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From Shrimp to Taffy, Food Finds Mean Sweet Support for the Gulf

At left, frozen shrimp from Desporte &  Sons; at right, the Haydel's Bakery Russian cake.
At left, frozen shrimp from Desporte & Sons; at right, the Haydel's Bakery Russian cake. (Photos By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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By Margaret Engel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ever since my twin sister and I began researching America's superlative regional food producers about 25 years ago, we have been giving food for the holidays. A piece of taffy is always the right size and never requires batteries.

This year, we're ordering unique foods from New Orleans and Biloxi in a small effort to help the mom-and-pop foodmakers who are still suffering more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster to strike our nation. As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a group of us who toured the region recently: "The real tragedy of Katrina is the aftermath. We're crippled and trying to get back on our feet."

It's about helping our Southern neighbors as well as giving first-rate taste treats to everyone on our gift lists. From chocolate-iced Doberge cakes to Cajun kringle and seafood gumbo, the area's cooks ship their delectables nationwide and beyond.

Dozens of food artisans in southern Louisiana and Mississippi are worthy of holiday orders. Those featured here are some of the smaller purveyors, many of whom had to rebuild decades-old businesses from the ground up.

As always, try to place holiday orders before Dec. 15, unless an earlier date is given. Prices do not include shipping unless noted.

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Driving down St. Charles Avenue near Loyola University this fall, I was stopped by the sight of a vintage wooden cart being pulled by a white mule. Roman Chewing Candy was painted on the side. Driving was Ron Kottemann, whose grandfather, Sam Cortese, began selling his mother's soft Sicilian taffy from the very same cart on the streets of New Orleans in 1915.

The seven-inch sticks of candy are cooked, flavored and pulled by Kottemann inside the tiny carnival-style cart, which his grandfather had built by a wheelwright. (A second cart operates in the city's Audubon Zoo.) Generations of New Orleanians have been alerted to the cart's arrival by the clanging of its bronze bell as the mule, these days one named Patsy, clops down the street.

Walk-ups can buy a single taffy stick, wrapped in white waxed paper, for 75 cents. They're sold via Web site by the dozen, for $7. They would look lovely in a Christmas stocking or even hung on a tree. The flavors (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) are delicate and not overly sweet, the kind our grandparents enjoyed. If the candy hardens during shipment, microwave it one stick at a time for five seconds to bring it back to an easy-chewing state, Kottemann advises.

"Katrina destroyed our stable, and I had to operate out of a truck for almost nine months," Kottemann said as he deftly wrapped a mound of candy. "Business isn't the same because people aren't here."

Roman Candy Co., 504-897-3937;http://www.romancandy.com. Accepts MasterCard and Visa.

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