COOKING UP A STORM/Recipes lost and found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans

COOKING UP A STORM/RECIPES LOST AND FOUND FROM THE TIMES-PICAYUNE OF NEW ORLEANS, hereafter referred to simply as COOKING UP A STORM was co-edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker. COOKING UP A STORM, published by Chronicle Books in 2008, is perhaps one of the greatest and most difficult endeavors to ever confront a regional group.  In this instance heading the regional group was the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Louisiana. The “group” turned out to be many of the people of New Orleans,    

It may interest you to know (per Wikipedia) “The Times-Picayune is an American daily newspaper published in New Orleans, Louisiana since January 25, 1837. The current publication is the result of the 1914 merger of The Picayune with the Times-Democrat. The paper was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Four of The Times-Picayune’s staff reporters also received Putlizers for breaking news reporting for their coverage of the storm. The paper funds the Poe Award for journalistic excellence, which is presented annually by the White House Correspondents’ Association..”.

That being said, who isn’t familiar with the utter destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, when the horrific Category 5 storm smashed into New Orleans?  The seawall collapsed, triggering a flood that washed away nearly an entire American city. (From the Introduction to Cooking Up a Storm).

Here are some statistics to consider:

Hurricane Katrina was the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded to make landfall in the U.S.   In New Orleans, the levees were designed for Category 3, but Katrina peaked at a Category 5 hurricane, with winds up to 175 miles per hour. The storm surge from Katrina was 20-feet (six meters) high.  

Over 700 people are reported as still missing as a result of hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina affected over 15 million people in different factors such as economy, evacuations, and gas prices or drinking water.

The final death toll was at 1,836, primarily from Louisiana (1,577) and Mississippi (238).An estimated 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, up to 20 feet deep in places .Hurricane Katrina caused $81 billion in property damages, but it is estimated that the total economic impact in Louisiana and Mississippi may exceed $150 billion, earning the title of costliest hurricane ever in US history. Hurricane Katrina impacted about 90,000 square miles. The region affected by the storm supported roughly 1 million non-farm jobs, and still, hundreds of thousands of local residents were left unemployed by the hurricane.

More than 70 countries pledged monetary donations or other assistance after the hurricane. Kuwait made the largest single pledge of $500 million, but Qatar, India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh made very large donations as well.

And, although the people of New Orleans were strongly urged to evacuate before the storm made landfall—many didn’t – some didn’t believe it would be so horrific, or that the seawall would cave in; others stayed in their homes or inside hospitals perhaps because of the logistics of being moved to higher ground or a safer place. Instead, Hurricane Katrina was the worst—and costliest—storm in the history of the USA.

In the introduction to COOKING UP A STORM, the co-authors explain “Beginning in the hours leading up to the storm and continuing through its devastating effects and the many months of difficult struggles that followed, The Times-Picayune has served as a strong voice for the city and a beacon of recovery. On October 27, eight weeks after the storm and just two weeks after the staff members of the Times-Picayune were able to return to their building in downtown New Orleans from their exile in Baton Rouge, the Food Section resumed publication. The city still lay in ruins. The death toll still mounted every day. More than 250,000 people were still living in exile. And every day, the people who did return took a grim inventory of the homes, businesses, Jobs, and irreplaceable objects collected over a lifetime that now lay in ruins.

The editors at the newspaper had long known about New Orleans’ deep and abiding relationship with its food. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they were about to get a lesson in just how profound that connection was, and remains today. In New Orleans, food is culture. Food is family. Food is comfort. Food is life.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, a diaspora spread across America. Displaced citizens from New Orleans began to cook their comfort foods, bringing their indigenous dishes to places like Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh—places where people didn’t know etouffee from café au lait.

Back home, people were anxious for their favorite restaurant, corner grocery store, sandwich shop, or neighborhood café to reopen. They wanted a roast beef po-boy dripping with gravy, a bowl of rich gumbo, or maybe just a cup of café au lait and a hot beignet to give them both physical and spiritual sustenance as they tried to rebuild their shattered homes and lives…at the newspaper, a frenetic dialogue commenced with readers, as they sought to replace their treasured recipe collections most of them gathered over a lifetime, and destroyed after lying under water for three weeks. A faithful reader named Phyllis Marquart suggested to food editor Judy Walker a new theme for the recipe exchange column. On October 27, 2005, Walker invited readers to participate in ‘Rebuilding New Orleans, Recipe by Recipe’.

‘Exchange Alley’ (The column is named after a street in the French Quarter) became the avenue to reclaim recipes. Walker paired readers searching for recipes with those who still had theirs. She would print letters from those seeking recipes and ask for responses which she included in the column a week or two later”. [This reminds me of the way food editor Fern Storer operated her column in a Cincinnati newspaper for many years. Occasionally my mother would send me the food section of the newspaper and I would send some requested recipes to Fern-sls] “Sometimes, Walker was able to find the recipes in the paper’s archives. At other times, readers filled the request from their own recipe clippings. A week after a reader’s request for Baked Stuffed Oysters was printed in ‘Exchange Alley’, another reader sent a copy of the recipe she had clipped from the newspaper twenty years before…”

There is a great deal more to the Introduction of COOKING UP A STORM but the bottom line is that the requests poured in, continuously, with many readers who had lost their recipe collections and cookbooks, asking for a cookbook printing all the lost treasured recipes.

This is something I could related to so easily -I  just look around at my collections of cookbooks and over 200 recipe boxes, of more than fifty 3-ring binders filled with recipes collected over a period of 50 years–many from women’s magazines, many of them clipped from the Los Angeles Time’s weekly S.O.S. columns and thinking how unimaginably lost I would be without all of my cookbooks and recipes.

The upshot was that the Times-Picayune editors asked cookbook authors Marcelle Bienvenu and Emeril Lagasse to take on the project of building a cookbook from the many recipe requests. Marcelle is the author of “Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?” published in 2006. Bienvenu also writes a popular column called “Cooking Creole” for the Times-Picayune. She also understands that in New Orleans, it’s not just about the food, but also the stories that go with the recipes, (italics mine) which explains how they came to be and who created them. [I think this is a concept that my siblings, cousins and I understood when we compiled a cookbook in 2004 called “Grandma’s Favorite” – our tribute to our grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and ourselves—in giving credit where credit was due.

I love the concept of COOKING UP A STORM, appropriately named, given the circumstances under which it was published. The Introduction alone provides detailed statistics, most of which yields a great deal more information about Hurricane Katrina than we might have learned about from television at the time of the disaster. And throughout all of the news broadcasts and everything we learned—at the time Hurricane Katrina struck—and then in the horrific  aftermath—I never stopped to think about the average person in New Orleans losing a lifetime of recipe collections.

I wish I had known, when the Times-Picayune began its quest to assist people in re-establishing recipe collections, that I had known and could have possibly lent assistance from my own collection. I didn’t know. I don’t remember ever hearing, or reading about, the newspaper establishing “Exchange Alley”.   I hope that COOKING UP A STORM was a huge success.

As cookbooks go, there is a wealth of New Orleans culinary expertise in COOKING UP A STORM – from appetizers to Soups, Gumbos & Chowders, from Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, to casseroles and vegetables, from Cakes & Pies, to Cookies & Candy, from Puddings and Other Desserts – to Lagniappe – (a little something extra) – you will find many of the lost treasured recipes of New Orleans’ residents. Many New Orleans homeowners may have lost everything they owned, but the people of the Times-Picayune newspaper and their dedicated readers helped save something we all treasure – our favorite recipes.

I have Marcelle Bienvenu’s “WHO’S YOUR MAMA…” in my collection of Louisiana cookbooks. I also have “First – You Make a Roux” from the Lafayette Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, along with stacks of community cookbooks from Louisiana – not just New Orleans. I also have a treasured copy of the 9th edition of “The Official Picayune Creole Cookbook”, first published in 1901 by the Times-Picayune Publishing Company, along with a 1984 edition of “RIVER ROAD RECIPES”, first published in 1939 by the Junior League of Baton Rouge—which, by 1984, had gone through 40 printings!  I am non-plussed by the copyright date of 1939 for the first River Road Recipes edition. I think there was some debate a while back when the first Junior League cookbook was published—might it have been River Road Recipes? I’m not sure but 1939 sounds pretty old to me, for a junior league cookbook.

Amazon.com has copies both new and pre-owned copies of COOKING UP A STORM which was published in 2008 by Chronicle Books. It is a soft-cover cookbook that apparently has not been published in a hardbound edition. It is also listed under Alibris.com with copies selling for $8.75, more or less.

My copy has been stamped “no longer property of the Seattle Public Library”, followed by a stamp stating “Received Capitol Hill Library 2009”—so my copy has been around the block a few times, and luckily for me, has fallen into good hands. I will forever more think of what total loss means to people – not just their homes and furniture, clothing and belongings – it can be the loss of treasured recipes as well.

Review by –Sandra Lee Smith, October 2, 2013

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