When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, tens of thousands of people lost their personal treasures - photographs, documents, family recipes. Over the last three years, a local newspaper has taken upon itself the task of helping its readers recreate those recipes. The initiative led to a cookbook called Cooking Up a Storm.
"We definitely have one of the few indigenous cuisines in the United States," says Judy Walker, food editor of the New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
"Being an old port city, we have the original influence of the French, Spanish and African-Americans that were here originally," she adds. "But through the years, different ethnic groups made their contributions, like the Sicilians. So many Sicilians came here directly from Italy at the beginning of the 20th century that the French Quarter was called 'Little Palermo' for years. We have German influence on our cuisine. We have the Croatian influence. Then we have the recent Vietnamese influence."
New Orleans cooking style
Walker says she has always admired how cooks in her city use the region's distinctive flavors.
"We have so many fabulous indigenous ingredients, specifically the seafood. We can get some of the best seafood in the world here," she says. "Plus, people in New Orleans, the home cooks here, are fabulous cooks, just like the cooks in the restaurants. People here really know how to season things. People here know how to combine seasonings and layer the flavors in different ways. So, it's not just ingredients, but it's techniques."
Recipes lost and found
Like many New Orleanians, Walker left the city after Katrina. When she returned about two months later, she discovered her popular recipe-sharing column had become even more popular. Readers had lost the recipes they had cut out of the newspaper over the years, and they asked Walker if The Times-Picayune could help restore their lost collections.
"I was able to find some of them in our database," she says. "I would also ask other readers of the newspaper, through the column, if they had the recipes."
Walker says some of the recipes were more popular than others and were easier to find.
"I would say some of the 'gumbo' recipes are really popular," she says. "There is one that people here make after Thanksgiving with the turkey carcass. It's called 'turkey bone gumbo.' That's absolutely delicious. There is a crawfish pie recipe. It's extremely popular with our readers. There is a fried turkey recipe, because people here do that."
More than just a cookbook
The recipe recovery project grew into a cookbook called Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, edited by Judy Walker and fellow chef and columnist Marcelle Bienvenu. Its 250 recipes represent the very best of classic and contemporary New Orleans cuisine - from appetizers, soups and salads to entrees, casseroles, desserts and cocktails.
Cooking Up a Storm, Walker says, is not only about the recipes, it also tells the stories of the people who searched so hard to find them again. One of her favorites is Kelly Hamilton's garlic shrimp. Hamilton teaches history at a local university and runs culinary history tours in the French Quarter. She told Walker about a group of people from an Oregon church who came to New Orleans to help with the relief efforts and worked to rebuild her house.
"These people had gutted her house after the flood, and they found out that she had lost all her cookbooks that were so important to her," she says. "When they went back to Oregon, they started mailing her cookbooks. So she has now this fabulous Northwestern cookbook collection."
Better than Better Cheddar
Another of Walker's favorite recipes in the book is for an appetizer, called Better than Better Cheddar.
"It's based on a cheddar dip," she explains. "It's a cheese spread that one of the local supermarkets makes that somebody duplicated. We think our version is even a little better. It's a very simple recipe. It's a pound of smoked shredded Gouda cheese, a pound of sharp white cheddar cheese, all shredded. Three green onions, all chopped up, all the parts of them. A cup of toasted walnuts, and I use pecans sometimes. Then it has a homemade Creole mayonnaise that you can put with it. Mix it all, and spread it on crackers."
Warm reception nationwide
Walker says Cooking Up a Storm has been very well received, in New Orleans and beyond.
"What I came to realize is people all around the world experienced Katrina right along everybody here who lived through it," she says. "They just experienced it through their television sets. It was a disaster that was felt worldwide.
"People have a great feeling for New Orleans. And so many people have been here. They have experienced the cuisine and the wonderful restaurants we have. They have a great feeling and love of New Orleans food. So between people visiting New Orleans and people watching it be destroyed on television, people have really responded to this book. They respond to it as a reconstruction project, a community project."
Working on this project has been a rewarding experience, Walker says. It has also been quite inspiring, she adds, to see the determination of New Orleanians to preserve and safeguard the culinary legacy of their city.