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If you are not watching the HBO series “Treme,” trust me, from a food fanatic’s point of view, you are seriously missing out. The series, created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer first roared into America’s living rooms on April 11, 2010, with all the stunning force of Hurricane Katrina.
Set in the devastated city of New Orleans, the story line picks up three months after that life-changing event. Although most of the recurring characters are fictional, so many real-life musicians and chefs make regular appearances that New Orleanians have come to regard “Treme” as “our reality TV show.”
From the very start, the writers and producers recognized the important role that food plays in New Orleans’ everyday life and how it figured into the rebuilding of the city. Actress Kim Dickens plays chef/restaurateur, Janette Desautel, a character loosely modeled on Chef Susan Spicer. To ensure authenticity, Spicer was brought on from the start for consultation with culinary matters such as drafting Desautel’s menu and teaching basic knife skills to the actors.
Familiar faces in fictional kitchens
The show is largely shot on location in New Orleans, so these professional touches were needed to make the actors look and behave at home in a professional kitchen setting. Chef Aaron Burgau’s Uptown restaurant, Patois, provided the location for Desautel’s, Janette’s restaurant in the first season.
By Season 2, David Simon had recruited Tony Bourdain to write the food-focused episodes. “I’d been a long time fan of David Simon’s, so when he called me about working on ‘Treme,’ I squealed like a little girl!” Bourdain said.
Bourdain recruited friends who happened to also be celebrity superstar chefs. Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang to make a surprise appearance at Desautel’s before Janette closes her restaurant and trades the Big Easy for the Big Apple.
“Treme’s” executive producer, Nina Noble, and production designer, Chester Kaczenski, made a whirlwind trip through New York kitchens. They used Ripert’s Le Bernadin to shoot on location. When Janette goes to work for David Chang at the fictional Lucky Peach restaurant, Kaczenski so meticulously recreated Chang’s Momofuku kitchen on a set in a New Orleans’ West Bank warehouse that Chang said he had a “freaky, out of body experience” the first time he saw it.
Scenes set in famous New Orleans bars and restaurants are peppered throughout all three seasons of “Treme.” Chef Leah Chase re-creates her annual Holy Thursday Gumbo Z’herbes luncheon at Dooky Chase so that the fictional political characters could make an appearance as the real New Orleans politicos always do. We see Spicer at her French Quarter restaurant, Bayonne, celebrate a traditional Christmas feast at the 150-year-old Tujague’s and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the rollicking at the annual Galatoire’s lunch on the Friday before Mardi Gras.
A fantasy menu
Season 3, which debuted in September, sets the culinary bar high in the very first episode. Chang, Janette’s fictional boss, brings her along to an exclusive chefs’ dinner. New Orleans’ restaurant Mila provides the edgy, New-York-style location for a fictional, establishment, Brulard’s. Bourdain’s script has Ripert, Colicchio and Dufresne dining with Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale on a fantasy menu of pâtés and charcuterie, salmon en croute with dill cream, lievre a la royale and isle floatant, all washed down with a 1961 Chateau Latour Grand Vin.
Later, when Janette heads home to open a new upscale eatery, Desautel’s on the Avenue, Kaczenski created an entire, functional new restaurant, using much of the real equipment from “Lucky Peach.” Chef Emeril Lagasse takes Janette under his wing when her own new looming celebrity overwhelms her then, there is a strictly New Orleans version of the celebrity chef dinner when chefs Spicer, John Besh, Donald Link, Scott Boswell, and JoAnne Clevenger of the Upperline dine together at Janette’s new restaurant.
If you can’t get enough of chef reality TV, catch up on “Treme’s” Season 1 and 2, available online and on DVD. I promise you Sunday nights filled with guilty food porn-style pleasure as you join me for another new serving of delicious “Treme.”
Photo: David Chang and Kim Dickens in “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
New Orleans is known for producing rock star chefs in the style of Emeril Lagasse and John Besh, but the original rock star chef of the Crescent City was a 19th-century German woman, Elizabeth Kettenring Bégué, who invented the meal we all now call brunch.
Elizabeth was just 22 years old in 1853 when she traveled from Germany to New Orleans to join her brother, who worked as a butcher in the French Market. She married one of her brother’s friends, Louis Dutriel, who owned a coffee shop across the street from the market, where she began to serve her brothers and his butcher friends a big late-morning meal.
After Dutriel’s death, this thoroughly modern woman married the bartender, Hippolyte Bégué, a man eight years her junior. They changed the restaurant’s name to Bégué’s and her multi-course, three-hour meals became a favorite with tourists who began to edge out the butchers who had previously dominated the dining room.
Post-Civil War New Orleans was a boomtown by the time the Cotton Exposition, a World’s Fair of sorts, opened in 1884. Breakfast at Bégué’s became the No. 1 tourist attraction. Visitors wrote months in advance for reservations, and the Bégués had one of the first telephones in the city installed to try to keep up with travelers’ requests.
Pelican discovers it owns a treasure
In 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad persuaded her to share her recipes and published “Madame Bégué’s Creole Cookery.” The book was originally intended as a tourist guide as cookbooks were relatively rare at that time. It remained in print until 1937, long after her death in 1906.
Madame Bégué’s fame and her place in culinary history have faded over time. Tujague’s Restaurant, a former competitor, moved into the Bégué’s space across from New Orleans French Market in 1914 and still operates there today. The Pelican Publishing Co. owned the rights to “Madame Bégué’s Creole Cookery,” but even they had forgotten about her book until Zelda Magazine editor Don Spiro contacted them for permission to use a recipe from her book. When Pelican executives realized what a precious treasure they owned, they decided to republish it this fall.
I agreed to write a foreword for the re-edition, but once I read the recipes, which included instructions like “clean a nice, young chicken,” it became clear to me that without a 21st-century redo, Bégué’s book would be nothing more than a novelty. Pelican Publishing agreed to follow her original recipes with updated versions in the re-issue so that today’s home cooks could easily replicate her classics.
Cooking classes from 19th century, beyond brunch
That is how I came to spend the summer taking cooking classes from a 19th-century ghost. Usually, I am the cooking teacher, but under Madame’s tutelage, I threw many culinary preconceptions out of the kitchen window and followed her directions. I learned to make stuffed eggs without the usual addition of mayonnaise and pickle relish. Instead, softened butter bound the stuffing and blanched carrot provided a sweet and colorful accent.
Madame taught me to parboil “shrimps” before adding them to gumbo and jambalaya — something totally counterintuitive to any 21st-century chef. This was likely a food safety step for her, intended to prolong freshness before refrigeration. Previously, my greatest concern was to keep shrimp from becoming mushy, the texture I relate with overcooking. The shrimp in Madame’s recipes retained a firm, toothsome texture and were quite pleasing.
Her German heritage was revealed by the lard, which she used in almost every recipe. Sometimes I substituted butter, sometimes vegetable oil. Again and again, Madame surprised me when dishes I’ve cooked my entire life became new through her methodology.
Thank you, Madame. The cooking classes were great fun and I learned so much. Welcome to the 21st century!
Photo: Creole chicken, red beans and rice and gumbo like Madame Bégué would serve at brunch. Credit: StockFood
A printed daily newspaper does so much more than just deliver the news. From our biggest cities to our tiniest towns, everyday readers find the events that reinforce the social fabric of their communities. We read of births and deaths, impending nuptials, pets lost and found — bits of paper are clipped and saved, often for generations, pressed between the pages of a Bible, a scrapbook — or, more often in my case, a cookbook.
When plans to reduce New Orleans’ only daily paper, the Times-Picayune, founded in 1837, to just three days a week were revealed, the city was enraged. The trend toward increased online coverage at the expense of print may not be news, but the New Orleans populace reads the daily paper — in paper form — in numbers greater than those of any other U.S. metropolis.
The paper taught New Orleanians how to cook
Why should this matter to an online food community such as Zester Daily? Consider for a moment, the impact the Times-Picayune has had in my life, and multiply it exponentially among the papers’ 150,000-plus readers. I’ve eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Thursday food section since I was 9 or 10, when French-trained, Belgian cooking teacher Myriam Guidroz contributed a weekly column called Pot Au Feu. Written with a teacher’s sensibilities, those columns were my first cooking lessons and they began my passionate love affair not only with the Times-Picayune, but with food.
I was not the first to learn to cook from the newspaper. For more than a century, New Orleans homemakers acquired skills from one of the earliest, most treasured books on Creole cooking, “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book,” which was first published by the newspaper in 1901 and reprinted many times. In 1987, a 629-page Sesquicentennial Edition, compiled and edited by the paper’s food writer Marcelle Bienvenu, was published to celebrate the paper’s 150th anniversary. The classic Creole recipes are still authentic and fresh, and the cookbook retains bible status among Louisiana cooks.
Hurricane Katrina is to thank for another, equally important cookbook to come from the pages of the Picayune. Most of New Orleans spent more than two weeks underwater after the 2005 hurricane and subsequent levee failure. The vast majority of the city’s inhabitants lost most or all of their belongings, but when the paper’s food section resumed just eight weeks later, it became obvious that treasured recipe collections were among the most painful losses.
Rebuilding a city’s food memory
On that October day in 2005, food editor Judy Walker coined a new slogan for “Exchange Alley,” her weekly food swap column, with the inspirational headline “Rebuild New Orleans, Recipe by Recipe.” Walker was able to research the paper’s archives to fulfill many of the reader’s requests, finding that seafood stuffed mirliton (chayotes) that “tasted just like Grandma’s,” the favorite chicken casserole and the cake-like banana bread that could comfort and console.
Readers helped with a deluge of authentic recipes from restaurant and home kitchens that had somehow weathered the hurricane. The resulting collection, “Cooking Up a Storm,” is a testimony to the drive and determination of the people of New Orleans, one of the world’s greatest food cities. It is also a vivid demonstration of the power a print newspaper food section can wield.
Awards abound at the paper. Food writer Brett Anderson won two James Beard awards for his reporting after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In a series of front-page articles, Anderson told the story of the fourth-generation Collins Oyster Co. struggling to keep the century-old family business alive as oil gushed into the Gulf and the freshwater diversion used to drive it back flooded their beds, killing every last oyster.
In 1996, an eight-day study of food reporting from an ecological point of view resulted in the first of three Pulitzer prizes awarded to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper examined the life-changing situations facing the fishing world, from threats of pollution to over-fishing and habitat loss. Reporters and photographers traveled to Thailand, Japan and Canada examining the threat of the traditional life of the fisherman, a lifestyle vital to the people of the Bayou State.
New Orleanians are famous for preserving the city’s treasures. Our prized architecture is meticulously monitored and maintained. Many of the cities historic restaurants are over a century old and still serve classic dishes from their earliest days, trout meuniere and pommes soufflé. When Creole cream cheese was no longer commercially available in the late 1990s, home cooks brought it back from near extinction — with recipe instructions printed in the Times-Picayune, of course!
The relevance of print
So the battle to save our daily paper is on. Because of age or economic status, many in the city don’t have Internet access. The loss of the daily print paper will significantly disenfranchise them. It appears that even state law will have to be altered by the Louisiana legislature to allow a non-daily newspaper to become the official journal for governmental advertising.
A print edition restricted to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday will mean no Monday morning Saints game recaps, no Fat Tuesday Carnival editions and for me, worst of all, no more reveling in the Thursday food section. In what form and on what day might the food news appear? With every reporter’s job potentially on the chopping block, the future is very uncertain.
Without the Times-Picayune, I’m afraid my morning cup of chicory coffee will never taste the same. I owe so much of what I am today to the inspiration I’ve found between its pages. Now I’m fighting back for the right to my daily newspaper. To join the battle, visit our Facebook community. New Orleans’ 175-year-old newspaper is worth saving.
On a balmy April evening, an exhibit of new oil paintings by young New Orleans artist, Gus Blache III opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). Culinary icon Leah Chase served as the artist’s muse in Blache’s depiction of a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday life at Chase’s Dooky Chase restaurant.
The opening gala brought in more than $100,000 dedicated to an endowment in Chase’s name for the acquisition of African-American art for the museum’s permanent collection. Chase, of course, insisted on preparing all the food for the 800 guests herself. This exhibit will remain on display at NOMA through Sept. 9. Fittingly, one of the paintings will then travel to Washington, D.C., to become part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery.
Chase entered a museum for the first time in 1975 when one of her regular restaurant customers, Celestine Cook, took her to NOMA. Cook was the first African-American trustee of the museum, and by 1977 Chase joined her on the board. Simultaneously, she began transforming Dooky Chase Restaurant into a gallery as well as a dining establishment, often trading food for art from budding local artists.
A dedicated patron of the arts
By 1994, her advocacy in the art world was so renowned that the Association of Art Museum Directors asked Chase to speak on their behalf before the congressional committee that had proposed drastic cuts the National Endowment for the Arts. Chase testified: “My life experience provides evidence that refutes the allegation that federal money for the arts benefits only higher-income people … For me, support for the arts is an investment in the artistic excellence of my people … who, like me, need to see something beautiful and breathtaking in order to aspire to higher things.”
The NEA survives today in part because of Chase’s testimony, quite an accomplishment for a woman who began life as one of 11 children on a Depression Era strawberry farm.
Once her four small children were in school in the late 1950s, Leah went to work at Dooky Chase restaurant, which had its humble beginnings in 1941 operating from the front of her in-laws’ shotgun house in New Orleans’ 5th Ward.
From the start, she had lofty ambitions for the lowly sandwich shop. In those days of segregation, there were no fine dining establishments for African-Americans. Chase dreamed of a place where “her people” could eat off of china and silver from tables set with white linen. Gradually, Chase realized those dreams, and Dooky Chase became the place to dine. There, she quietly fed a revolution.
The segregation laws not only forbade black people to eat in white restaurants, but the reverse was also true. Leah shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess I broke the law.” In the secluded upstairs private dining room of Dooky Chase, white and black integrationists sat down and worked through peaceable solutions that changed the world, all fueled by bowls of Chase’s gumbo.
From restaurant walls to the National Portrait Gallery
Blache’s first great stroke of luck occurred when Chase, then an octogenarian, granted him access to her kitchen and restaurant, taking a chance on his young artist’s vision. His talent combined with more good fortune when Susan Taylor, director of NOMA, and Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art, viewed Dooky Chase’s collection. The pair decided that an exhibition of these works would be the perfect way to honor Chase in her 90thyear.
A walk through the exhibit is like paying a visit to Chase at her restaurant. With gallery walls painted the same deep red as the restaurant kitchen, the stage is set. Upon entering, you find a table laid with white linen cloth and are invited to sit in Dooky Chase Restaurant chairs.
A transcript of Leah’s words recalling childhood memories from Depression days is there for museum-goers to consider: “When you went to the grocery you bought basic things you needed. And the flour would come in white sacks that you would wash out, wash all the lettering on the sides until it became as white as snow. And then your mother made you a tablecloth out of it and you embroidered it. But you see, you learned to do all that kind of thing and … you didn’t waste anything.”
Thus engaged, visitors share their own memories, writing in pencil on a guest check to be left behind in a silver bowl on the table. When I visited last, someone had written “Peacemakers [an old New Orleans name for a fried oyster sandwich], were 75 cents at the time. After a night out, my dad would bring one home for mom made on pan bread with pickles and butter.”
The paintings offer a tiny peek at very private moments at Dooky Chase, things you might see if allowed a glimpse into Chase’s life there. In a lavender baseball cap and simple white apron, she chops vegetables, stirs pots that simmer on her stove and stands rinsing bowls in the sink. We see Chase in her dining room dressed in her brightly colored chef’s jacket visiting with her customers.
Chase said: “For me, I love it. For me, I see my customer and that is my lifeline. That makes me feel good. I like my restaurant to feel like home to people.”
The image that will become part of the National Portrait Gallery collection shows her in a contemplative moment in the Dooky Chase kitchen. She stands, simply cutting up yellow squash. It’s a quiet image, a personal look at a woman whose legacy comes from a lifetime of serving a dose of wisdom and love in each bowl of her gumbo.
Zester Daily contributor Poppy Tooker is an author, culinary teacher and host of the weekly NPR radio show “Louisiana Eats.” The New Orleans native is a frequent guest on The Food Network and the History Channel and the author of “The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook.”
Image: Leah Chase, as painted by Gus Blache III. Credit: Gus Blache III
A group of former Slow Food USA members, leaders and activists, led by Gary Paul Nabhan, founder of RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions), came together this month to create a road map intended to help reverse a trajectory which has distanced the U.S. group from Slow Food’s founding principles. The suggestions, 10 Things Slow Food Can Do to See Its Way Into 2012, were sent to the president, Josh Viertel, and the current board and carried the hope that Slow Food USA would redirect it’s resources to restore and regain its former position as a leading voice in America’s food future.
Founded in the 1980s by Italian visionary Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s original mission was to combat the effects of fast-food in our increasingly fast lives. Members were urged to slow down and enjoy the pleasures of the table while actively preserving and promoting heritage foods and the farmers who produce and safeguard them. Petrini’s idea caught fire; the Slow Food message took root and flourished in more than 150 countries, including the United States.
More members, less money
In 2008, thousands of Slow Food members gathered in San Francisco for the culinary equivalent of a love-in, dubbed “Slow Food Nation.” Viertel had just been named president of the U.S. organization and seemed poised to further invigorate an American audience primed for change in the existing food system. He inherited the message “Good, Clean and Fair,” and was tasked with increasing membership, particularly among the youth of America.
While Viertel has succeeded in increasing membership, the ability of these new members to sustain an expensive Brooklyn office is in question, as evidenced by recent layoffs. The “pay what you want” membership campaign resulted in lots of dollars — single dollar bills, that is, in some cases from longtime members who had previously given at the $60 or $100 level. They were now making a statement about what a Slow Food membership’s true worth had become.
Endangered foods left behind
In November 2010, Viertel suspended the activities of Slow Food USA’s only standing committee focused on the Ark of Taste, an international project of Slow Food. Using Noah’s Ark as a metaphor, these committees — active in most countries where Slow Food is firmly entrenched — identify endangered foods with vital cultural ties to a place and, most importantly, are delicious to eat. After the findings pass a review by the national committee, Slow Food International’s foundation promotes these foods on their website and at the biannual Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto events in Turin, Italy. Today with the national committee disbanded; there is no way for U.S. foods to be added to the international Ark.
Over the past three years, Slow Food USA has lost touch with its grass-roots base, ignored its principle mission and become too focused on symbolic gestures, often political in nature, which lack any firm outcome.
Member publication discontinued
At one time, an online member publication called the Snail, was filled with reports of real work being done by members across America. It spread Slow Food news and highlights, such as the monumental coast-to-coast Ark of Taste Seed Grow Out, an initiative that helped mainstream near-extinct ingredients like the Jimmy Nardello Frying Pepper, which now frequently appears on restaurant menus. Under Viertel, the Snail ceased publication, and today, Slow Food USA relies almost exclusively on social media bytes centered on musings from the Brooklyn office, rarely mentioning the work of chapter members.
Over the last three years, the Brooklyn staff has experienced a near complete turnover, effectively erasing the cultural memory of the decade-old U.S. organization. New hires at Slow Food USA are eloquent in social justice-styled community activism. but do not speak the language of food or agriculture.
When asked about his accomplishments, Viertel touts the power of Slow Food USA’s tweets. Perhaps it’s time to put some feet on the street and listen to what the real buzz is all about. As evidenced by recent Slow Food USA’s IRS filings, it’s more about financial collapse than bee colony collapse. There’s a strange brew simmering in that Brooklyn slow cooker.
Zester Daily contributor Poppy Tooker is an author, culinary teacher and host of the weekly NPR radio show “Louisiana Eats.” The New Orleans native is a frequent guest on The Food Network and the History Channel and the author of “The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook.”Photo: Poppy Tooker. Credit: Chris Granger
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