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The Houston-New Orleans Cultural Connection

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Alex Chadwick talks with Houston Chronicle writer Alison Cook about the deep family, cultural and culinary connections between Houston and New Orleans, and why those deep roots might explain why the people of Houston have been so generous to those who fled there in the wake of the hurricane and floods.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up in a moment, a story about people escaping floodwaters from a roadhouse in Mississippi.

But first, emergency officials estimate more than 200,000 people displaced by Katrina are in Texas; some in shelters, many more in the homes of family and friends. And perhaps no city has taken in more evacuees than Houston, which quickly opened its Astrodome and other shelters for folks fleeing New Orleans. There is a long and intricate connection between these two cities, and to better understand it, I spoke earlier with Alison Cook. She is a feature and food writer for the Houston Chronicle.

Alison Cook, Houston is known as a city that works hard and gets a lot done, and New Orleans is the Big Easy. So what is the connection between the two?

Ms. ALISON COOK (Houston Chronicle): Well, it's like yin and yang. There's a real attraction, I think, for many Houstonians. We are about commerce. We're hard-driving. We're about doing, and New Orleans really is, in many ways, about being. So I think Houstonians have historically looked at the city as very alluring, as a respite. It's so close to us. Going to New Orleans is a rite here. I mean, for college kids, it's almost a rite of passage, akin to a run to the border. People are there constantly. They celebrate anniversaries there, birthdays, Mardi Gras, closing a deal. Any excuse at all will do. There's a lot of coming and going.

CHADWICK: Well, how much of this is that they're both coastal towns and people here kind of share experiences about hurricanes, not necessarily the same hurricane, but different ones, different times?

Ms. COOK: There's a definite feeling of `There, but for the grace of God, goes Houston.' We're subject to hurricanes and catastrophic flooding. Just a few years ago, we went through real civic trauma when tropical storm Allison flooded lots of this city. So I think there is that that contributes to the passion to help.

CHADWICK: You're mostly a food writer, aren't you? I imagine there are good food connections.

Ms. COOK: Well, you want these people as your friends because they know how to cook. They can argue about food all night long, and when their relatives come to visit, they bring so many aluminum foil-wrapped casseroles that radar is disrupted within a 200-mile radius. Really, I think we wouldn't know what to do with all our good Gulf Coast seafood if our neighbors in New Orleans hadn't shown us what to do with it. The Louisiana component has woven itself right into the strains of Mexican, Southern and cowboy cooking here, literally. One of my favorite seafood restaurants serves empanadas stuffed with jambalaya. And another dish we dote on here is fried oysters on the half-shell with pico de gallo.

CHADWICK: I do want to note this. Much of the rest of the country thinks that--I'm sorry to say this--that Texans are arrogant, full of themselves, that they walk too tall already. But in the aftermath of this hurricane, I have to say that the one state that has really stood up and said, `Hey, send them here, we're going to take care of everybody,' Texas. I mean, I think Texas looks awfully good.

Ms. COOK: Well, this is a little-known fact. We're actually nice to each other here. I think Houston has a combination that's very felicitious of Western openness and Southern hospitality and good manners. People are--we really are nice to each other here. And I think that's what people are seeing. Also, I think there's a tremendous energy and this double passion to help because these are our neighbors and friends. There are so many New Orleanians and Louisianans here. So these are our friends and neighbors, and we're going to help them the way you would any friends and neighbors.

CHADWICK: Alison Cook writes mostly about food for the Houston Chronicle.

Alison, thanks for being with us.

Ms. COOK: Thank you.

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