Honoring New Orleans
January 1, 1970Recently, someone asked my why the chefs and restaurateurs of Charleston, SC felt so strongly about the hurricane in New Orleans that we raised over $200,000 for the Red Cross and other programs in two events. First, of course, all Charlestonians
feel empathy because of our own brushes with hurricanes, particularly Hugo. But there is another, deeper reason for chefs and cooks to weep.
New Orleans, as well as the rest of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi is our spiritual and cultural culinary home. For many of us it was the first place that titillated our taste buds. We have heard all of our lives about the greats – Arnaud’s, Gallatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s. We know New Orleans, with the help of Ella Brennan, turned out Paul Prudhomme, Emeril, and many others who changed the palette, not just of the Southern United States, but the world, where they both sell spices and ideas as far away as Japan.
On of the first cook books I ever owned was River Road, a spiral bound book with words like roux, gumbo, jambalaya, and more that made mouths water and tongues tingle long before Julia Child appeared on her first television show. A book that gives permission to do a recipe several ways, it has remained in print since its initial issue--a book that teaches how to cook.
The food is so integral to the culture the only encyclopedia of a state’s cuisine is the one recently done by John Folse, delineating the history of the cuisine and foods of Louisiana. (I once was in Lafayette, Louisiana, doing a fund raiser with John during a “small”l hurricane. Another celebrity chef didn’t show up, and John was outraged at his temerity. I was quaking in my boots. After all, I had arrived early and couldn’t get out to go home.)
It was in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace that I learned to poach an egg perfectly. It was during walks next to the harbor, talking to Paul Prudhomme, that I learned about all the fish that were being wasted each day and of his desire to use fish that were then being thrown away. (How could he have anticipated that an entire nation would start craving one of those fish--blackened redfish?)
It is not just the great chefs that we grieve for, nor the great restaurants that taught Americans how to dine on other than European rehashes. We know it was the home of the first cuisine developed as a result of Africans on our continent. We know it is the waiters and maitre’d’s who gave first distinction to their professions, and passed on the elegance of their professions. It is the people’s food – muffallettas, p’o boys, barbecued shrimp, Cajun and Creole foods that have been the basis of New Orleans hospitality. It is the workers in those restaurants that wash the dishes, the sauce chefs that make the same sauces to perfection, day after day, the fresh food in the market, the love tomatoes, the beignets, the coffee. Ah, wasn’t it in New Orleans that we first learned coffee didn’t come in a jar to be dissolved by hot water?