August 29 marks the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We're sharing this piece again as a love letter to the people who never gave up on New Orleans.
The young man with the broad, gold-capped smile slammed the van door and picked up the microphone. "My name is Anthony, and I'll be your shuttle driver today. If this is your first time in New Orleans, there is one thing you need to know: eat all the food you can. You cannot go wrong with that."
Perhaps it's possible to find someone within the New Orleans city limits who is neutral on the subject of food – agnostic on the provenance of the city's best po-boy (or for that matter, how to spell it) and content with a frozen burrito on a Monday night when by all means they ought to be having red beans and rice. Chances are they just haven't been in town long enough for a local to set them straight, lead them by the hand to a proper coffee shop or sno-ball stand and then maybe on over to the house for Friday night gumbo.
Don't worry about them – it'll happen, because goodness, do New Orleanians love to talk…and argue……and educate…and opine about food. It's who they are, and what has kept them going, even when their very way of life was in danger of being swept away forever.
"Here in New Orleans, we hear a great deal about good eating; our enthusiasm for food is unending. A familiar scene in New Orleans restaurants is a table laden with spectacular food surrounded by New Orleanians eating happily while already planning their next meal," wrote cookbook author Rima Collin in her 1975 introduction to "Brennan's 417 Royal St.: A Souvenir Cookbook." The statement - and the restaurant - still stand.
McCarthy attributes a certain amount of that intrinsic passion to the city's ethnic underpinnings and cultural Catholicism. "Fusion before fusion" is how he refers to Creole cooking. While the French made it their mission to maintain canonical cooking practices in the region, Spanish, African, Indian and other influences began to meld with it and form an entirely new cuisine. The Catholic calendar, along with the progression of the seasons, defined times for food-based rituals and celebration.
On Fridays between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, no matter the secular or non-secular nature of a school, often there will be King Cake. Children learn to bite down gently so as not to chip a tooth on the small baby figure that may or may not be baked into their slice. The lucky recipient of the baby is crowned as royalty for the day and bears his or her prize home proudly to parents who might be less enthused; they're on the hook for providing the next week's King Cake.
This, needless to say, does not happen many other places in the country. As McCarthy puts it, these New Orleans food traditions transmute into the "rhythm of who and where you are."
Radio host, culinary activist and cooking teacher Poppy Tooker attributes the city's food fixation to catholic tastes – in the lower-case sense of the word. "It transcends gender and race," she says.
"You walk down the street and you hear everyone talking about what they ate and where they got it. It might be a group of women. It could be a bunch of businessmen talking about the meat they shot and how they're going to cook it. It's just everybody."
People in New Orleans are passionate preservationists of their city's food history, for it is a massive part of what has sustained them. Coming in as a first time visitor, it's impossible not to notice in the structures and the statements: every event is couched as "before the storm" and "after the storm." Bustling new eateries – more than 300 of them established in the past five years – abut grand dining halls that have served up pommes soufflé, Oysters Rockefeller and shrimp remoulade for over a century.
Tooker refers to these restaurants – Galatoire's, Arnaud's, Antoine's and the like – as "living food museums." Says she, "In France, they'd forgotten about some of these dishes. They're oddities. We'd never stopped making them."
She continued, "The average New Orleanian is only happy if she walks into one of these places and the Trout Meuniere and ideally even the waiter are the same as when she used to come in with her grandmother. Everything has to remain the same. You end up with a perfectly preserved food culture."
And yet these living, lively culinary artifacts and new ventures coexist with buildings and entire neighborhoods that still sit derelict after Hurricane Katrina. The residents live among, as Richard McCarthy says, "complicated layers of decay – the marvelous ghosts and tragic ones."
What's the first thing you grab when the floodwaters are rising and you don't know when or if you'll ever see your home again? Many people didn't get a chance to make that decision, and many never made it out. Despite the city's intrinsic connection with food, very few people's first inclination was to stash a suitcase full of family recipes, comb-bound cookbooks and New Orleans-specific ingredients. They were just happy to get out alive.
Those who did, waited. Disallowed entry back into the city for many weeks, and unsure what damage might greet them upon return, many residents sought shelter elsewhere and hungered for home.
Lu Brow, a cocktail book author and bar chef at the Swizzle Stick Bar at Loews Hotel, took refuge with her family in Shreveport, Louisiana, for six weeks. Bereft of routine – or anything else – and in terrible fear of being a burden, she had a hot dinner and cold cocktails on the table for them every night. "I had to have something," she said. She cooked her childhood favorites, like brisket with roux gravy, chicken and dumplings and endless red velvet cakes and pies for them. They loved it. Still, she knew she had to go back and dreaded telling her ailing, elderly father that she was going back to the unknown of post-flood New Orleans.
"I know you are," he told her. He gave her a $2 bill he'd been carrying in his wallet since 1922 saying, "I didn't raise a quitter."
Poppy Tooker did not take kindly to exile either. She and her family, who had been staying with family in Baton Rouge, fought their way back into the city as soon as they were able, and she sprang into action. She and Richard McCarthy collaborate closely on the Crescent City Farmers Market. It was founded, in large part, as an homage to the New Orleans markets that in the 1800s were, on any given day, home to over 400 fruit, vegetable, game and seafood vendors from every corner of the globe.
In 2005, however, the market had become a nexus for several dozen local farmers, fishermen, bakers and food artisans as well as a deep cross-section of the population who relied on the vendors for fresh, affordable food. It closed on August 27, as the city was hearing its first warnings about the storm that was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, and McCarthy and Tooker tried desperately to communicate with their vendors to see if they had made it through.
An e-mail came through from Kay Brandhurst, the market's "Shrimp Girl." She, her husband Ray and their four children had made it out, but they had lost their home and their boat – which was their livelihood. She asked not for aid, but for work. She got a miracle.
Members of the Slow Food movement from across the country banded together to provide sweat labor, PR muscle and financial assistance. On Tuesday, November 22, when the Crescent City Market reopened, shoppers returned and hugged the stuffing out of Brandhurst, who was there with a truck loaded up with fresh shrimp for her customers' Thanksgiving feasts.
It has not been an easy haul for Brandhurst and her family. Left homeless after the storm, the six of them lived crammed into a one-bedroom apartment above a pain clinic, with a daily 4 a.m. journey to pick up the night's haul, get the fuel for the boats and get the kids to school. She did her best to maintain her family's morale, but it wasn't easy.
"There just wasn't much open, even if there wasn't any damage," Brandhurst says of the local markets. "There was a Save A Center nearby, but it was eerie and creepy and they didn't have much. There was never a 'so what do you feel like eating?'"
Respite finally came one day. "We were dying for fried shrimp. All of a sudden one day, I could get some shrimp. I didn't have flour or fish fry. I fried it up with pancake batter and I swear, we still talk about it. That fried shrimp is the best thing we ever tasted. Food is where it's at!"
Tooker also recalls the grimness of the post-Katrina grocery stores. "When the grocery stores reopened, there was no butter, and just no place for anyone to buy fresh food." Then one day – a glimpse of normalcy.
She says, "Way up on the top shelf, under the generator lights, I saw a package that looked familiar and I pulled it down. There's this bakery called Brocato's that had just celebrated their centennial, and I'd heard that they'd gotten five feet of water and I couldn't find the owners. I figured I might never see these cookies again, so I bought maybe 20 packages of them."
Tooker continued, "I was sitting on my couch surrounded by all these cookie boxes and I saw this sticker on the side, next to the centennial sticker, and it said 'Best by August 2005.' I started crying, saying I should just get a tattoo that said the same thing because that's going to be true of all of us."
Still, little by little, hope shone through. The chefs came back and had to face the horrifying prospect of cleaning out their walk-in refrigerator that had been without power for days or even weeks. Tooker recalls sitting with chef John Besh in his flagship restaurant August as they planned fundraising strategies. Besh and his team had been using August as a home base to feed relief workers 20 hours a day in the wake of the flood.
She recalls, "He had a truck parked out front with a hose coming through a knocked out window in the front so they could get fresh water, and still, I couldn't believe this, he kept apologizing for the flies. It was so surreal."
After the worst had passed, the city's restaurants rallied. Says Tooker, "No matter if it was a little sandwich shop or a grand place, Each restaurant that reopened was a little bit of victory. Customers would be crying when they saw each other; they hadn't known who was still alive."
As McCarthy says, "As we were swiped about from one trauma to the next, the anxiety of losing it all created sense of kinship and an attachment to the taste of memory. In this crisis moment of Katrina we had to fight like hell to defend our traditions, and chefs and cooks showed extraordinary creativity. Juggling tradition and innovation – that’s the story now."
Today, five and a half years later the city is changed, but not broken. Poppy Tooker does a star turn around the Crescent Street Market. Fans of hers and Richard McCarthy's come up for a hug and to show off their purchases of fresh satsumas, Creole cream cheese (the method for which Tooker helped preserve from extinction) and Cajun grains rice.
Kay Brandhurst is also in attendance, vending fist-sized, sweet-smelling Louisiana shrimp from the back of her truck. The BP oil spill dealt a blow to her business – but not from any physical peril to her family's hauls. She assures buyers that seafood is more rigorously tested that at any previous point in history. Still all but two of her 80 vendors outside of the region have dropped her, saying that their customers still just don't think it's worth the risk.
After all she's weathered, Brandhurst still has faith in herself and the system. "I think I can do anything now. I try to accept life for what it is, and I trust that [BP claims administrator] Mr. [Kenneth] Feinberg will get it right."
"You're an eternal optimist," teases Tooker. She's displaying a little bit of faith herself today, buying several pounds of Brandhurst's shrimp to make an etouffee for guests that afternoon. She's got no qualms about its safety; she just knows that it tastes like home. "This is the kind of dish that got us through."
More good reading from and about people in the story: The New Orleans Food Timeline | 'Cooking Up A Storm' | Poppy Tooker's Louisiana Eats! | In Katrina's Wake | Crescent City Farmers Market | Kay and Ray Brandhurst