Book Review: Cooking Up A Storm, Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune

My first trip to New Orleans was a long time ago when I was a little boy and our ship was steered through what was then a far more robust but probably equally treacherous Mississippi delta by one of the great romanticized figures of my childhood, a Mississippi River pilot.  We were making our first landfall after departing Southampton, and after over a month at sea I was being treated to yet another adventure that I had only read about: piloting the vast Mississippi River Delta to dock at New Orleans.

The pilot arrived onboard like a surgeon being made ready for his work.  We’d had pilots on the ship before, but they were not welcomed with quite the same degree of reverence and deference.  Even though the crew did not know this particular pilot nor he them, all knew that he was a man with a special gift and unique knowledge without which our ship would founder.

What made this an extra special adventure was that it was the evening of the day before Ash Wednesday and you could hear the sounds of the Mardi Gras over the moonlit delta like a welcome dirge from inebriated jazz ghosts.  One of the mates lowered a bucket over the side and filled up a mason jar with Mississippi River water that would be neatly labeled and go in my little trunk next to other bottles of water I had collected from the many seas.  I didn’t really know why at the time, but I had this sense that I was doing something that was very special and I was in a place that was one of those jazz nurseries from which formed the protogenius of music, culture and the food to sustain it.

There is no silence quite as disturbing as New Orleans gone quiet.  This was the memory of Katrina that will stick with me forever.  If I had to describe it, it was that feeling that in addition to the horror of the storm, the body of the city had been snatched by voodoo and the quiet hung in the air like a curse.

But less than a year after the storm, we were sitting in St. Louis Cathedral and asked for help for the New Orleans artists who were going to be devastated yet again if the deranged orphan works legislation became law.  I had been helping a group of largely visual artists trying to stop the bill, including trying to get the Small Business Administration to help those opposed to the bill by holding a roundtable for the largely independent artists who were about to be rolled by Google.  I was looking for help wherever I could find it.

Later that afternoon, I walked into my office and the first call after I arrived was from an incredibly helpful lawyer at the SBA asking if I thought it would be alright if they held a roundtable in New York.  I said I thought that would be fine.  Then she asked if I thought it would be a good idea if the SBA held a second roundtable in New Orleans.

I never again doubted that there was a strong and unearthly power protecting that place.

The music came back, the people are coming back and while I wouldn’t say life is exactly normal, I think that the people have found the courage to sing.  God knows they found the courage to cook.

We have been reading Cooking Up A Storm, Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, a collection of recipes from New Orleanians who managed to remember traditional family and local recipes and donated them to those who lost theirs.  Recipes are one of the many family heirlooms that were lost, but they tend not to be the kind of thing that people think about preserving or notice until they are gone.  Cooking Up A Storm not only is a magical book for cooks, but it also tells the story of how families rebuilt their lives and helped their neighbors to rebuild theirs.

Marcelle Bienvenu tells her readers of her mother’s admonition, “Don’t eat boiled crawfish in front of people you don’t know.”

Fortunately, she gave us the recipe even so.

Available from Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street (corner of Laurel) 504-899-READ (7323).