, Abe and Janet sold Abe’s Sea and Sirloin for what was reported to be an enormous sum of money. During their time away from the restaurant, the Ritmans toured “such exotic places as Switzerland, Israel and Idabel, Okla.” Abe also discovered his love of acting when he accompanied Janet to an audition at Shreveport Little Theatre and wound up inadvertently landing the role of Big Julie in “Guys & Dolls.” But the restaurant’s new ownership screwed things up majorly, and, after 18 short months, the Ritmans were back as owners.

Following an eight-year second act, Abe’s Sea and Sirloin closed for good on Sept. 11, 1990. The building went on to become a nightclub called Memories and, later, a genuinely weird strip club called The Library.

Janet recalled that, by 1990, there was so much more competition for business. Fast food was all the rage, and several more options for Cajun food had sprung up in Shreveport-Bossier.

"So many restaurants today are chains, and they don't take an interest in you. And we did," Janet said. "We tried really hard."

Not so much authentic as honest, Abe Ritman had fun with the fact that he was not a product of southern Louisiana. It's all right there on the menu, for anyone to see: "Genuine Imitation French Market Doughnuts" (three for 15 cents in 1961), corned beef po' boys (also available on rye bread!), and boiled shrimp platters served – as Shreveporters ate them in 1957, sitting on overturned beer crates at the counter of Abe's Derby Liquor – with cheese and pickles.

There is the idea that Louisiana culture originates in New Orleans and radiates outwards, reaching the outer darkness of Shreveport decades later in a diluted form. Most folks I've spoken with on the topic of Shreveport and crawfish seem to believe that northwestern Louisiana discovered crawfish in the late ’70s by way of hardworking Cajun restaurateurs like Gerald Savoie. By the late ’70s, Abe Ritman had been teaching Shreveporters to eat crawfish for 20 years.

For whatever reason – maybe because he didn’t have the right kind of last name, or he “looked funny,” or he just didn’t embody an art director’s image of a Louisiana chef and restaurateur – Ritman’s efforts to spread the gospel of Cajun cooking have been largely overlooked.

“There’s no telling how many thousands of out-of-towners this man has taught to eat crawfish,” Bob Griffin wrote in a 1990 column for the Journal. “And every one of them will remember that they learned how in Shreveport, La.”

Chris Jay is a freelance writer and Patreon creator who writes a blog about food and drink in Shreveport called Stuffed & Busted. Follow him at @stuffedandbusted. He does not understand the birria taco craze.

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