Shame on me. I haven’t kept up with my weekly posts this month. It’s not because the world has righted itself and there’s nothing to rail against or fight for. There’s still plenty of that: just read on.
For one mute week I’ve been in Katrina country, part of the Culinary Corps. After taking part in rebuilding efforts immediately following the hurricane in 2005, Christine Carroll, a chef by training if not employment, decided that culinary professionals could be put to use helping rebuild New Orleans. In exchange, they would meet wonderful people and help keep fragile culinary traditions alive.
Nowhere else in America than in New Orleans is the cuisine as exquisitely local and lovingly maintained by a variety of closely connected, but historically and ethnically different, groups. From the Cajuns who left Nova Scotia, to the French-related Creoles, from the descendants of slaves, to the fairly recent Sicilians, each has cherished, nurtured and treasured food traditions that have intermingled, like the people themselves, over centuries. If New York is a melting pot, and Toronto a mosaic, New Orleans is a gumbo: rich in flavor, diverse in ingredients, and capable of surprise.
This is what has always made New Orleans unique and special. It is the one place where you could go and not feel that you were Anywhere, USA. From its architecture to its food, from its pace to its music, from its politics to its insects, nowhere else in America has a culture or life-style remotely similar in its distinctiveness. It has survived wars and hurricanes, cherishing and cherished by the laid-back, appreciative audience of the city’s denizens as well as its visitors.
Until Katrina. As entrenched as food ways are when immigrants come to a country, they are equally as fragile when a population is wrenched, or in this case, blown and washed away. People and restaurants, repositories of heirloom recipes and unique techniques, oral traditions and family practices, simply disappeared in the storm’s aftermath.
Many elderly died; entire families moved out and never returned; restaurants long on history but short on cash didn’t have the wherewithal to reopen. Like an oyster plucked from its sea bed, the storm snatched people, places and things, depositing them far away.
Over the last four years, the Culinary Corps has been working hard with local groups to maintain, restore, and build new food traditions. Once a year, a small volunteer and fund raising group of chefs come to the Crescent City where it has helped schools, community groups, and other volunteer groups by providing chefs to create meals, provide labor, and generally fill in wherever needed to assist in any form of rebuilding activity.
Yes, despite the fact that you never hear about what’s going on down in NOLA, the fact is that thousands of people never returned, and thousands are still unable to return. While there is a great deal of publicity regarding the Brad Pitt and Habitat for Humanity initiatives to rebuild the Lower 9th ward, the total number of new houses amounts to less than 1000 of over thousands destroyed or simply washed away.
Vacant lots of tall grass give testimony to owners who haven’t returned, either for lack of money or will to fight the endless bureaucracy necessary to prove ownership.
While any progress towards restoration is good, it is hard to believe that four years later in the great US of A, the Lower 9th is still as wind-swept and eerily quiet despite the optimistic sounds of hammers.
And if the slow progress isn’t depressing enough, there’s lots more to raise one’s ire. Like the food fed to the volunteers at Camp Hope. Yes, the name is inspiring and surely makes the thousands of volunteers who come to work with Habitat for Humanity feel good about what they are doing.
But is it too much to ask the (still) richest country in the world to produce food that is basically if not healthy, at least not harmful?
Housed in a former school that is soon to be torn down in an area that was inundated by waters rising over 20 feet high after the storm surge, the camp bunks and feeds hundreds of people weekly, serving them meals made from donated food. Kids from Americorps help in the kitchen, using items donated by manufacturers and distributors in a fit of social conscience.
But how can you in good conscience feed people this food? Especially to people who are donating their time and spending their money in an effort to help others?
The stock rooms of the old but sturdy kitchen bulged with 100 oz cans of pudding with “real and artificial” flavors; canned apple slices and artichokes preserved for eternity by chemicals; frozen sauce bases rivaled only by the Gulf in salinity; peanut butter fattened with sugar and shortening; “vanilla”cake and “chocolate” brownie mixes; pasta and rice.
Yes, there were some frozen vegetables and proteins like eggs, frozen chicken and catfish, some shrimp and soy burgers but they were the exception in a sea of sugared cereals, white bread and margarine. And yes, there were chickpeas and black beans, marinated artichokes, and a lone can of plums along with some fresh lettuce.
I know it is bad form to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this isn’t a gift horse. This is food that people will eat.
The Culinary Corps swooped in like Navy Seals to make Friday night dinner. One hundred volunteers were expected, over 200 showed up perhaps knowing that this meal was going to be different. And what a meal it was.
From the camp’s larder, we whipped up an Italian-ish menu: pasta with (canned) olives, (canned) artichokes, and (processed) mozzarella cheese; (fresh) huevos rancheros frittata; panzanella (white) bread salad with fresh greens and (precooked) bacon; (frozen) catfish parmesan with (canned) tomato sauce; (frozen) chicken and sausage etouffee; (canned) chickpea salad with a (fresh) orange vinaigrette;(canned) “banana” and peanut butter “crème brulee” with a crackly graham cracker topping and (canned) plums stuffed with sliced almond crumble.
Every item was lovingly created as if the ingredients were the freshest, most local available. They were sautéed, steamed and fried; simmered, slathered and baked in a record 2 hours time. They emerged stunning in their creativity and colors, execution and variety. The kitchen thrummed with excitement as the chefs pumped out food with luscious aromas and even more tantalizing textures and appearance.
The volunteers lined up in a queue that extended from one end of the ballroom-sized dining hall to the other and kept on coming. They heaped pasta on top of catfish, etouffee on top of bread salad, pudding on top of plums.
They came back for seconds; we ran out of chickpea salad and had to throw in black beans to extend it; we ran out of peanut butter banana crème brulee and created a quick marbling of vanilla and chocolate puddings (“real and artificial” flavours) dusted with crushed graham crackers and brown sugar, dubbing it Devil’s Dirt to make ourselves feel better; and still they kept coming back for more, telling us the food was delicious, the best they’ve had yet. They even gave us a standing ovation when we finally came out to greet them, exhausted and elated that we had fed everyone, even the few stragglers, in record time.
So why did we have to make ourselves feel better? As good as the food looked, as much as it was appreciated, it was the opposite of everything we have been trained to produce. Almost nothing was fresh, virtually every item that came in a can or bag was so salty or sweet as to be, to our (or certainly to mine) palates, inedible. My own creation the banana peanut butter “creme brulee” was an abomination, if I do say so myself.
Nevertheless, we were heroes. What does that say about the degraded level of the average American’s palate?
I am not complaining because I am a snob. I am complaining because it is not difficult or expensive to create do-no-harm foods. It’s just a lot cheaper to hike up “flavor” through hooking kids and adults on salt and sugar. The former is cheap and abundant, the other abundantly supported by lobbyists who fine dine in Washington restaurants oblivious to, or worse, knowing full well, the dross that they pedal in the halls of congress in the name of jobs, and which lands in front of children under the name of school lunch programs.
The great US of A should be ashamed of itself. Bad enough it failed the people of New Orleans during and after, years after, Katrina; worse still, in a city known for its distinct and delicious food culture, the very people helping to restore it to its former glory are fed food usually reserved for prisons.
The Real, and Not Expensive, Banana Peanut Butter Creme Brulee
1 cup milk
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 small, ripe banana
1 Tbsp peanut butter
- Preheat oven to 300F. Boil 2 quarts of water and have simmering.
- Place 4 4oz ramekins in an 8″x8″ brownie pan near the oven.
- Place all the ingredients in a food processor and buzz until completely smooth, about 1 minute.
- Strain the contents into a 2 cup liquid measuring cup.
- Place the cups in the brownie pan and place the pan on the lower shelf of the oven. Pour in the boiling water to half way up the ramekins.
- Bake for about 15-17 minutes or until the custards have set around the edges but are still wiggly in the center.
- Remove from the oven and let sit in the water another 5 minutes.
- Place in the fridge to cool completely.
- Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly on top of each ramekin. Use either a kitchen torch or your broiler to caramelize the tops. Let set until firm.