Respite finally came one day. "We were dying for fried shrimp. All of a sudden one day, I could get some shrimp. I didn't have flour or fish fry. I fried it up with pancake batter and I swear, we still talk about it. That fried shrimp is the best thing we ever tasted. Food is where it's at!"
Tooker also recalls the grimness of the post-Katrina grocery stores. "When the grocery stores reopened, there was no butter, and just no place for anyone to buy fresh food." Then one day – a glimpse of normalcy.
She says, "Way up on the top shelf, under the generator lights, I saw a package that looked familiar and I pulled it down. There's this bakery called Brocato's that had just celebrated their centennial, and I'd heard that they'd gotten five feet of water and I couldn't find the owners. I figured I might never see these cookies again, so I bought maybe 20 packages of them."
Tooker continued, "I was sitting on my couch surrounded by all these cookie boxes and I saw this sticker on the side, next to the centennial sticker, and it said 'Best by August 2005.' I started crying, saying I should just get a tattoo that said the same thing because that's going to be true of all of us."
Still, little by little, hope shone through. The chefs came back and had to face the horrifying prospect of cleaning out their walk-in refrigerator that had been without power for days or even weeks. Tooker recalls sitting with chef John Besh in his flagship restaurant August as they planned fundraising strategies. Besh and his team had been using August as a home base to feed relief workers 20 hours a day in the wake of the flood.
She recalls, "He had a truck parked out front with a hose coming through a knocked out window in the front so they could get fresh water, and still, I couldn't believe this, he kept apologizing for the flies. It was so surreal."
After the worst had passed, the city's restaurants rallied. Says Tooker, "No matter if it was a little sandwich shop or a grand place, Each restaurant that reopened was a little bit of victory. Customers would be crying when they saw each other; they hadn't known who was still alive."
As McCarthy says, "As we were swiped about from one trauma to the next, the anxiety of losing it all created sense of kinship and an attachment to the taste of memory. In this crisis moment of Katrina we had to fight like hell to defend our traditions, and chefs and cooks showed extraordinary creativity. Juggling tradition and innovation – that’s the story now."
Today, five and a half years later the city is changed, but not broken. Poppy Tooker does a star turn around the Crescent Street Market. Fans of hers and Richard McCarthy's come up for a hug and to show off their purchases of fresh satsumas, Creole cream cheese (the method for which Tooker helped preserve from extinction) and Cajun grains rice.
Kay Brandhurst is also in attendance, vending fist-sized, sweet-smelling Louisiana shrimp from the back of her truck. The BP oil spill dealt a blow to her business – but not from any physical peril to her family's hauls. She assures buyers that seafood is more rigorously tested that at any previous point in history. Still all but two of her 80 vendors outside of the region have dropped her, saying that their customers still just don't think it's worth the risk.
After all she's weathered, Brandhurst still has faith in herself and the system. "I think I can do anything now. I try to accept life for what it is, and I trust that
"You're an eternal optimist," teases Tooker. She's displaying a little bit of faith herself today, buying several pounds of Brandhurst's shrimp to make an etouffee for guests that afternoon. She's got no qualms about its safety; she just knows that it tastes like home. "This is the kind of dish that got us through."
More good reading from and about people in the story: The New Orleans Food Timeline | 'Cooking Up A Storm' | Poppy Tooker's Louisiana Eats! | In Katrina's Wake | Crescent City Farmers Market | Kay and Ray Brandhurst
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