After Katrina, Cookbooks Top the Best-Seller List

By Julia Cass
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- When the city's bookstores began opening after Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters receded, the first volumes residents bought to replace their waterlogged, moldy collections were often beloved cookbooks.

Philipe LaMancusa, owner of the Kitchen Witch bookstore in the French Quarter, said that 70 percent of his sales since reopening in November have come from customers whose recipe books were among Katrina's casualties.

"People are replacing their cookbooks first," agreed Tom Lowenberg, owner of Octavia Books. "Cooking is so tied in with people's comfort and quality of life, especially in New Orleans. I think making familiar food helps people with the heartbreak of loss."

Cookbooks are the top replacement books at the city's other independent book stores as well, and requests sometimes are urgent. "In December, a man came in with a soggy cookbook and put it on the counter," said Ted O'Brien, an employee at the Garden District Book Shop. "He said, 'I need this.' " O'Brien doesn't remember which cookbook it was, except that it was out of print and he couldn't help the customer.

Cooks settling back into their kitchens also call the archive at Tulane University's Newcomb College Center for Research on Women for recipes from its collection of 1,000 cookbooks. They contact the United Way for copies of a book of popular recipes that were once stuffed into envelopes with electric bills. And they e-mail the food section of the Times-Picayune, asking the newspaper to reprint favorite recipes that perished in the flooding.

Every Thursday, the newspaper publishes their pleas:

"I am trying to locate 'Aunt May's Eggplant Fritters' published in the Times-Picayune more than 15 years ago. . . . I lost it in my Lakeview home. All of my family members who had this recipe lost it, too. If anyone has this recipe, I would be very grateful if they would pass it on."

"I spent hours trying to separate drowned and dried recipes. . . . The ones I did save stunk to high heaven and I had to copy them. Unfortunately, many of my favorite [Times-Picayune] ones did not make it. . . . One was called 'Best Cornbread Recipe.' It truly is the best cornbread recipe I've used, and I would love to have it again."

"I hope you can help me locate a recipe I lost in the floodwaters of Katrina. . . . I used to make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and my family is begging for it. It was called Island Rum Sweet Potatoes. I have tried to duplicate it from memory, but I cannot get it right."

Judy Walker, the food editor, isn't surprised by this longing for beloved recipes by people who have lost so much more. "There's no stronger attachment than to food except to family, and cooking is part of family," she said. She searches in the newspaper's archives, which go back to the 1980s, and if she can't find the recipe, she asks readers to help. She calls the effort "Rebuilding New Orleans One Recipe at a Time" and views it a form of disaster relief.

Susan Tucker, a curator of the Tulane archive, considers recipe restoration a means of "getting our old lives back." In addition, she pointed out, "cookbooks are utilitarian. There's a reason to have them. You refer to them."

According to the booksellers, the most popular replacement cookbooks are not new, trendy offerings but classics such as the "Joy of Cooking," along with several local books with recipes from home cooks such as "River Road Recipes," a 1959 collection gathered by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, and "The Plantation Cookbook," compiled by the Junior League of New Orleans.

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