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3-Course Interview: Poppy Tooker

The culinary historian will hold “cookbook dinners” at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum


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Cookbook author and host of WWNO's Louisiana Eats!, Poppy Tooker launches a monthly dinner club series Aug. 27 at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB). "The Louisiana Eats & Cooks Club" is a collaboration with SoFAB's Director of Culinary Programming and cookbook author Jyl Benson, and it kicks off with recipes from The Times-Picayune's Cooking Up a Storm. Each month, the event will feature a different cookbook, including some historical titles from the SoFAB library. Tooker spoke with Gambit about the event and the cookbook industry in New Orleans.

What happens at cookbook dinner club?

Tooker: We're going to cook the meal, and as we cook the meal we're going to serve the meal. So, we'll have some [food] prepared in advance, but it will be a demo, so that everyone attending will learn how to cook all the dishes involved. It's a very casual, interactive, fun format.

  If there's a new cookbook out that we really like or if there's an author that's coming into town on tour, we'll probably do that one. But we'll also dig into other, older books to see if we find anything interesting.

  That's what's so great about having the whole historical library that's part of SoFAB. We're going to try to dig in to the stacks there and see what we can find that might be really unusual. I find it really fun to resurrect antique food. I'm a sucker for food history; I'm a sucker for old, particularly New Orleans and Louisiana, recipes. We have such a treasure trove of that — stuff that is in danger of being forgotten.

  I'm really looking forward to the one in October because (we'll be doing) my new cookbook, the Tujague's Restaurant cookbook, which is the hardest thing I ever did. Talk about how to transfer historical recipes into modern ones: How do you write a cookbook for a restaurant that will be 160 years old next year and never had a written menu until 1982?

What makes New Orleans such a special cookbook city?

T: The cookbook industry in New Orleans is huge; it's endless. A New Orleans cookbook is probably extremely high on the list of souvenirs to take home. We are so involved in our food culture here. ... That's what so special about Cooking Up a Storm: In that terrible hurricane, thousands of people lost their entire cookbook collection. They lost decades and decades of clippings from The Times-Picayune recipes, and that's why writing that book was like a public service, it was almost like community service. And it was completely interactive. Maybe you were a little old lady who lived in Metairie who had no damage. You certainly couldn't go help people gut houses, but you could share your recipes that you still had.

What should home cooks know before tackling an older recipe?

T: It's about deciphering what (the author) meant and knowing what to substitute. People aren't likely to use lard, but you can use vegetable oil. With a lot of these things, if somebody is a real amateur cook, I might not suggest that they pick up a historical cookbook and just give that a try, unless they're willing to have a learning curve and some trial and error. It's tricky. I know some people who really need that fully deciphered, tested, perfect recipe, and that's not what that's going to be in a historical cookbook. I've been teaching cooking classes for more than 25 years, so this is just something I do, that I love to do.


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