Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From an interview with Poppy Tooker, a star in the New Orleans culinary scene

Poppy Tooker has contributed to both Fine Cooking and Louisiana Cookin’ magazines; she has become a mainstay at the Jazz Fest Food Heritage stage; she has taught cooking classes in Turin, London and all over the United States; she has been on various television shows, produced her own TV series, and even made an appearance on Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Her gumbo beat the Iron Chef's in a crowd taste-test. 

Q: Your new radio show on New Orleans and Baton Rouge public radio, Louisiana Eats, highlights all things culinary in South Louisiana.  How did you come to your obsession with food?  I'm guessing it had something to do with your mother’s and grandmothers’ tables? Who were the great cooks in your family? And at whose apron strings did you learn to cook?
A: I was very fortunate that both of my great grandmother’s were alive until I was ten years old.  Both were great cooks, which was a lucky thing for me as my mother equated cooking with the worst sort of housework, so all my favorite foods were prepared by out housekeeper, Ellen and the great grandmothers. My happiest memories include beautifully laid, laced clothed tables gleaming with silver and crystal; Sunday dinners at Mamman’s that always included green cream de menthe frappe – even for the five year old me! Once the housekeeper quit and the family matriarchs died, I became a self-taught cook – learning from Miriam Guidroz in the Times Picayune and watching Julia Child on WYES.

Q: I guess I'm hoping for a portrait of the family culinary scene: big family dinners? Favorite dishes? Restaurants? Food traditions? 
A: Although no written recipes were left behind, my father, Tom Tooker who grew up at my Mamman’s table was blessed with good taste buds and the same acute taste memories as I. By trial and error, I recreated per his approval, Mamman’s landmark family dishes – chicken stew, dark with a Louisiana roux and thick with chewy dumplings; petite pois peas simmered in the same dark roux, just a little naturally sweeter and spicy with black pepper. Family Christmas Eves meant a rollicking open house, with cold lobster from Lenfant’s served skewered with colorful, frilled toothpicks, snowy sugared pecans and every petite fours and cake square ever imagined from Gambino’s Bakery.
Q: I know you have a camp in Grand Isle and never miss an opening day of the shrimping season.  Did you grow up fishing? Where? Tell us your favorite fishing story.
A: I spent much of my childhood at my best friend’s camp, Chitta’s Child situated in the middle of Grand Isle, learning to love life on the water from earliest memory.  Luckily, I married a man with a love for sports fishing who taught me how to pull a shrimp trawl in the early spring and eat salty oysters straight from the bay. Together we’ve fished the rigs on sunny warm days in late December when the Gulf is so crystalline, the schools of fish in the depths below appear aquarium perfect.

Q: What lost New Orleans restaurant do you most miss?  And, to use Calvin Trillin’s technique for ferreting out a person’s favorite restaurant, if you’d just spent 2 years on MREs (perish the thought!), what’s the first restaurant you’d go to when you got back to New Orleans?
A: For the most part, the New Orleans restaurants I miss the most are the ones that have dramatically changed over the last decade for various reasons, which, naturally include Hurricane Katrina, but also because of changes in management and family vision.  Those caused by the storm include the visual and atmospheric changes at Mandina’s and the total loss of ALL of lakefront seafood restaurants that I loved – most especially Sid-Mars, Brunings and Fitzgerald’s. And most of all, I miss that crazy, rosy pink sanctuary on St. Charles Avenue, Flamingoes CafĂ© – the first place in uptown New Orleans where it was cool to be gay and where the party never ended – until the AIDS epidemic brought the fun to a screeching halt in the mid 1980’s.
Q: And would you share with us your favorite-of-the-moment New Orleans recipe?
A: Today, in the week of Thanksgiving, my favorite recipe is something I’ve been teaching this month in my classes at the New Orleans Cooking Experience and that I’m looking forward to serving next week at my Thanksgiving dinner – my great grandmother’s Oyster Rice Dressing.

Serves 10 - 12
1 quart raw oysters
3 cups raw rice
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 stick butter
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup Lea & Perrin sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt butter in a heavy Dutch oven type of pot. Sauté the celery and onion until tender but not browned. Drain the oysters and reserve the liquid. Coarsely chop the oysters. Add the rice to the seasonings in the pot and toss until the rice is translucent. Add the oyster liquid, Lea & Perrin and enough additional water to equal 6 cups in total. Bring to a full boil and then reduce the heat as low as possible and cover. Cook, undisturbed for 20 minutes. Add the oysters, green onions, parsley and salt and pepper. Toss together with a fork, cover and cook an additional 5 minutes.

For the sake of comparison, you’ll find Ruth Fertel’s Plaquemines Parish Oyster Dressing on the Chef John Folse & Company site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An interview with DR. KAREN DESALVO, a national leader in health care reform

Dr. Karen Bollinger DeSalvo has spearheaded the recovery of the health care system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, making it a model for community-based medical service. She is at present on leave from Tulane, where she is professor of internal medicine and vice-dean for community affairs and health policy with responsibility for implementing the school’s mission to build healthier communities, including oversight of community health center programs. Under her leadership, Tulane University School of Medicine won the top award for community service from the American Association of Medical Colleges in 2011. She has become a national leader in the drive for sensible and sustainable reform in health-care delivery systems.

Q: The city has seen a transformation of health care delivery since Katrina and you’ve been at the center of it. As Vice Dean for Community Affairs and Health Policy at Tulane you oversaw the development of neighborhood health clinics throughout the city that delivered better primary and preventive care at less cost. You’ve said that changes in medical care since Katrina have “put New Orleans ahead of the curve” nationally. It’s a complicated story but can you give us an overview? It’s often said that New Orleans is “incubating the future of education in America.” Can the same be said of medical care? Where’s medical care in New Orleans going next?
A: The widespread devastation of the healthcare infrastructure gave New Orleans an unprecedented opportunity to redesign a major American health sector from the ground up. We began our work on a new policy and system framework in the days following the flooding even as we were working to restore basic services like 911 and providing first aid on the streets. What we imagined was a high quality, cost-effective health system founded upon a distributed network of community health sites that used health information technology to improve the safety and efficacy of care. It would be supported by a sustainable, flexible financing model that would support community based primary care and give even the most vulnerable better access and choice.
In the ensuing 6 years, New Orleans has seen the successful development of that envisioned health sector. We now boast an innovative, modernized community health network providing neighborhood-based access to quality care for everyone, including the most vulnerable populations in the region. The transformed system has been recognized by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the National Committee for Quality Assurance as a best practice and innovation others should follow.
The next chapter of our transformed, model health system is still being written but it will involve weaving together the component parts of the health “sector” we created in the last six years – neighborhood based primary care, health information technology and our quality efforts — into a health “system” that is more accessible and more seamless for patients and able to direct people not only to the best quality health care, but also to services that will improve their overall health.
Q: There’s still a lot of anger in New Orleans about the closing of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House at Broad and Orleans. But the corporation that now owns the restaurants gave the building to Tulane to move the Covenant House Health Clinic there. I think there’s great karma in this: my mother left a cardiologist’s lab at Tulane Med School to buy Chris Steak House — turning from a cardiologist’s lab to becoming something of a cardiologist’s nightmare. [Forgive me, Mom, I know not what I say]. And I love the fact that, Karen, you love to fish almost as much as Mom did. I’ve heard you say regarding the anger about the Broad St. building that "People are grieving for a wonderful past. Our job is to create a wonderful future." What are the plans for Broad and Orleans? When might it open?
A: We are thrilled that we will be able to put the Ruth’s site back into operation for the community as a health center. The building became available at just the right time for us. We had outgrown our current location and were looking for a permanent home. We will relocate from our current site a few blocks away and be a source of quality health care for everyone, especially those most in need including the uninsured. The health care services will be a more efficient and effective version of what we offer at our current site. These include primary care for all ages, mental health services, and women’s health. Because we are a part of Tulane School of Medicine, we also train doctors and others who will be part of the future health care workforce. We will be ready to serve patients there in April 2012.
Q: So much can be saved when preventive medicine is practiced – money and lives. I know that y'all have been doing creative things to draw the community into your care. Tell our readers about the drum circle that brings culture bearers like Mardi Gras Indians to the clinic, and about other creative programs.  [for some of my pix of Mardi Gras Indians go here]
A: Preventing diabetes or treating it early saves lives and money. The same is true across a host of other acute and chronic illnesses. With that focus in mind, our clinic team aims to identify people at increased risk and empower them to be partners in managing their own health. For a town with a culture as rich as New Orleans, this simply cannot be done without taking in to account important cultural legacies such as the Mardi Gras Indians. If we open our minds and healing options to include innovative solutions such as drum circles, we are not only more effective but also more integrated in to the community we serve.
Q: Tell us the story of how the Covenant House clinic began. I know it started just a few days after the hurricane…
In the days after Katrina, a group of volunteer Tulane faculty and doctors in training came to New Orleans to provide basic health care for first responders and New Orleanians who had not evacuated. They set up makeshift first aid stations around the City including on Rampart Street at the Covenant House complex. Word spread quickly and within days up to 150 people were coming by for tetanus shots, diabetes care, and other basic services like treatment of rashes and cuts. We moved in to a building on the campus to establish a permanent site of primary care for the neighborhood and have been there ever since. I always say we "jumped off the cliff and built our wings on the way down" since from that first day we were on the street, we weren't certain what the future would bring for patient need, service delivery or funding. And somehow, we have been able to do more for our patients, the neighborhood, and build a model of care and health care training now recognized as one of the best in the nation by the American Association of Medical Colleges.
Q: There are a lot of untold heroic Katrina stories. Your husband Jay DeSalvo, an emergency-room physician, stayed after Katrina to work the ER, to empty the refrigerators of fifteen friends and neighbors, and to climb roofs to help repair them. And there is heroism is dealing with the aftermath of Katrina now 6 years after. Can you tell us some things about the everyday heroism you’ve been witness to?
 I see the heroism in the everyday actions of everyone who has stayed in this city, or come to help her stand up again. We were knocked to our knees in a devastating blow. It takes a mix of everyday heroism and resiliency to stay and be part of the rebuilding after such devastation. I am proud to have been part of a larger community, including my husband, who chose to stay and bring back one of the great American cities.
Q: You’re a native of Austin TX who came to New Orleans for medical and graduate school — two cities where “there is a there there.” What do you miss about Austin? What do you love about New Orleans that Austin doesn’t have?
Austin is a wonderful town that was the ideal place to grow up. I was raised by my very poor single mother and Austin gave us access to advantages like education, arts, and recreation a no or low cost. It was also very safe. This allowed my sisters and me to grow and develop our intellectual curiosity in a way that most children in poverty do not get to experience.
What I love about New Orleans is that it has a rich history, a rich culture and soul that runs brightly through the lives and institutions here. As a city it has its own life and we are merely interacting with it. It gives me energy and inspires creativity. And the water all around us makes for a magical feeling of connection with not only nature, but with the rest of the nation and the Caribbean. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An interview with DAVIA NELSON of NPRs Kitchen Sisters

Davia Nelson is one half of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters (with Nikki Silva). The Kitchen Sisters have produced over 300 stories for public broadcast. They chronicle hidden bits of history and subjects who have shaped our diverse cultural landscape. Their current series, The Hidden World of Girls, is hosted by Tina Fey, and airing nationwide on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Their other NPR series include: Hidden Kitchens and Hidden Kitchens Texas, narrated by Willie Nelson and Robin Wright Penn; Lost & Found Sound, narrated by Francis Ford Coppola; The Sonic Memorial Project, narrated by Paul Auster; Waiting for Joe DiMaggio; WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts; and The Nights of Edith Piaf.

The Kitchen Sisters have received, among others, the duPont-Columbia Award, two Peabody Awards and three Audie Awards.
Their book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2005 and nominated for a James Beard Award. A tie-in to the NPR series Hidden Kitchens, it explores street corner cooking, kitchen rituals and visionaries, legendary meals and eating traditions. The audio book is narrated by actress Francis McDormand.

Q: Davia, thanks for taking the time to share some thoughts about New Orleans and food culture, two things which I know are close to your heart. When did you first visit New Orleans and what was the occasion? Tell us about your most memorable New Orleans meal.

A: My first trip to New Orleans was in 1974 or was it ’75? I was immersed in the world of criminal justice at the time, part of a program where people did community service instead of going to jail or paying fines, and there was a conference in New Orleans on alternatives to incarceration that I decided to attend. The fact that Jazz Fest was happening at the same time only slightly influenced my decision. CB radios were big at the time and we got completely immersed in CB radio culture as we drove across country in a little red Datsun. Breaker, breaker, etc, etc.
What hotel were we in? I can’t tell you that. I remember we got immersed in a hot debate about Own Recognizance the minute we hit the conference. And the first night in town someone took us across Lake Pontchartrain. And then out to dinner at Dooky Chase. I just didn’t know food could taste like that. I had been to Dixleland Square in Disneyland and had a beignet there, but that was about all I really knew about New Orleans. When Leah’s cooking was before me, and the room just came alive, I was smitten. The magic of the meal, the name, the hospitality stayed with me.  Dooky Chase was one of the first places I thought about when I heard about Katrina and the flood.
That weekend we went to Jazz Fest and fell in with a bunch of guys from the local pipe-welders union. They knew how to live. They could see what greenhorns we were and decided they needed to teach us how to eat crawfish. Hadn’t had them before that set of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians. “Come on, girl, suck the head,” they urged. I can’t eat a crawfish today without thinking of that.

Q: Have the Kitchen Sisters done any New Orleans pieces? If not, give us your New Orleans “bucket list”: Whom would you most like to interview (or whose story would you most like to tell)? Mind you, through the magic of the Internet, you’ve just been given a time machine and can go back in time.

A: The Kitchen Sisters tell a New Orleans story any time we can. Our first was part of our NPR Lost & Found Sound series. We were looking for lost audio artifacts, recordings that captured a century in sound, unusual ephemeral moments in the culture that were one of a kind and had a kind of magic. When we were at the Rogers & Hammerstein Library of Recorded Sound at Lincoln Center researching a story for the series, we asked the librarian about the most compelling lost recordings that were hidden in the collection, the ones only he knew about. He said, “Well, there is that home recording of Angela Lansbury auditioning for Mame, and those eight cardboard discs recorded by Tennessee Williams and his lover Pancho at the Pennyland Arcade in New Orleans in 1947. Needless to say, we made a beeline for Louisiana and the story we produced “Tennessee Williams and The Pennyland Recordings” is one of our favorites from the series.
One of the most powerful Hidden Kitchens stories, “King’s Candy: A New Orleans Kitchen Vision” also comes from there. Orissa Arendt called the Hidden Kitchens hotline and told us the story of Robert King Wilkerson, a man who had been in Louisiana’s state prison Angola for 31 years, 29 of them in solitary. He was basically a political prisoner, having founded a chapter of the Black Panthers. “Somehow,” she explained, “in solitary confinement, he managed to create a kitchen — and he did it out of a stove made of coke cans, and he burnt toilet paper rolls to get heat. And he made pralines, which we love in New Orleans. He made these delicious candies and perfected the recipe, hidden in prison. Eventually, they decided they had made a mistake for locking him up for so long. 'King' had a new trial, and he's out now, and he sells his candies which he calls "Freelines." He does it as a way to help raise (consciousness) about political prisoners.”
We found King in Austin after Hurricane Katrina, where he re-located and has continued making Freelines and working on behalf of Angola prisoners. Almost any time we present our stories in public, we play the story of King’s Hidden Kitchen and serve his candy and carry his message with us. 
The King story led us to Boudin and Broncos: The Angola Prison Rodeo, about Louisiana’s state prison, a former 18,000 acres plantation where inmates grow most of the food they eat. During the Angola Prison Rodeo, inmates’ offer local fare at food concessions stands. Dozens of traditional Louisiana dishes are prepared and sold. The man selling snow balls, as they call “snow cones” in New Orleans, is in for rape. The man selling pigtails kidnapped his girlfriend. The guy selling the Tornado Potato is in for life. Now that’s a “hidden kitchen.”

Q: Your new NPR project is The Hidden Life of Girls. Can you tell us about it? Any New Orleans girls in the offing? If you could go back using that time machine again and interview my mother, at what age would you choose to interview her? When she was licensed as the first woman Thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana? Just before she bought Chris Steak House? Just before she won the Horatio Alger Award? You’ve read the book: what do you imagine was her hidden life?

Ruth Fertel is a woman at the confluence of Hidden Kitchens and the Hidden World of Girls. They don’t make them much like her anymore. If I had a time machine I would join Ruth for a game of cards, learn how to do accounting like she did, ask her to teach me to cook a steak, and show me what to look for in a horse, and find out what made her so tough. I would need a lot of tape and a lot of time to crack the case. A pistol, a firecracker, a kitchen visionary. All those terms come to mind.

Q: You were at the first meeting in New Orleans about the birth of the Edible Schoolyard project at Samuel J. Green School. Why do you think projects that teach kids about food and culture are important?

A: The world is going to hell in handbasket. In these complicated times, the power of food – of cooking, of growing it, of tending even a small patch of land, and making things grow, of being nourished and nourishing each other, of sitting at the table together in conversation over good food – is revolutionary. It ties us to the earth and to each other.

Q: You’re a close friend of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters (who just marked its 40th anniversary). Impossible question, but can you tell us about your favorite Chez Panisse meal? Who was at the table? What did you eat?

A: My favorite meal at Chez Panisse?  The night I turned 50. When Harry Belafonte was at the table and sang me “Happy Birthday” and then we harmonized on “Jamaica Farewell.” Who can remember what we ate?

Q: Can you share one or two of your favorite New Orleans stories, food related or otherwise?

A: My favorite New Orleans night happened at your house around your table. It was just after New Year’s, and right before the Epiphany, the year after Katrina. Everyone was still reeling, still in shock, and a meal cooked together, friends and family gathered around a table, still recounting the story of the storm and the massive levels of destruction and neglect and kindness, was such a powerful thing. You and I sat next to one another and began to talk about Alice Waters and her ideas about edible education and her thoughts that New Orleans might be a powerful place to create an edible schoolyard in the wake of Katrina. Since so many things were being rebuilt and starting from scratch. I said one or two lines to you, you jumped right in, had so many thoughts about the very issue, you knew just the school and just the principal, and within moments we had Alice on the telephone and you and she begun The New Orleans Edible Schoolyard. I know you cooked something delicious. I remember being in wonder in your big kitchen on the edge of Audubon Park watching you cook, but it’s the birth of the Schoolyard that I carry with me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An interview with HAM FISH, American publisher, social entrepreneur and Academy Award winning film producer

Co-founder with yours truly of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling, Hamilton Fish ("Ham" to friends and associates) is an American publisher, social entrepreneur and film producer. He broke the ranks of a long line of Republican ancestors when in the seventies he teamed up with Victor Navasky to revitalize the venerable Nation magazine, and later ran as a Democrat for Congress in New York's Hudson Valley.  Ham produced two of the epic films of Marcel Ophuls, including Hotel Terminus, winner of the Academy Award in 1989.  I worked with him for a decade at The Nation Institute on whistleblower protection and recognition issues, a project we developed under the name of my friend the New Orleanian journalist Ron Ridenhour.  Today Ham is publisher of The Washington Spectator and is helping to lead a citizen-based effort to close the dangerous Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, located less than thirty miles north of New York City.
Q: You’ve got roots in Canada and deep, deep roots in New York, but New Orleans seems to have snuck up on you. Watching you soak up New Orleans at your first second line on Rampart Street reminded me of Jesse Winchester’s lyric: “I want to live with my feet in Dixie and my head in the cool blue north” (which of course is how I want to live). Tell us what enchants you about New Orleans.
A: I didn't make it to New Orleans until after Katrina, and so everything I saw and felt was through the prism of that staggering event.  Everything post-Katrina seemed heroic; always the back story was about overcoming overwhelming odds.  By the time I first drove through it with you, the Ninth Ward was already indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness. But even the familiarity that one now gets from the media blizzard didn't begin to capture the sense I had of visiting sacred ground.  The closest parallel I can think of was Cambodia in the early eighties, where like New Orleans the devastation had forced a reordering of reality. 
Everywhere in those early months the city was scarred by the water lines across the lower sections of the homes and schools and businesses. Of course even by then the legendary pulse of New Orleans had started to revive, and everything about that aspect of New Orleans life to an outsider is enchanting. But I think from the start what reached me was that feeling of a tiny, erratic heartbeat at the core of unthinkable pain and loss, getting stronger each day and willing itself back to health.
Q: You helped create the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, which broke the story of Henry Glover, a man who was murdered during the hurricane by a rogue police officer and whose body was burned by other officers as part of a cover-up. What other stories has the Investigative Fund taken a lead in? Any others in New Orleans?
A: I did create the Investigative Fund, but the credit for establishing its credibility and importance in the world of journalism goes to Esther Kaplan, the editor, and in the case of the path-breaking story we ran on the Henry Glover case, to A.C. Thompson, the award-winning reporter. Esther and AC spent nearly two years on that project, and even to the point of filing suit in New Orleans court under the public records statute.  The two Thompson pieces that were eventually published in The Nation led to the FBI's involvement in the case and were cited by the US Attorney as the catalyst in their investigation.  They also inspired a PBS Frontline piece on police corruption and brutality in New Orleans, and a Spike Lee documentary on the role of race and class in the long history of police misconduct in the region.
We also ran a story about the toxic emissions in the FEMA trailers, published an anthology of writing on Katrina, and helped produce a wonderful documentary called Crepe Covered Sidewalks, a very personal story of a New Orleanian woman's return to her hometown and her family in the wake of the storm.
Q: Some of our New Orleans readers may remember Gambit and City Business investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour for whom we named the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling co-sponsored by The Nation Institute.  Please share a bit about the importance of the prizes. And what does Ron mean to the world of investigative reporting and whistleblowing?
A: Ron of course was well-known during his lifetime among journalists and whistleblower advocates around the country for his historic role in releasing the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam years and his subsequent and very distinguished career as an investigative reporter in Louisiana. But I think what has happened with the success of the Ridenhour Prizes program is that the name of Ron Ridenhour is now the defining standard for having the courage to speak out on unpopular truths, often at personal risk.  The fact of these awards has elevated the status of whistleblowers and whistleblowing, and has alerted the media and the public to the importance of whistleblowers to a functioning democracy. 
Q: Your family has a distinguished history in politics, perhaps a little more distinguished than my own family’s.  You know that my dad ran for mayor on the platform that the zoo needed a gorilla – perhaps in the spirit of Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan’s run for governor of New York last year.  What, if anything, do fringe candidates like these contribute to politics, aside from their entertainment value?
A: Hard to say.  Some remain marginalized and are not taken seriously even by an electorate that is accustomed to low standards in public life, while others seem to touch a nerve and speak for people who feel — usually with justification — that they don't have a voice.  I do feel the two major parties have an unhealthy lock on the political process and that we frequently don't get much variation among the candidates.  And, of course, when you do vote for a third party candidate, the system is rigged so that the worst candidate in the field usually benefits.
Q: You’re now President Emeritus of the Nation Institute, which you founded.  I know your hand is stirring a lot of different pots. What’s next for you?
A: My children are still either in college or about to enter, so like everyone else I feel I need about six jobs.  I continue to publish the Washington Spectator, and encourage everyone to subscribe by going to www.washingtonspectator.org — we are unveiling a re-design of our print edition later this month.  Our new website should be live in January, and we'll be launching a new e-book imprint soon.   I maintain my life-long affection for The Nation and have been overseeing preparations for the magazine's 150th birthday coming up in a few years.  And I'm slowly working through the early stages of several for-profit social ventures which will I hope one day offer examples of how to succeed in business without causing harm to the social or environmental life of the country. 
Let me add one last stipulation – don't forget to read Randy's splendid new memoir (after you've subscribed to the Washington Spectator).