by Ian McNulty
"You Are Where You Eat" is destined to be filed on bookstore shelves in the cooking section, where it will make most unusual company next to the collections of recipes from big name New Orleans chefs and the spiral-bound volumes offering primers on the city's Creole classics.
Writer/photographer Elsa Hahne's new book does contain New Orleans recipes, some 85 of them, but it is first and foremost a collection of compellingly open, frank oral histories from more than 30 New Orleans home cooks.
"You Are Where You Eat" was reviewed in this week's issue, and Hahne will sign and discuss the book this Saturday, Oct. 18, at 1 p.m. at Garden District Books. It's a good bet some of the people profiled in the book will be there as well.
These people are not big names, and they do not proffer the big recipes most New Orleans cookbooks are practically obligated to include. So instead of an oyster artichoke soup recipe we get a yakamein recipe from a Central City homemaker, instead of beignets we get fried crawfish balls with cilantro chutney from the Lower Garden District kitchen of an India-born school teacher, and instead of red beans and rice, we get a brothy white beans recipe from local communications manager Warren Bell, pictured above in a photo Hahne took in Bell's Gentilly home.
The recipes, though, seem more supplemental to the central value of the book. The intimacy with which Hahne collects, edits and shares the stories from her subjects, and her touching /funny/revealing photographs of them, is the heart of the book. They offer a uniquely personal social history of the city over the past few generations.
Along the way there are entertaining peeks into the secret life of New Orleans eaters, like the Metairie man who makes his oatmeal with dried shrimp, the Uptown housewife who always keeps two jars of bacon grease in her fridge expressly for cooking okra and tomatoes, or the physician who learns from constipated patients where to find fig trees with ripe fruit to use in his favorite duck recipe.
In the spirit of revelation, here's one of my now-former New Orleans food secrets: whenever I make a big batch of red beans for an Endymion party or a post-game drink-up, no matter what else goes into the pot, I always start with an institutional-sized can of Blue Runner, which I then hide from guests at the bottom of the recycling bin.
Care to confess anything yourself? Any quirks in New Orleans cooking you keep simmering in your own eating life? Please share with the rest of the class below. We all might learn something.