LAST WEEK HURRICANE IAN BARRELED into Florida, thrashing Fort Myers, Naples, and dumping destruction on so many other communities in its path. I could watch in real time from the comfort of my television, but family and friends were affected. I hope you escaped the storm.
It came at the same time I was researching Key West recipes for my new book, and I had just revisited the history of the 1935 hurricane in the Keys that knocked out railway tracks and took the lives of 259 World War I veterans sent south to build highway bridges to allow more tourists to visit the Keys.
Yes, hurricanes, even really big ones like Ian, are a part of coastal life. But you never forget them. And they become a part of our culinary history as well if you consider the recipes lost, the businesses up-ended, and the lives changed.
It reminded me of that hurricane named Katrina that wrecked New Orleans and the Gulf coast in 2005 and how my friend Judy Walker, food editor of the newspaper, learned that losing recipes in flood waters is as heartbreaking as missing baby photos and other keepsakes.
So I thought it might a good time to write about hurricanes and how recipes, especially if hand written by a loved one, are irreplaceable. And that’s one of the many things New Orleans learned post Katrina.
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Once communities were picking up Katrina’s pieces, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper, started receiving requests from readers who had lost their treasured recipes.
One reader suggested a weekly column of lost recipe requests in the hope that others might have that particular recipe and share it. They called it ‘’Exchange Alley,’’ which was named for a street in the French Quarter.
And so began a bright side of Katrina, a community builder, and a way to reach beyond sorrow and help others reclaim old recipes they loved.
‘’Readers found recipes in so many places,’’ said Judy, ‘’located on a scrap of paper saved in a shoe box in an attic. One cook saved recipes in plastic covers, which the family retrieved from flood waters and meticulously dried out over several months.’’
And eventually, more than 225 recipes were found and shared, and later compiled into a cookbook called Cooking up a Storm, by Judy Walker and Marcelle Bienvenu, longtime New Orleans food writer and Creole cooking instructor. The book was published in 2008, and a ten-year anniversary edition was published in 2015.
Lady Helen’s Cheese Straws lost and found
One of my favorite stories from the book involves Lady Helen’s Cheese Straws, one of the most requested recipes not only in this Katrina project but in the years before. Cheese straws are long crispy cheese wafers that deliciously shatter when you bite into them.
The original recipe belonged to the late Lady Helen Hardy, born and raised in New Orleans. When Lady (yes, that was her first name, as it was her mother’s and grandmother’s first name, too) Helen’s friends started getting married and doing needlepoint, she chose to perfect cheese straws, helped by two mothers of friends.
In a 1988 interview with The Times-Picayune, she unveiled the secrets of her cheese straws, such as not to use too much flour—a scant 2 cups. She used a cookie press, but you can roll and cut the dough into strips. And she preferred margarine to butter because it was less greasy.
And for the record, her beverage of choice to wash down cheese straws was Champagne, not Coca-Cola as many Southerners might think! Here-here!
Seventeen years later, and Katrina feels like a migration story
‘’I saw people at work one day and then never laid eyes on them again,’’ said Judy Walker. “Most of my friends were at the newspaper. Neighbors had to go somewhere. And they couldn’t come back here for the longest time for so many years.’’
When I asked Judy what type of recipes people missed the most after a storm, she said there wasn’t one recipe. ‘’They wanted all all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Gumbo and jambalaya—they knew how to make those from memory. You can make those with your eyes shut,’’ she said.
‘’But holiday recipes, cheese straws, Christmas cookies, those recipes you make once a year and don’t have memorized, those are the recipes they wanted.’’
Was Key Lime Pie missed after Katrina?
Not likely. Meat pies, crawfish pies, a bananas Foster pie, and tarte a la bouille, a Cajun sweet dough pie—those were requested. I’m thinking Key lime pie and other pies of the coasts that rely on canned milk and pantry items are recipes you can memorize.
If you make Key lime pie a couple times, as there are only a handful of ingredients, something tells me you will be able to make it again without a recipe. And even if you don’t add the eggs, the pie still tastes good with just one can of sweetened condensed milk and 1/2 cup Key lime juice.
Add three or four egg yolks, and that filling gets even better. Pre-bake the crust (graham cracker, gingersnap, or traditional flaky pastry), pile in the filling, and let it bake 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees if you’ve added egg yolks. And should you like meringue, beat the egg whites on high speed with 2 tablespoons sugar for each egg white. It’s ratios, not rocket science! Then pop the pie back in the oven 15 minutes to brown the meringue. Or scrap the idea of meringue and pile with whipped cream!
Should I ever be in a hurricane and live to bake a Key lime pie, I won’t need to search for the recipe. Like Judy said, it’s those recipes we can’t remember and that we didn’t make often—those are the ones we miss the most.
I think of my recipe boxes stuffed with not just my mother’s handwritten cards but also with my mother-in-law’s. Interspersed between those recipe cards are clippings from magazines and newspapers, even odd notes, grocery lists, and names of people who shared the recipe at church or at a bridge table or neighborhood potluck. If those boxes were lost in two feet of sea water, two entire lifetimes of food memories would be washed away.
Safeguarding recipes and hand written heirlooms
Take snapshots with your phone, email them to yourself, and store images on the Cloud. Treat handwritten recipes as you would the deed to the house or the car. Put them in a lockbox or someplace safe if you can’t remember them by heart.
Especially in coastal climates because it doesn’t look like tropical storms are going to let up anytime soon.
What New Orleans, one of the great food cities in the world, did to preserve and safeguard culinary legacy is a testament to its regard for good food, cooking, and living well.
And today when Judy Walker sees a hurricane on television, she can’t help but think back. Her words to everyone affected? ‘’Know that it will be better. It will take time.’’
My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of Hurricane Ian and everyone displaced by coastal storms here, in Puerto Rico, and abroad. If you know ways to help, share with us. If you have a memory of hurricanes or of recipes lost and found, share as well:
If you want to learn more about the 1935 hurricane in the Keys through the lens of Ernest Hemingway, listen to this brief PBS recording from Ken Burns.
Or, how American cities like New Orleans, Charleston, and Norfolk are getting help from the Dutch on living with unexpected water, from high tides to hurricanes and floods, read this fascinating Smithsonian Magazine story.
Coming Thursday for Paid Subscribers
A new series begins! Cake in Other Places. My look at how other countries regard cake, bake cake, talk about cake. And first up is France, with Aleksandra Crapanzano, author of Gateau, and her easy yogurt cake even children can bake.
Did you know I offer Founding Member subscriptions?
It’s a chance for you to upgrade your membership and look after someone else less fortunate at the same time. When you become a founding member, I gift a free subscriber with a paid subscription for the year, and I also send you an antographed copy of my cookbook and a Between the Layers kitchen apron (pretty nice!!). Photos of those aprons are coming soon!
Have a good week, and happy baking!
Lady Helen’s Cheese Straws
This recipe was sent to the newspaper by Marianne Hayden-Whitmore, and it belonged to the late Lady Helen Hardy of New Orleans. You can make them with or without a cookie press. If using a cookie press, choose a bleached all-purpose flour, whereas an unbleached flour provides more structure and you are able to bake these without a cookie press by just cutting the dough into strips with a pizza cutter. The baking powder provides lightness, essential if using the cookie press, but if you want to omit it, then you will bake an even older version of cheese straws and more crispy like pie crust. I have slightly adapted Lady Helen’s recipe by baking at a little higher temperature (she used 300 degrees F).
Makes about 5 dozen
15 to 16 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder, if desired
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
5 to 6 good dashes of Tabasco hot sauce
Shred the cheese using a cheese grater (need 4 lightly packed cups) and place in the bowl of a large stand mixer or food processor. Add the soft butter. Toss the flour with the baking powder, if using, cayenne pepper, and salt. Add to the bowl. Add the hot sauce. Mix or process until the mixture comes together in a ball, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Press down on the ball gently, wrap in waxed paper, and place in the refrigerator to chill 30 minutes.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and set aside two or three ungreased baking sheets. Remove the dough from the fridge, and cut the ball in half. Return one wrapped half to the fridge. Place the other half on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. With a pastry cutter or pizza wheel, cut the dough into 1/2-inch strips and gently transfer them to a baking sheet. Place one pan at a time in the oven, and bake until the straws are puffed up and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. With a metal spatula, transfer the cheese straws to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. (Or, you can freeze the unbaked dough up to 1 month.)
Serve the cheese straws warm with cocktails. Or let them cool and store in airtight tins for up to 1 week at room temperature or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Lady Helen’s Cookie Press instructions: Use a scant 2 cups bleached all-purpose flour and the baking powder in making the dough. Place the dough in a cookie press, and squeeze out rows the entire length of the cookie sheet, spacing them at least 1/2-inch apart. Bake 10 minutes at 300 degrees F. Lower the temperature to 225 degrees and bake until straw-colored but not browned, about 15 minutes. If you think they are browning too fast, open the oven door. Allow 2 to 3 minutes before the end of the baking time, and with a small sharp knife, cut the straws crosswise into shorter strips.
Lady Helen’s cheese straws were part of my Christmas memories growing up. Her family and my grandparents had vacation homes next to each other in Pass Christian, Mississippi. They were always a special addition to our festivities. I am so glad to have the recipe. Thank you!
I picked up this book. So many memories!