At Home on the Range
Hurricane Katrina would not have stopped my mother from cooking. I grew up on a farm in the Central Louisiana town of Opelousas. We lived in the last house before the swamp. Mom ran a household with 13 children and no electricity. Of course, there was no refrigerator. And when storms and floods struck, as they did every year or two, the fields and crops might be ripped up, the roof might fly off the barn. But she and my father would make repairs, plant more crops, and put dinner on the table. And it was always delicious. My parents were great believers in the power of persistence.
So I wasn't about to let Katrina stop me. I could not reopen K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, my restaurant in the French Quarter, right away because the roof and floors had been damaged. My chefs and I set up stoves and burners under a tent in the parking lot of Magic Seasoning Blends, the spice company I founded in the suburb of Harahan. Three weeks after the storm struck, we cooked for 3,200 military personnel--first responders and rescuers who'd been living off MREs and canned goods. So the food really meant something to them. We went on to provide over 30,000 meals for police, firefighters, soldiers, and many others who had come to help, serving up such classic New Orleans dishes as red beans and rice and jambalaya, along with chicken paprika and eggplant lasagna. We continue to serve these folks by means of our Chefs Cook for Katrina Foundation.
Parlez-vous etouffee? I like to think that New Orleans food has special properties. The flavors really hit. It's that dash of red pepper along with other herbs and spices. Everybody thinks red pepper just adds heat. But if you can arrange the flavors so you can feel the tickle of the red pepper after you swallow, you'd be surprised how much moisture comes into your mouth from your taste buds. The red pepper clears your palate and gets you ready for the next bite. Maybe that's why food is so emotional in New Orleans. It really talks to you.
And it speaks many languages. Three flags have flown over New Orleans--French, Spanish, and American--and each brought a style of cooking that has permeated the Big Easy's melting pot. And that's just for starters. New Orleans is a town of ethnic communities, from predominantly African-American sections like Pigeon Town, Treme, and Black Pearl to Italian town and the Irish Channel. Some people call it segregation, but we call it neighborhoods. Families have lived in the same districts for generations. They love each other, and they love their traditional foods. Together, they have added far more than a teaspoon of spice to the New Orleans recipe book. At K-Paul's, which I opened with my late wife, K, in July 1979, I am proud to be part of the culinary mix.
I was able to reopen my restaurant and started taking reservations and walk-in guests on October 18. I hired a zydeco band to play outside, to let people know that the good times still roll. Inside, we serve the dishes I've always cooked: chicken and andouille gumbo, blackened fish, sweet potato pecan pie, and so much more. They remind me of the flavors that made my mother's meals so good--fish so fresh it tastes like the water in which it was caught, vegetables and herbs straight from the garden.
The city itself has begun its return to life in the wake of terrible devastation (although it will take more time before many people are able to return, and years to recover fully). The French Quarter has already made a remarkable comeback. On the way to K-Paul's, I see restaurants and nightspots filled with locals and visitors. Shops are open; cars are parked in every available spot. The same is true for other parts of the city visitors have come to know and love: from Uptown and the Garden District to the Central Business District. And many more visitors will return in the months ahead, especially with Mardi Gras coming so soon and Jazz Fest not far behind.
What brings them back, the longtime residents and the worshipful tourists? Maybe it's those herbs and spices that are soessential to our cooking. They clear away the sad memories of the weeks after floodwaters ravaged our city and get us ready for a new chapter in the life of New Orleans.
This story appears in the February 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.