NEAL CONAN, Host:
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the last thing many thought to save was the family recipe box. In a region renowned for its delicious mix of Cajun and Creole flavors, the storm decimated recipe collections that had been handed down through generations, many of which could not be replaced with a quick search on Google.
As Gulf Coast residents began rebuilding their lives, cooking their favorite family gumbo became part of establishing normalcy. Many people looked to the local newspaper to rebuild those lost recipes. New Orleans Times Picayune food editor Judy Walker was flooded with requests, which she posted along with the recipes in her weekly column, "Exchange Alley." For help answering those requests, she looked to New Orleans culinary grand don, Marcelle Bienvenu.
The two join us now by phone to talk about the project. And they are with us by the phone from New Orleans, Marcelle and Judy, thanks very much for being with us today.
JUDY WALKER: Thank you.
MARCELLE BIENVENU: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Thank you, I'm well. And I would begin with, you Judy, how did this column get started?
WALKER: Well, the column actually existed before the storm, as it does in many newspaper food sections. But then, after the storm, people just naturally started asking for what they had lost. And we got back with the recipes in the food section in October, so since it was close to the holidays, people started thinking of things that they would normally make for the holidays. So those were the first kinds of request that we got.
CONAN: Of course, traditional holiday fare is so important to so many families. And Marcelle Bienvenu, how did you get involved I this?
BIENVENU: Well, I write a food column for the paper and they asked, when they start getting all these hundreds of letters and e-mails asking for these, they asked me to participate in the project by trying to find these recipes that were lost.
CONAN: And these are family recipes, though. What kind of research can you do?
BIENVENU: Well, a lot of - we assumed though, at one point, that there was a lot of people that had clipped recipes from our food section.
BIENVENU: And so we were able to go back in our library on the databases and try to match up the request with the recipes. However, Judy, also through her column, was able to put a callout saying we can't find Mrs. So-and-so's recipe for whatever. And then people would write in and say we have it.
People who did not lose their recipes, were really anxious to help those who had lost theirs. So it was very interactive in that way.
CONAN: So these families would hand out, you know, they go to somebody's house for dinner and say, I've to have the recipe for what that fried chicken or whatever it is?
BIENVENU: Just about.
WALKER: Yeah. And that's when why the people were able to retrieve their family photos, too. If they had given a copy of the photo to another member of their family who lived outside the flood zone, they were able to retrieve that photo. So if they had also passed their recipe on, then they were able to get a copy of that back from that family member or that friend, or whoever.
CONAN: So Judy, what were some of the more interesting requests for recipes?
WALKER: Oh, we had everything. One of the very - it was all types of comfort food, especially at first. One of the very first things was a brownie recipe called brownies to die for that a romance writer had given us, originally when we printed it. And then there was a two people in this exact same time period asked for a soup recipe that was a sweet potato, jalapeÃ±o, and - I can't, I can never remember the name of that recipe - sweet potato, jalapeno and something else bisque.
BIENVENU: It was jalapeÃ±o, sweet potato and corn bisque.
WALKER: Corn, that's what it was. Yeah.
CONAN: And as it progressed from comfort food, Marcelle Bienvenu, what were you interested in as these requests came in?
BIENVENU: Well, it was very curious because it was kind of like a walk down memory lane, almost like a culinary history of the city, because people were asking about a recipe from a bakery that went out of business 20 years ago. Then people - and they used to give these recipes out, and there was also a great number of people asking for recipes that used to appear in the New Orleans Public Service - used to be on the street corner, they would have these little pamphlets with all kinds of recipes.
And fortunately, we have a lot of those that have been reprinted. So, a lot of people that kept remembering, oh, you remember the Mall Hot Pie from the Caribbean Room, or the Oysters Bienville from whatever restaurant.
So we were able to kind of go through our files and databases, and find some of these recipes that people no longer had.
CONAN: And it sounds as if you've collected, you know, you're talking about walking down memory lane, but in a lot of ways, the cultural history of a city that's been devoted to cooking since forever.
BIENVENU: Yeah, I think - no, it's real fun, Neal. It was, you know, besides the ones that we would normally think of, you know, like the New Orleans classics. There were also people that wanted, you know, little simple things like old time cookies from the St. Joseph (unintelligible). We have a large Italian community. So they wanted the little anise cookies, their little seed cookies.
So it's a wonderful way now that we've found some of these and put them in the book to preserve it in the culinary history of the city.
CONAN: By the way, you can see some of these recipes, the previously mentioned sweet potato bisque, fried chicken and Coca-cola cake, to name just a few, at our Web site, www.NPR.org/talk, along with the link to the column. But Judy, given the level of interest in this, are you collecting them in a book?
WALKER: Yes. Very early on, I wrote a lot of stories about people also losing their cookbooks, which was sort of a parallel to this. I sit in a cubicle with the book editor. And so, very soon, we've learned that the very first books that people were replacing in the local bookstores were their cookbooks.
So we wrote - I've written several stories for the past year and a half about people replacing their cookbooks and various aspects of it, including people making their own cookbook collections and how making your own cookbook, the past and your family recipes became so much more poignant and valuable after the storm.
So, the idea very quickly came up of us compiling all these recipes into a cookbook.
CONAN: And Marcelle, I have to ask you, you're a celebrated chef yourself. Any of these that you've stolen?
BIENVENU: Well, no. We've have used most - a lot of a recipes that were in the newspaper, like Alia Chase, who is a treasure of our city who lost her restaurant. We used a couple of her recipes because she has several cookbooks so we, you know, got permission to use those in the book, because she's a treasure and her recipes are definitely treasures.
WALKER: And I have to point out that, as I said, people were asking for a lot of recipes from the newspaper, and because Marcelle is the beloved columnist there are (unintelligible) food section, a lot of people were asking for the recipes that she'd given us in the first place.
CONAN: And so they were stealing yours?
BIENVENU: Yes. One lady said that she's been passing off my pumpkin pie recipe as hers for years. But I don't care, so long as she's enjoying it.
CONAN: Is there one recipe that stands out for you, Marcelle?
BIENVENU: I think all the, well all the - one that I dearly love is the beef daub gausse(ph), which is one of those recipes that - it's an old Creole recipe that was served around the holidays. And people might not want to make this, but people want to have that. And they want to do this again.
CONAN: Well, thank you both very much, not only for your work of recovering recipes that might have fallen victim to Hurricane Katrina, but for sharing your time here on this Christmas Day. We appreciate it.
BIENVENU: Our pleasure.
WALKER: Well, thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker are working on a book of recipes lost in Hurricane Katrina. Judy Walker is the food editor of the newspaper there, the New Orleans Times Picayune. She joined us today by phone from Oklahoma, where she's visiting her family. Marcelle Bienvenu, a veteran chef from New Orleans, editor of the upcoming book of recipes. She joined us today from Louisiana.
And again, if you want to take a look at some of those recipes, fried chicken and Coca-Cola cake, to name just a couple, sweet potato bisque as well, you can go to our Web site, www.NPR.org/talk, and there's link to the column.
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