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The Joy of Cooking in New Orleans

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The Joy of Cooking in New Orleans

Food

The Joy of Cooking in New Orleans

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Thanksgiving is that time of year when the tastes and smells of home bring special comfort. Many of those whose lives were upended by the back-to-back Gulf Coast hurricanes this year may have to make do with memories. Families are scattered, homes are destroyed, beloved cookbooks and recipes damaged beyond recognition. But in a city like New Orleans, where food is almost a kind of religion, the culinary traditions will no doubt live on. And New Orleans is starting to get its flavor back.

Unidentified Man #1: This is long overdue.

(Soundbite of bell jingling)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

NORRIS: We learn this week that the Crescent City Farmers Market opened on Tuesday in New Orleans. That means many of today's Thanksgiving dinners will be lovingly prepared with local goods.

Unidentified Woman: Satsumas, navels, grapefruit, Louisiana reds.

Unidentified Man #2: Mustard, turnips, kale.

Unidentified Woman #2: And we have some flounders and a lot of crabs.

Unidentified Man #2: I didn't charge you for the sweet potatoes. You wanted two baskets or one?

NORRIS: We decided to check in with some of New Orleans most storied cooks to find out what they're doing to preserve the city's culinary heritage on this holiday. For 34 years, Michael Regua has cooked at Antoine's, the legendary palace in the French Quarter. As usual, Antoine's is closed for Thanksgiving; actually it's been closed since Katrina. But Regua's been busy preparing for the restaurant reopening and cooking his Thanksgiving meal at home.

Mr. MICHAEL REGUA (Chef): I'm a turkey person. I love the turkey. We're going to do the ham, we're going to do the pork roast and all your trimmings that go with it. Normally, when I cook for Thanksgiving, it's like maybe 17 different items that we do. And one is a mirliton.

NORRIS: What's a mirliton?

Mr. REGUA: A mirliton is--it grows on a vine and it has little bumps on it, and it's green. What I do with mine, I actually parboil it.

NORRIS: Parboil it?

Mr. REGUA: Parboil it, right. And I use shrimp and ham with seasoning and bread stuffing with it. After I take a parboil it, I scrape the meat out of the shell of it and then I take the seasons and I saute that down. And I take my shrimp and put the shrimp and my ham in it. Then I put it into a casserole dish and I just take some crackers and crumble it on top of it and then I just brown it off in the oven.

NORRIS: Mm, that sounds good.

Mr. REGUA: It's scrumptious.

NORRIS: A few miles up town from the French Quarter, the Upperline has been open since mid-October. The eatery's owner, JoAnn Clevenger, is getting by with a skeleton staff. It's tough, but she wants to be there for her regulars. She says the food offers more than mere nourishment.

Ms. JOANN CLEVENGER (Owner, Upperline): In this particular case, I think food in New Orleans right now gives remembrance of normalcy and the joy that you had when you were eating the fried green tomatoes or the gumbo. It floods you with happiness in a sense that things can be as they were for you and your life.

NORRIS: It must be almost empowering for you as a chef and a owner of a restaurant to be able to, I guess, to engage in that kind of sorcery.

Ms. CLEVENGER: That kind of sorcery? The...

NORRIS: You could say sorcery or saucery.

Ms. CLEVENGER: (Laughs) That's very well put. It's extraordinarily satisfying in a spiritual way. People--we have a limited menu and when people call up, they say, `No, JoAnn, I know the menu is limited and I understand, but do you still have the duck?' And I said, `Yes. Yes.'

NORRIS: Clevenger closed her restaurant for Thanksgiving. Her staff, she said, needed the time to recoup and to be with their loved ones. Clevenger's own table will be filled with mustard greens, baby turnips and oyster dressing. Her dressing has two secrets: plenty of oysters...

Ms. CLEVENGER: And Italian bread crumbs, because you know the Italian bread crumbs that's part of the tradition of New Orleans gives it a certain savory and it's--I don't think you're going to find in Indiana.

NORRIS: In Indiana?

Ms. CLEVENGER: Indiana, I think it's...

NORRIS: No offense to all those people in Indiana, but...

Ms. CLEVENGER: Well, that makes them want to come down here and try what we're doing.

NORRIS: It didn't seem right to do a piece on New Orleans foods without checking in with Leah Chase. She's the co-owner of the Dooky Chase Restaurant. Two years ago, we called on Mrs. Chase to get her advice for Thanksgiving leftovers. This year, leftovers were the least of her worries. Her corner restaurant took on as much as five feet of water after Katrina. She's now settled in her daughter's home in Baton Rouge. Mrs. Chase says there are 12 people living in a space made for four. Everything is crowded including the tiny kitchen.

Mrs. LEAH CHASE (Co-owner, Dooky Chase Restaurant): I will do the best I can in this little kitchen that I'm in.

NORRIS: What's on the menu?

Mrs. CHASE: First, you have gumbo. You have to have gumbo. Gumbo is served at noon usually, and you eat the gumbo, drink the wine. You have to have wine with that gumbo. And then you leave the table. Then you get back to the table at about 2 in the afternoon and then you eat all these other things--potato salad and baked macaroni and all the dressing, 'cause you have to have oyster dressing and some corn bread dressing and a pork loin and you have the sweet potatoes and naturally the mirliton.

NORRIS: I'm told there's something on your menu that was--really piqued my interest--cold boiled snapper...

Ms. CHASE: Yep.

NORRIS: ...stuffed with shrimp.

Mrs. CHASE: Yep. You get this whole fish, you gut it and scale it, leave the head on. And then you poach it. It takes about 30 minutes to poach that fish. You take it out and I stuff mine with a shrimp salad. It is a cold fish and usually that's your centerpiece on your table.

NORRIS: For people who are not from Louisiana, and particularly not from New Orleans, they have sometimes a hard time understanding the residents of that city's very special relationship with food. If you could just help us out with that. Help us understand what food means to people who hail from New Orleans.

Mrs. CHASE: Food is almost everything to us. You can go in white homes, black homes, rich homes, poor homes, and there's a good cook there. You know, in New Orleans, we don't have meetings without food. We do nothing without food, darling. It is just our life.

NORRIS: Mrs. Chase, has cooking taken on greater meaning for you over the last couple of months? Does it mean more now to step in a kitchen to cook this Thanksgiving meal?

Mrs. CHASE: Yes, it does. It does mean a lot. If I didn't have cooking, I would be, oh, just lost, you know. At this age, you think you have things clear sailing, and then, shump, you don't have it. So it means a lot to me to be able to cook, you know. And like I told one lady, you know, `I look at life all kinds of ways.' I don't earn that I'm so religious but I pray a lot and I have faith. This time, God threw us what we call--I love baseball, so I refer to baseball as one of those low, slow curve balls. Now if you know baseball, that's very hard to hit, but I feel that he wants us to hit. He doesn't want us to strike out. So we're going to hit that low curve and it's going out the park.

NORRIS: Today, Leah Chase is serving Thanksgiving for 50. She's hosting her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and anyone she knows who needs a good meal. The family has borrowed space from a local church hall. There's no china, no silver, no lace doilies this year. They'll be dining on paper plates using plastic forks. But they have each other, and for anyone fortunate enough to sit at Leah Chase's table, the meal will certainly be memorable.

Mrs. CHASE: Sweet potato casserole, we'll have those pecan pies, we'll have the turkey and all those dressings and that pork roast and that ham and we'll have it all and be grateful for that.

NORRIS: Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant. For Mrs. Chase's oyster dressing recipe, go to our Web site, npr.org. And if you, like us, are curious about that mirliton, you'll find information about that, too.

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