Katrina, Year 1: There's No Place Like Home -- and Nothing Like the Food From It

Originally published on Epicurious.com, Daily Dish

Dateline: New Orleans, LA
August 29, 2006

In her 1949 essay, "A Is for Dining Alone," M.F.K. Fisher writes, "Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly," to which this New Orleanian says, "Yeah you rite."

No one thinks about New Orleans without thinking about food, New Orleanians least of all. Folks say that anytime two or more of us sit down together for a meal, the topic of conversation inevitably turns to meals had and those yet to be had. Indeed, it's no cliché that New Orleanians are a proud and indulgent bunch. As it has been said time and again of the New Orleanian, the pursuit of pleasure is life's goal, not just its lagniappe. And with a cuisine that Mark Twain described as "delicious as the less criminal forms of sin," it's not surprising that food is chief among those pleasures.

But to talk about New Orleans cuisine as mere pleasure would be to give it short shrift. It's a clear mark of identity; it says who we are and where we come from. But above all, it's a form of communication. It says, "You're welcome"; "We like you"; "You're one of our own." If there's one thing a New Orleanian loves more than eating, it's feeding someone. It's the best way we know how to care for one another. That food is nourishment for the body as well as the soul is just a happy coincidence.

In this year that has followed Hurricane Katrina, it is these latter qualities that have become most important. Cooking has been an escape for those dealing with the daily frustrations of starting over with next to nothing. It has been a way of sharing with those who are less fortunate -- of which there are many. And for those who are displaced, it's become a way to assuage a poignant homesickness for a place and a way of life that can never again be recaptured. And, even still, it is the lucky who have the pots and the kitchens to do so.

This complex gumbo of factors inspired one New Orleanian to write, design, and self-publish Ruby Slippers Cookbook: Life, Culture, Family, and Food After Katrina. Amy Cyrex Sins, who lived 10 houses from the 17th Street Canal levee break that let Lake Pontchartrain's waters coursing into the city, lost most everything she and her husband owned. But of all the things she lost, Sins says, it was the loss of her family recipes that left her most heartbroken. Nor could she hope to recover them. Her aunts, mother, and mother-in-law all lived near the breach, too.

In the months that followed Katrina, Sins found many of her conversations revolving, not surprisingly, around food. "If you have nothing else in common, you can always talk about food," she says. In line at the grocery store, Sins began asking clerks and other customers about their family recipes. Soon, she was collecting them, and set up a website to gather recipes from people from all over the country. Ruby Slippers Cookbook is a repository of stories and recipes from Katrina survivors -- from friends, family, strangers, and local restaurants -- as well as photos of the city during Katrina and its recovery. "I didn't want this to be just another cookbook," Sins says. "There's so much going on down here that lots of people don't understand." In Ruby Slippers, she created both a record and a testament to the turbulent and sometimes incomprehensible times of the past year. Putting together the book, she says, has been one of the things that's been keeping her sane during the recovery.

A part of the profits go to Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a grass roots environmental organization dedicated to the rebuilding and preservation of Louisiana wetlands. "We can rebuild our houses, but it's not going to matter if we don't have protection."

Ruby Slippers manages to reflect a complex gumbo of elements -- the pleasure and the legacy that is New Orleans cuisine, the struggles of post-Katrina recovery, and, perhaps, most typical of all, the hope and optimism that is borne of a place with such faith in the pleasures of life.

Some more of our favorite Louisiana cookbooks:

Chef Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen – Paul Prudhomme
The Commander's Palace New Orleans Cookbook – Ella Brennan & Dick Brennan
The Dooky Chase Cookbook – Leah Chase
The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine – John D. Folse
Frank Davis Cooks Naturally N'Awlins – Frank Davis
Jambalaya: A Collection of Creole & Cajun Favorites – The Junior League of New Orleans
The Picayune's Creole Cookbook – The Picayune
The Plantation Cookbook – The Junior League of New Orleans
River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine – Junior League of Baton Rouge
Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food – Tom Fitzmorris
Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? – Marcelle Bienvenu