So I'm back home after participating in Culinary Corps, a volunteer program in which a group of culinary professionals spends a week cooking in various kitchens all over the hard-hit areas of New Orleans. It was one of the most emotional, intense experiences I've ever had -- I'm going to outline what we did day to day down there and try to share as much of it as I can.
Day 1: Feet wet
We all arrived in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 14. We dropped our stuff off at our home for the week, the House of Studies dorm at Xavier University, and got to know each other a bit. Along with our fearless leader, Culinary Corps founder Christine Carroll, there was my friend Liz, food editor of Quick & Simple magazine (who first told me about the program); Sandy, an executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City; Annie, a pastry chef; Viviana, a private chef on a yacht; Maria, a Renaissance woman; Andrew, a NOLA-based chef at Cafe Reconcile (more about that later) and Tawauna, a prospective culinary student.
Everyone seemed really nice and friendly -- little did I know what an extraordinary group I was joining. They all turned out to be so special and so amazing in their own ways, and that made the experience even richer.
Anyway, so after a truly eye-opening driving tour of some of the hardest-hit areas of NOLA, we were treated to a fantastic dinner at Dooky Chase, a NOLA institution that is about to reopen after a long closure. To give you an idea how beloved this place is, as we were walking in, people in cars were pulling over to ask us if the restaurant was open.
Day 2: The Market
We got up super-early to hit the road for Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where we were the headliners at the Ocean Springs Fresh Market. Local farmers very generously shared their wares with us, and we cooked them up into an array of dishes, in front of residents who sat with us and watched us, occasionally lending a hand. There was goat stew, honey-ricotta mousse, homemade pasta, fried okra -- my personal contributions were a chilled elderberry soup, elderberry jam (that was served up with Annie's delicious fresh-baked scones) and a mixed fruit crumble featuring -- you guessed it -- elderberries. I had never seen an elderberry before that day, but it was fun experimenting and playing with them (the berries were very generously contributed by Mark of the local Audubon Society). I also made a remoulade sauce that went with the okra. My high point of the day was when one of the farmers, Mike, came up and asked if I was Beth, the baker of the crumble. When I said yes, he gave me a huge hug! A first for me. But overall the good people of Ocean Springs could not have been more welcoming and friendly, and they seemed so grateful to have us there. It was also a perfect start for the week because everyone in the group got to work together very closely, collaborating on the fly. A great way to get us going. After cleaning up at the market, we were treated to a fabulous barbecue feast at local hot spot The Shed.
Day 3: Emergency Communities
Sunday was an extremely intense one, certainly something that will stick with me for a long time. Emergency Communities is basically a community center that feeds the local population in the Ninth Ward, as well as providing after-school activities for kids and other services. To say it's rough is an understatement -- it's run by volunteers, all of whom seemed young and very eager to serve the community, but not very experienced, and the facility reflected it. The volunteers all live together in one room fashioned out of a double-wide trailer, share one filthy portable toilet and one makeshift shower, and work pretty much seven days a week, serving a population that was in need well before Katrina. What they do is incredibly admirable, but it's hard to imagine being in that environment day after day. As for Culinary Corps, we first got going on brunch, cooking up pancakes, corned beef hash, potatoes, fruit salad and such using mostly packaged mixes and canned foods. We also served the food, and the local residents seemed very curious about all of us, dressed as we were in our chef's whites. They were friendly and very grateful -- one told me it was the best meal he'd had in 6 months, another said she thought the food was "wicked awesome." We told them all to be sure to come back that night for the barbecue. As we finished, a team of 5 chefs from the Brennan's restaurants showed up with tons of food, and they got going on the barbecue. When we finished cleaning up from brunch, we all jumped in to help them. That night we served up ribs, chicken, pork chops, red beans & rice, cole slaw -- a feast that everyone seemed to love. So much so that people came in with huge take-out containers and tried to get as much food as they could carry, creating a dilemma for us: do we just give out all the food to the first takers, or try to limit everyone's portions at least somewhat, in an effort to serve more people? I for one found it pretty much impossible to say no to anyone who asked, so if they came by my serving station (red beans and rice), they got as much as they asked for.