Imagine losing all your cookbooks and the recipe box (or kitchen drawer or three-ring binder) where you've stuffed your favorite, dog-eared recipes. Now imagine that nearly everyone in town has suffered the same misfortune. • How could you begin to rebuild that library of heirloom recipes and just plain good dishes that your family loves?
That was one of the questions facing many residents of New Orleans and nearby communities in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005. Among the losses wrought by floodwaters were recipes from newspapers and magazines and flowery 3-by-5 cards of handwritten recipes from Grandma.
In a place where food is intricately woven into the fabric of life, the loss of personal culinary history was another indignity. And so displaced residents turned to their hometown newspaper for help.
The Times-Picayune, whose staff returned to the New Orleans newsroom eight weeks after the storm, became a clearinghouse for recipes people lost in the floodwaters after the levees broke. Many of those favorite recipes had originally appeared in the paper.
The results of the recipe restoration project became Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans by food editor Judy Walker and columnist Marcelle Bienvenu (Chronicle Books, 2007).
"These are recipes you can't find in other cookbooks. There aren't a lot of crawfish recipes in The Joy of Cooking. Stuffed peppers are different here; they have seafood in them," Walker said in a recent phone interview from New Orleans.
As recipe requests came in, the call went out to readers of the Times-Picayune, both in print and online. What surprised Walker was that some of the lost recipes came from faraway states. Louisianans who moved long before Katrina struck had those recipes tucked safely away in their kitchens in Alaska and California, among other states. Some were found in the paper's archives.
"After a few months of printing requests and recipes, a woman wrote me a very moving letter about what they'd lost and the injuries they suffered," Walker said. Her recipes were gone, too. She suggested a cookbook.
One encouraging editor at Chronicle Books, two writers and three years later, the book was born. Besides recipes, it includes poignant stories from readers.
"Funny how when life is in a turmoil, the debris pile in front of your house has been 15 feet high, and you haven't slept in your own bed for three months, you can't stopping thinking about a soup recipe that got flooded," wrote a reader yearning for Sweet Potato, Corn and Jalapeno Bisque.
Cooking Up a Storm embodies Louisiana's love affair with food and tracks its quest for normalcy after the devastating storm.
"We have a unique culinary history," Walker said. "Everyone here eats red beans and rice on gumbo. Just like the musicians had to get back to their music, we had to get back to food."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.