Monday, October 12, 2009

New Orleans Edible Schoolyard

Four members of the Association of Food Journalists journeyed to Samuel J. Green Charter School, which is in the middle of the gritty neighborhood where rapper Lil Wayne grew up. Attached to the school is the first Edible Schoolyard outside of the original founded by Alice Waters in Berkeley. The Green school had been taken over by First Line schools 10 days before Katrina. During the storm, the school took on eight feet of water in the cafeteria. Also before the storm, the school was a failing school for 20 straight years and was crammed with 650 students. Flash forward to now, and the school has a new cafeteria kitchen and a new teaching kitchen thanks mostly to the Ruth Fertel Foundation and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The school's garden doesn't grow enough food to supply the school's food needs. However, according to Edible Schoolyard director Donna Cavato, it was uphill work negotiating with food supplier Sodexho for nutritional foods and five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The kids and their parents learn how to cook and to make things from the garden products. In fact, the kids sell soap, loofahs, pickled okra and peppers and other items they make at the monthly Freret Street market. The school is K through 8. Two grades a week rotate through cooking and gardening classes. A lot of the 450 kids in the school get 80 percent of their daily calories from the breakfast, lunch and two snacks they get at school. The cafeteria tables have fresh cut flowers and water pitcher so kids can learn sharing and get hydrated. They also make and eat food from the cultures they are studying. For example, Aztec pumpkin soup and quinoa pilaf. There are after school programs for kids who are below grade level in being business entrepreneurs.

After Katrina, when the school administration discussed their plans for the garden and improvements to the school, most of the parents were skeptical. Like a lot of school systems, New Orleans was long on promising and short on delivering through the years. When the garden went in and the outdoor classroom started being built, some of the parents wept. Cavato says that a lot of the parents are in poverty and had poor education, but you don't need a college degree to cook or garden.

The kids compost, use dishes and silverware to cut down on waste and the first graders use washcloths instead of napkins and help launder them. The round tables in the cafeteria encourage socializing and teamwork. As Cavato says, "If you have a place at the table, you have a place anywhere."

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: A New Orleans Thanksgiving

Probably the best quote at the final session of the Association for Food Journalists conference came from chef Frank Brigtsen: "Everyone in Louisiana has a propane burner out back of their house that could probably launch a rocket." This is how fried turkies and house fires are born. Brigtsen roasts his turkey by doing the following: Rub the turkey with butter and salt and pepper. Put butter under the skin of the breast bone. Preheat oven to 500 degrees and put turkey on V-shaped roaster. Put it in the oven then reduce heat to 325 and cook 15-20 minutes per pound. Brigtsen also prepared shrimp mirliton (aka chayote) dressing and offer some simple tips on layering flavors and how not to make your dressing too bread-y. He points out that onion, bell peppers and celery is not unlike French mirepoix. He recommends making turkey stock using wings, necks and legs before Thanksgiving and also a little shrimp stock for the dressing. He also cooks some of the onions, pepper and celery longer than others to add layers of flavor.

Poppy Tooker, who seemed to be attached to the conference, demonstrated how to cook a roux. The French may use butter, but she recommends canola or another vegetable oil because butter burns at high temperatures (see above center). The Creole favorite for roux is bacon grease. She also recommend pre-chopping your veggies and putting the onions ( they should be yellow) first. You cook roux over medium to medium-high heat. She also referred to roux as "Cajun napalm" for its ability to burn cooks. She recommends using a wooden spatula to stir it so it doesn't fly all over you. The seasoning base for roux is thyme, bay leaf and garlic.

While some of us ate oyster dressing, Chiqui Collier showed us how to make pralines (see above left). A candy thermometer is essential, as is rest for the mixture once it reaches the soft ball stage. All of us received the recipes, which I will post as PDFs on the AFJ Website. We also got to eat shrimp mirliton dressing and gumbo as we went along, and left with a praline to snack on. The conference was officially over after a short tour of the House on Bayou Road, but there's one more thing to come.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: New Orleans Food and Farm Network

Your blogger came back from the Association for Food Journalists conference, weighed herself and nearly passed out after seeing she only gained a pound. I've only recently found the energy to post on the conference's final activities. Saturday morning we boarded a bus with Daphne Derven of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network. NOFFN provides tools, gardeners and support for urban farming efforts in the city. Our first stop was at Marilyn Yank's Little Sparrow Farm. Yank works on the garden about six to eight hours a week and has work parties three or four times a year. She sells flowers to local restaurant and food to neighbors when things are in season. Post-Katrina, there are 65,000 vacant lots in New Orleans with some 35,000 undeveloped. The Little Sparrow Garden is bordered with hyacinth peas (see above right), which attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. NOFFN is also working with Covenant House to train 100 at-risk kids for food jobs and they will also help the house start 10 gardens of its own. The group is also working on education programs to certify more growers.

We left Little Sparrow to head to the Hollygrove Market. Unlike the usual CSA model of a hefty upfront payment and membership and core committees, the Market offers food for $25 a box (or bags; pick and bring your own containers). There's a swap table in case someone prefers satsumas to eggplant and other produce and locally made goods for sale at the Market. I tried the pea soup with tasso ham from Vintage Garden Kitchen. The Kitchen employs the developmentally disabled from ARC. You find out more and donate (this is not an AFJ endorsement, just a suggestion from someone who was impressed) at their Website.

There are also seven hens and a pair of contrasting farms at the Market. Kasey Mitchell (pictured above left) farms permaculture style, meaning his farm self-organizes according to nature's dictates. He doesn't mulch (a common practice in the area) and the plants nurture and protect each other.

If Mitchell is right-brain, Morgan Fry (pictured right) is left-brain all the way. He does commercial-style farming on a smaller scale complete with crop rotation, irrigation. From his arugula beds, he can usually get four crops with judicious replanting. Also on site is a tool shed where equipment can be borrowed by master gardeners and others. There is not a problem with theft, Derven says.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

Friday, October 9, 2009

AFJ 2009: Sugar In and Around Baton Rouge

While some members of the Association of Food Journalists breakfasted on churros and brandy milk punch, it was a croissant dipped in honey for your blogger. It would not be the last time something sweet crossed her lips. Before we get down to the granular level of the information we received on sugar throughout the day, I have to moan aloud about the candied bacon that was laid across an incredible crab and roasted beet salad that was part of our Sugar Barons dinner at Houmas House in Darrow. Can life get any better than candied bacon? I think not. Each course of the dinner featured some sugary aspect in honor of the industry that built plantations like Houmas House.

We began the day on the bus from New Orleans to St. Gabriel, where parts of the old women's prison have been turned into a sugar research station run by LSU. On the trip over, Charley Richard (pictured in blue shirt), whose consulting firm serves the international sugar industry, shared some facts about the growth of the sugar industry in Louisiana. It's one of four states producing sugar cane in the U.S. with Florida, Texas and Hawaii rounding out the quartet. The can production accounts for 46 percent of the production in the country with the other 54 percent coming from sugar beets in more northern states. For more industry information, Richard recommended the American Sugar Alliance and the American Sugar Cane League. The latter represents the Louisiana cane growers.

We tromped into the cane fields to watch cane being cut by a combine. Joining us Kenneth Gravois (left), who is the resident director of the station. Gravois also showed up the pollination of cane crossings that are more resistant to cold and disease. Sugar cane is a tropical plant, and Louisiana is temperate so the harvest can be threatened by all kinds of weather.

We saw a short slide show reinforcing what we had seen outside while eating biscuits dipped in cane syrup. There was also raw cane to try. Simple rule: Chew but don't swallow.

We drove to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which is the largest nutrition research center in the world. It's also part of LSU. George Bray, the founding director who is now the Tom Boyd professor of medicine. Bray shared a compendium of research on the effects of fructose on health, including the obesity epidemic, increased triglycerides, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The introduction of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener in 1967 has paralleled the rise in obesity. Bray also noted that sucrose, which most of us know as table sugar, is just as high in fructose as high fructose corn syrup. Some food manufacturers are replacing HFCS with sucrose since some of the buying public is avoiding HFCS. His conclusion? Eat only naturally occurring fructose, which is found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has been tied to weight gain.

Then Dr. Catherine Champagne presented on "Sweeteners in Nutrition and Cooking." Her information offered a breakdown of the pros and cons of each of the sweeteners, including the sugar alcohols. The memorable health risks of sweeteners included aspartame's phenylalanine, which harmful to people living with Phenylketonuria (PKU). The product carries a warning label. Saccharine can cross the placenta, but there have been no studies on its effect on babies in utero.

Champagne also presented maximum daily amounts for each sweetener in a chart. She and Bray also offered their e-mail addresses to anyone needing further information.

Our final stop at LSU was the Rural Life Museum. After a sharecropper's lunch and a lecture by Chef John Folse (top of page, holding meat) on the history of cane production which had a questionable timeline and a stunningly benevolent view of sharecropping, the members looked around the museum. Highlights included the dogtrot house, the syrup house and seeing the boiling syrup strained. David J.W. Floyd, the director of the museum, explained the syrup making process, noting that the principles were similar to evaporative stills.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

Thursday, October 8, 2009

AFJ 2009: Katrina’s Unknown Stories

James O’Byrne, director of content at, offered a presentation on Katrina. It’s impossible to understand the magnitude of Katrina if you weren’t here and his slide show only conveyed part of the story. 250,000 people were displaced from southeastern Louisiana, an area seven times the size of Manhattan was underwater and more than 150,000 homes were destroyed. Most of the damage was due to a failure of the levee system, for which the Army Corps of Engineers has officially apologized.

Following the heartbreaking slide show was a panel that featured Brett Anderson, Ashley Graham, Louisiana director of Share Our Strength, chef Donald Link (Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher) and Cindy Mandina, fourth generation owner of Mandina’s in Mid-City. Anderson (not pictured since he is a restaurant critic) says you may not see this in the Central Business District, but the recovery is ongoing. Anderson thinks people are sick of hearing about Katrina outside of Louisiana, but it’s important to see how far things have come and how.

After Katrina, Anderson found Link at Herbsaint drawing up a menu with duck confit and soft-shell crab because the staff was tired of hamburgers and boneless chicken breasts. He then went to Mandina’s and met the feisty founder and they were meeting to see if they were going to demolish the building. Anderson talked to Graham on the phone about housing for restaurant workers since there were jobs but no housing. Dickie Brennan was trying to get dormitory space for people, and Anderson’s reporting brought him to Graham.

Link evacuated the Saturday before the storm hit Monday. He was watching the storm tracker, and gets a call that plumbing is backing up. He went to the restaurant and the streets were empty. Link thought it was weird. No evacuation order was given, but Link decided to go and shut his place down. Other restaurateurs didn’t see a big deal. Link went to St. Charles, and then heard from chefs who were trying to leave Sunday. Link called a neighbor who said the water was at the bottom of the door. Two hours later, it was over the roof. Link says it was his “oh shit” moment since his house was four feet off the ground. Link learned how to text as his employees were calling to figure out what to do. Their homes had also been wiped out. Link got shin splits from pacing. He agreed to pay his core staff for three to six months.

Mandina was flying to Pensacola that Friday. She called her mother who said it was going to be a direct hit. She lived in Lakeview (as did Link) and called her neighbor and asked him to move her car off the street. Her dad wanted to ride it out, but ended up spending 14 hours driving to Destin. The insurance adjuster came to renew their insurance and suggested an increase in business interruption coverage. First thing she did on Monday was to call to see if the check cleared. It had, but payment went to mediation.

Graham had been with Share Our Strength for 17 years. She had been planning a 20th anniversary event, and was a regular at Jazzfest. Graham and her staff were watching TV and figuring out what they could do. The event became a fundraiser. They also created a Dine Out event to raise money for Gulf Coast restaurants. A third of the proceeds went to those people.

Link was trying to figure out how to reopen his restaurant. People were saying it would be three to six months before they could return. Link fabricated a pass and came back into the city. Link’s goal was to get the meat out of the walk-in. Cleaning out was the most disgusting thing he had done. His uncle said he would have electricity in three weeks. He thought the water was OK, even though it was advised not to shower in it. They reopened on Oct. 5, the day the water was declared safe to drink.

Mandina said their two buildings sustained serious damage, including one sans roof. There was six to eight feet of water in the restaurant. The looters took no alcohol, but took a bag of coins. Mandina’s dad did not want to reopen. Cindy wanted to reopen and did after 18 months. The ruin stank and it was hot. The architect said to knock it down. They gutted it and redid it, which was an adventure. Fittings were expensive, and were often stolen during building. Mandina said some of her staff scattered and they even thought some were dead until they heard from them. The business has been better since the storm.

Graham said when she stayed at a local hotel, the woman who served her breakfast had lost the house she was selling, the house she was going to buy and her mother. Graham said she drew from that strength and the humor. Graham also brought corporate donors down and raised another $2 million from those trips.

Link said his customers were mostly locals who were delighted with the signs of normalcy that the restaurant being open indicated. Graham said dining out was a civic duty. Link said he’s done his best business since Katrina.

Although I was busy taking this down, I had to thank panelists for digging in when most people would have cut and run. New Orleans is a worldwide cultural treasure and its comeback needs to belong to all of us. Enough blatant editorializing. It's awards night and we're hungry. Winners will be posted on the AFJ site.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Writer in Residence John T. Edge

After an introduction by Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson citing his stereotypical Southern, whiskey-swilling and eating skills, Association of Food Journalists writer in residence John T. Edge opened by suggesting an alternate title, “A Guilty White Southerner Eats His Way Through America.” Edge has chips on his shoulder – being a Southerner, writing about food (is it worthy?). The Southern part comes first with Edge riding his Schwinn from the farmhouse in Jones County to the Old Clinton BBQ for smoked pork cut by a cleaver by Miss Maddie. But Edge couldn’t recognize the black men who cooked the BBQ so he works under that debt of pleasure.

Edge’s father worked for the Federal courthouse and watched his father put away white men involved in illegal activities in civil rights. At school in Athens, Edge went to Bertha’s scarfing eggs and grits with the same white men, likely Klansmen, his father had tried.

Edge went from University of Georgia to Mississippi to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The society wasn’t integrated but the food was – black-eyed peas and okra from Africa, chess pie from those Anglo-Saxons. When talking with writers here, he heard a reluctance to embrace their sense of place.

According to Edge, those of us who write about food work under a burden of pleasure. Food, not sex, is our most frequently indulged pleasure. Food is our greatest cause of disease and death, but the serious-minded dismiss it. Food offers a non-threatening way to discuss big issues. Warren Belasco wrote “Food: The Key Concepts” can get you up to speed on the basic concepts, but it is dense.

Edge introduced us to four key New Orleans stories, saying that knowing New Orleans well represents a certain cultural literacy. His first magazine piece was about the Lucky Dog Bordello, and Edge worked a Lucky Dog cart for four days leading up to New Year’s Eve for the celebrating drunks. Alice Clark took care of Edge and he wanted to convey a deep respect. Clark is dead now, felled by a stroke. Austin Leslie, proprietor of Chez Helene in Treme, was basis of Big Arthur in the television series “Frank’s Place.” Austin’s chicken was capped with confetti of garlic, parsley and pickle slices. Austin died in exile in Atlanta after Katrina. Thomas the shucker at Pascale Manale's, still gives the best patter of oyster shuckers including a mean impression of Mighty Mouse.

Edge read a section from a story about Middendorf’s in Manchac that is impossible to recreate here because its rhythms and use of language spring from the peculiar polyglot of Southern culture, food, absurd detail (Renaissance reproduction portraits all with the face of one party’s husband) and class. The economy of repetitive motion, family advice handed down and the tendrils of Katrina that cling to all food stories in the state are all there.

Sometimes dedicated patrons and writers ascribe too much significance to a restaurant. Take the read of the restaurant and the story to absurd levels (e.g. study of mules in Faulkner), Edge said.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Lunch at Hermann-Grima House and Broussard's

The Hermann-Grima House was built in 1831 and features an authentic hearth kitchen with ironwork from the era and we food journalists enjoyed shrimp with mascarpone grits from the hearth prepared by Bacco's. The house was lavish for its time and was dressed for a wake when we arrived. We were also greeted with a bananas Foster martini, which was refreshing after the steamy walk from the conference. After looking around the house and hearth, we repaired to Broussard's, the adjacent restaurant, for a Louisiana lunch of chicken and andouille gumbo, shrimp florentine with bechamel sauce. I saw what looked like bread pudding for dessert, but my aching feet trumped my journalistic instincts and I did not investigate further. Lunch ended with a hot stroll or a cool cab ride back to the conference.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Digital Boot Camp 2.0 Social Networking and Online Tutorials

Ass the Association of Food Journalists moved on to social networking, Yonan notes that Twitter is clever-friendly, unlike Google. Most conference attendees use either or both. Yonan noted changes in Washington Post’s Twitter policy when a managing editor tweeted about personal opinions. The Post made him close the account. Two mindsets of Twitter – promote content (links to stories) or sharing opinion, observations and humor. Post guidelines want appearance of impartiality, but Yonan says food writing straddles the line since opinion is part of it.

Jeff Houck of the Tampa Tribune noted that this is a new frontier and people are still figuring out how to navigate the online Wild West. He notes online that you can be your own marketer. Yonan notes you can preview or tease upcoming content, citing Gary Vaynerchuk of the Wine Library. Yonan does monitor comments and tweets, but notes the food comments are more civilized than other parts of the paper.

Marszalek noted that comments were not moderated for the first 10 years; in the past seven months, they have monitored comments more closely. He found there are about a dozen people, each with at least 12 screen names, who log on, post something vile and then log on under another name and agree with themselves. By banning these people, you get more of the people you want to comment. Montoya says they have asked their writers to connect with posters but sparingly.

Yonan says Twitter should be interesting to people and used to build interest in you as someone with interesting things to say.

The webinar ended here, but there were questions. Which is more useful – Facebook or Twitter? Yonan says the Twitter resubscription rate is low, and Facebook continues to grow so it’s up to you. Yonan says he uses Facebook for some longer queries.

Also recommended for beginner tutorials were Mindy McAdams' site and Knight Digital Media (free but registration is required) at Berkeley.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Digital Boot Camp: Essential Multimedia Training

Keith Marszalek and Maria Montoya of talked about search engine optimization. They noted that aggregation and linking to competing sites is reader service, not shooting yourself in your foot. They offered a handout called “Bling Your Blog,” a primer in optimizing your online content. Also of note: the reader is always right. Example: print headline “Going Green” above picture of a Granny Smith apple is fine for story about new apples for pies, but online that head leads people to think “energy conversation.”

The duo offered tools for checking hot topics: Hot Trends, Adwords, Yahoo Buzz, SEO Quake. Using keywords on these sites can drive traffic. All words have a dollar value. First two words are picked up so using subject “New Orleans Jazzfest.” As Marszalek says, “Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean people are looking for it.”

Find out how your readers are searching for your content. Embedding SEO words can get you banned from Google. It’s worth noting that a lot of this information was designed for print people who have not investigated online fully. For example, Google value links embedded in stories. Photo names should also re-emphasize brands and keywords. Google prefers hyphens or underscores in photo names.

How long? Blog posts should be 250 to 400 words. You can go as much as 800 words, but be gentle. How often? You should post three to five times a day.

Scott Joseph arrived at this panel on a screen via webinar. He showed his Website, which features forums, restaurant reviews, news, photos, and a nifty Flash animation of photos of dishes at the top. He offered a PowerPoint presentation on how to start your site or blog. Blogging platforms include TypePad, Wordpress and Blogger. Templates allow for adding ads and customizing the look.

First, pick a topic. Consider the expenses (travel, office supplies, meals, ingredients) Get electronic copies of your contacts, including loyal readers. Subscribers to Joseph’s site get e-mail blasts, which can be done by your platform provider. Constant Contact is a company that provides e-mail blasts that don’t trigger spam shutdowns.

Content is all. You are your own brand. Joseph says you have to get over being egotistical. Get your own URL even if you don’t plan to do it immediately. Use your domain as your e-mail address as it is more professional. Don’t be too clever with the URL. Google hates clever. Think about how people search when choosing your URL.

When doing your H1 tag, avoid images in the tag, Marszalek adds.

How do you make money? Google Ads on your site. You add the ad, a user clicks on it and you get money – pennies. Google only cuts a check when you’ve earned $100. Joseph has earned a little more than $200 in two years. There is also Amazon links and ad links, but they work differently. The site operator only gets money if something is purchased. You can also sell ad space on your site. Joseph was so used to the wall between advertising and editorial that he doesn’t quite have a handle on ad sales.

Jan Norris, a former print editor, insists in her ad contract that there is no quid pro quo. Lesley Chesterman, a restaurant critic for the Montreal Gazette, says she has a Web site and doesn’t take restaurant ads, since it’s an implied endorsement. Joseph says no problem, it’s 2009. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post asks if readers know your policy. The critic says since your site is your brand, it’s an endorsement. Yonan says there should be a way to tell the difference between ads and editorial online. Transparency is an issue, especially in light on FTC ruling requiring disclosure of blogger's financial relationships. Yonan noted that he couldn’t easily differentiate between the ads and the editorial content on Joseph’s site. Neither could Norris.

How many hits define success? Some say 100,000 a year; some say 1 million. Norris says she is not making money. Norris made up her figures and charges anywhere from $50 to $1,500 a month for minimum of three months, depending on placement.

An audience member, Nancy Leson of the Seattle Times, points out and Marszalek concurs that your body of work online is your resume. Your online presence can lead to more paying writing work. Joseph says your Website isn’t going to support you, but it is going to extend your viability.

How much time are you spending on the Web? Joseph spends 60 hours a week on the site. Norris spends 30 hours a week on her site.

What about a paid subscriber model? Yonan says for an independent blog, it won’t work because there is a lot of competing free content.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Breakfast with Poppy Tooker's Calas, Boudin and Headcheese

Poppy Tooker and a woman from the Creole Country Sausage brought us boudin, headcheese and calas. Tooker prepared the calas, a deep-fried rice fritter sprinkled with powdered sugar. If you've ever had a beignet, the signature New Orleans fried pastry, the calas are somewhat similar. Where beignets can be ethereal, calas are more down and dirty. Tooker says they come from the Creole tradition of always having rice around. Calas were originally sold by street vendors but began as a home tradition. Boudin features rice in the sausage, and, at one point, involved liver. Boudin is often sold at gas stations.

Well fed, let’s soldier on.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Second line parade and Taste of New Orleans

Taking a cue from Leah Chase, the Association of Food Journalists conference attendees decided to eat, drink and enjoy after the day's sessions. So when the brief downpour cleared, we followed the Storyville Stompers through the streets over to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on the Riverwalk near the Convention Center. We had our beads, and our hankies and strutted as best we could on the damp streets. Once there, we were greeted by a cacophony of chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, who has three boites here in New Orleans. Others present were Donald Link from Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher, Susan Spicer of Bayona, Tommy Cvitanovich of Drago's, Allison Vine-Rushing and Slade Rushing of MiLa (where some of us had lunch earlier), Adolfo Garcia of RioMar and La Boca, David and Torre Solazzo of Ristorante del Porto, Aaron Burgau of Patois and Beth Biundo, the pastry chef at Lilette. While sipping Sazeracs and a fantastic champagne cocktail with brandy, lemon juice and zest, we looked around the museum and gorged ourselves on tuna with a dried baconlike substance that was heavenly. So were the sweetbreads and grits from MiLa as were Emeril's braised pork cheeks with dirty rice. Being fatally allergic to oysters prevented me from sampling offerings from Drago's and RioMar, but the oyster eaters were raving.

Also part of the Museum is the independent Museum of the American Cocktail, which was founded and is run by Laura and Chris McMillian. The museum houses artifacts including mini-stills, old bottles, tiki bar artifacts from the first wave of this renewed fad and headlines from Prohibition and its repeal. Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, organized the pouring of New Orleans drink specialties featuring mixologists Chris Hannah of Arnaud's French 75 Bar, Michael Glassberg of Swizzle Stick and Marvin Allen.

All in a good night of good company, food and drink.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

AFJ 2009: Creoles Are Not a Fairy Folk: An Updated Definition, with Food

This panel, moderated by Times-Picayune writer and filmmaker Louis Eric Elie, included kosher caterer Bertha Pichon, Poppy Tooker, who helped the local agricultural and aquacultural people get back up and running post-Katrina, and Leah Chase, proprietor of Dooky Chase, a landmark in the African American community where civil rights workers could meet without fear. The panel’s title comes from remarks made by food writer Alan Richman, who questioned the idea of Creole cuisine even though he spoke at length with Chase.

When Chase (right) was growing up, Creole had nothing to do with food. It was something done at home, being your own culture and your own thing. Chase described herself as a militant child, and she felt the strength around her but lamented it not getting passed on. You gain no strength from not passing traditions on, be it food or master builder skills. They favored the superficial things like how you looked. The favored Catholic church was Corpus Christi and its African American congregation were style leaders.

Chase had no problem with Paul Prudhomme jumping on the Creole bandwagon. Chase said she and others benefited from his marketing skills.

Tooker said the only thing she knew growing up was Creole cream cheese. Chase interrupted to note that Tooker was too young to know the “part-black” stigma of Creole. Tooker noted she was now trying to “passez noir” instead of “passez blanc.” Pichon learned the Creole cooking base of tomatoes, garlic, green peppers and light roux. She spoke broken French and Creole, and had to unlearn that at Catholic school.

What are crucial ingredients? Tooker needs bacon grease and butter in the fridge, celery, bell pepper and onions, thyme bay leaf and flour to make a roux.

Pichon liked bell pepper and thyme and bay leaf but little celery. Chase said there was little celery except for special occasions and redfish and good paprika. You put celery hearts on the table after using outer stalks, and it was decoration as well as an appetizer. Chase also said she mixed up Italian gravies with sardines and eggs but over rice instead of pasta. Tooker promises calas, rice fritters, for breakfast tomorrow.

Creole essentials? Tooker suggested gumbo, bread pudding, stuffing to put in vegetables. Chase wants to get people to the table, something she noted wasn’t only lost by African Americans. She wants her grandkids to make a jambalaya and use some shortcuts. Pichon taught hers sons and daughter to cook. Her son makes a good crawfish bisque using head stock. Everybody loves to eat it, but no one wants to do the work of cleaning and stripping the mud bugs. Chase said the bisque was seasonal. Creoles didn’t eat anything without wine. Kids got wine mixed with water and sugar. Gumbo was served at every festive occasion and on Sundays. Creoles didn’t like fatty meat. Gumbo was always served with wine.

The gumbo was the preamble to a meal with all available meats at a festive meal. Sundays the gumbo was followed by Reveillon of stewed chicken and baked macaroni.

Creole meals need rice, macaroni and potato salad, Chase said and the others concurred.

While none of the panelists used packaged roux, Chase thinks that may come to pass with more cooks with less time.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: The Sicilian Connection (accessorized by fig cookies)

Moderator Sara Roahen, author of "Gumbo Tales: Finding my Place at the New Orleans Table" says she won't talk much since the Sicilians are much more interesting. Creole Italian is one name for the cuisine. By 1880, New Orleans had country’s largest Italian population. A pre-Katrina census counted 250,000 people of Italian descent, mostly in New Orleans. Many local neighborhood boites serve spaghetti and meatballs, usually on Wednesdays. The muffaletta (alternate spelling muffuletta, among others) has Sicilian origins.

Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Arthur Brocato, third generation of Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionary, which was fully rebuilt after Katrina, Sandra Scalise Juneau, who teaches baking traditions and Joseph Segretto, owner of 1179 Restaurant were the panelists. Segretto formerly managed Louis Prima.

How did they get here? Williams’ grandmother came from Palermo in 1903 and various family followed. Her family made big distinction between being Sicilian and Italian. Her great grandfather was a butcher and worked at the French Market. After the butcher generation, there were policeman; then the later generations were more professional.

Brocato is Sicilian on both sides. Grandfather’s family were blacksmiths, and he worked as a banana inspector. They opened a little grocery store on the corner of St. Philip and Dauphine and sold snowballs, peanuts and picked up Creole cooking. The other side of the family went from shoemaking through death by yellow fever and into gelato and cookie making. Cookie and pastries were made for special occasions and for the St. Joseph’s altar. Cassata cake consisted of a pan lined with sponge cake and filled with ricotta, decorated with marzipan and more ricotta or a poured icing glaze. Brocato makes the marzipan version his grandfather made.

Scalise Juneau is also a double Sicilian. Her paternal grandfather came to work in the cane fields, and this accounted for many Sicilians coming to Louisiana. Eventually he sent for the family. Her maternal grandfather established themselves in a small restaurant and then sent for the rest of the family. Grandfather also worked at Hotel Monteleone.

Segretto came from doing a Sardinian luncheon. The food is very similar to Sicilian food. Sicily is largest island in the Mediterranean, and produces the most wine in all of Italy. It also has the oldest aristocracy. The culture is polyglot, and many cultures that blended in Sicily ended up exporting aspects of Sicilian cuisine. The Sicilians then re-imported the variations from places like France.

Many pastries, including our fig cookies (popular for the St. Joseph altar) and the reginale (queen’s cookies), came from nuns in the convents. Each panelist recounted various food memories and shunning of improper marriages. Talk of spadini, sitting on pasta pots as high chairs, and no roux in red gravy. No talk of sauce here. Segretto recommended "Pomp and Sustenance" by Mary Simeti Taylor.

Creole cooking legend Leah Chase noted she makes a light roux with tomatoes and tomato sauce, but uses tomato paste and wine when she wants it to be more like Italian gravy.

Scalise talked about the St. Joseph’s altar tradition that has spread from the Sicilians to other Catholic communities. Along with cucidada (fig cookies), there are savories including stuffed redfish and other baked representations of local foods on the altars. Our later excursion to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum included the altar pictured here.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Beyond French, Spanish and African-American Hands in the Pot

This year's conference opened on multicultural note, which one would expect from the Crescent City. New Orleans food has many hands in the pot and this panel was devoted to the crossed lines from regions like Croatia, Germany and Latin America into what has become the well-known food of Louisiana. The moderator was Elsa Hahne, author of "You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans." Chef Adolfo Garciai of RioMar noted that saying food is Latino would be the same as assuming that all English-speaking people share a common diet. Croatian native Snjezana Senut-Bjelis noted that her coastal country used mussels in their cooking, but adapted their recipes to incorporate oysters to the point where oysters are now shipped back to Croatia in quantity. Croatians are in Plaquemines Parish, where they can be on the water and fish. The German community brought beer, sausage and baking and settled in the Saints parishes where they learned French and assimilated somewhat, according to Sevilla Finley. One of the best-known German bakeries in New Orleans specialized in French bread. Frieda Waeckerle Arwe, president of the Friends of the German-American Cultural Center (Finley is a co-founder). Arwe focused on the southern most of the 16 states in the country. All German food is fresh. Germans grow everything they cook.

Sauerkraut and red cabbage are featured on Oktoberfest but the sausages are imported from Texas and Illinois to name two places.

Potato pancakes and onion pies (“one of the most fantastic things you can eat,” Arwe notes) are two exports that are well-known for you. The only German restaurant in New Orleans, Kolb’s, closed in 1994. Hahne asked why no one has stepped up since. Arwe notes that assimilation has taken the toll. People don’t know the role Germans played in settling New Orleans. Also, the World Wars saw the muting or elimination of names and cultural touchstones. Some places are doing German cuisine a couple of nights a week.

Rev. Vien Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, noted that Vietnamese cooking was scary and unknown in the 70s. Vietnamese chefs often ran Chinese restaurants but had some Vietnamese dishes on the menu. Later, in the 90s, the actual cuisine came to the forefront. Vietnamese also run New Orleans’ Japanese restaurants, but had created hybrids like raw fish wrapped in rice paper. The cuisine uses a lot of seafood, but Vietnamese don’t go for raw oysters. Some Vietnamese eat raw oysters but not with horseradish and Tabasco. Redfish was popular but used in sushi with bread crumbs and sauce with fresh herbs, not blackened. The Vietnamese are along the East Bank and West Bank.

Gar is not popular with Caucasians, but Vietnamese make it into a paste and it’s sweet. Vietnamese don’t eat much bread,as it is not substantial. Rice is more solid for fueling agricultural. Banh mi is the Vietnamese po’boy. Nguyen noted that Vietnamese grow their own herbs and sell them at an open-air market. The market was closed for six months, but it took Winn Dixie two years to come back. Many Vietnamese grow vegetables and herbs in their backyards. Growing grass is an insult. Nguyen likes Gar Kho, simmered croaker with tomato and spices and a three-day cooking time.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

Friday, March 20, 2009

Marion Nestle featured

Greetings fellow AFJ members. Anyone who attended the AFJ conference in Houston probably remembers NYU nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle and her well-reasoned unpacking of the issues facing the production of food and its industrialization. Nestle appeared on WNYC, the NPR station serving New York City and environs during a segment of the "Brian Lehrer Show" on a bill in the Connecticut legislature restricting raw milk sales in that state. I've linked to the show's page here. The segment will be available as a podcast later.

The people who called in or commented on the show page about the topic were particularly revealing. One woman had two children diagnosed with ADD and she moved out of NY, bought a farm and feeds her kids raw milk, which she stated has more Omega-3s than pasteurized milk, and foods from the farm. Others asked about the e. Coli risk form raw milk (virtually none). One thread that's been running through my mind lately is the number of people who have cornered the market on some cure-all theory involving nutrition and health. In recent months I have been told bread is the root of all evil (this from a personal trainer who couldn't spell "laziness" correctly), dairy products are all wrong for everyone (this from my acupuncturist, who is thoughtful and smart in just about every other way) and that food allergies, especially to gluten, are rampant. I define a food allergy as foods that cause violent, potentially life threatening reactions such as anaphalactic shock or vomiting. Getting indigestion after eating stuffed peppers or half a basket of warm bread at a restauarnt do not count.

Our jobs in food journalism are under threat from so many directions these days it's often difficult to concentrate on best educating readers. With each new diet fad and more nutrition information being delivered by people who don't know the field, it's especially important for our members to debunk the myths of "leaky gut syndrome," "the glycemic index" and "metabolic typing," to name a few. Your work, if you still have work, is cut out for you.