"You think I'll be able to get sugar cane for the turkey this year?" I asked my wife.
Mary Ann stopped picking up broken tree branches and looked at me. "Are you really thinking of having Thanksgiving here this year?"
"I think we have to," I said.
That was nine days after Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans, our home town.
Fortunately, our place across Lake Pontchartrain from the city was undamaged except for the loss of about a dozen trees.
Unfortunately, a lack of power and water left it uninhabitable.
When we were able to revisit our house after the Aug. 28 evacuation, we cleaned up as best we could and left for Maryland. Thanksgiving kept coming back into the conversation during the three-day drive to Mary Ann's sister's house. We stayed with her sister in Boyds while we waited for our community to begin functioning again. We've just returned home.
I like thinking about Thanksgiving even in normal years. Ideas for the menu begin rolling around in my mind weeks before the holiday, when 40 to 50 guests have always joined us for the year's most essential feast.
This year, that dinner will have much greater significance, even urgency. We desperately want our city and our lives to resume their familiar aspects. But we can't help seeing the mountains of debris, the dead trees and the vast areas of houses with water marks six feet high that look as though they had melted into the ground. So we grasp for what we can. The thought of our Thanksgiving dinner is wonderfully comforting.
Mary Ann and I are lifelong New Orleanians. I was born on Mardi Gras to a French-speaking Creole mother. Our Thanksgiving dinner has a traditional American underpinning, but its flavor is distinctly Creole and Cajun.
We diverge from the national norm first thing in the morning, when I fire up the outdoor grill for the turkeys (I always make two). I burn it with fallen oak branches I collect from the woods -- it's an understatement to say we have an oversupply of those this year. Then comes the sugar cane.
The Mississippi River upstream of New Orleans is rimmed with vast sugar plantations. During the weeks before Thanksgiving -- the shank of the harvest -- I usually pick up an armload of cane scrap from a cooperative planter about 75 miles away. It's still green and full of sucrose-rich sap when I put five or six foot-long pieces of it on the grill, right above the fire. The sugar slowly smolders, and it gives the turkeys a marvelous flavor and mahogany color.
This year, though, the storms knocked all the sugar cane to the ground. I will bring my own cane knife to cut some before it gets plowed under.
The turkeys are about 14-pounders, covered overnight in an ice chest filled with a solution of one round box of salt to three gallons of water -- with three tablespoons of liquid crab boil to goose up the flavor. After rinsing all that off the turkeys, I stuff them with onions, celery, sprigs of rosemary and orange wedges, and tie them up to keep things in place. Then the turkeys go onto one end of the grill in roaster pans, to protect them from the direct heat of the fire on the other end. They will stay there for six to seven hours, with new sugar cane pieces added every half-hour or so. The birds, meanwhile, are turned laterally but remain breast-side-down.
It is now 6 in the morning. With the turkeys outside, both ovens in the kitchen are free. One will bake my signature dish: root beer-glazed black ham. My guests would never forgive me if I didn't come through with this.
The main ingredient of the glaze is Barq's root beer, a national brand born a century ago around New Orleans. I use it as the liquid component of a stock to extract flavors from spices, peppers and citrus. The ham bakes for three to four hours, making the whole house smell good.
With those two processes started, I can pause to brew some blue-black coffee and chicory for cafe au lait. Mary Ann joins me for an annual ritual: panicking that we might not have enough food. In fact, we always have too much. But at this point in the preparation, Mary Ann starts working on extra dishes.
One of these became a Thanksgiving standard for us a few years ago. It's a savory bread pudding with mushrooms, herbs and cheese. Bread pudding made in a rich, custardy style is without doubt the favorite dessert in New Orleans. So this unsweet version is enough of an oddity that it catches people's interest.
I turn my attention to fooling the guests with a classic restaurant dish: oysters Bienville, named for the founder of New Orleans and claimed as an original dish by three different restaurants. It looks enough like oyster stuffing that I point to it when people ask me for that atrocity. It's heretical to say so, but I think the traditional oyster stuffing is a mismatch with turkey. Oysters Bienville, though, are glorious. The sauce can be made in advance, then baked to a crust atop the oysters just as the guests arrive. I pass them out in ramekins as hot hors d'oeuvres with a Muscadet wine, and away we go.
In November, Louisiana oysters are usually fantastic -- salty and meaty. This year, Katrina destroyed most of the oyster beds and oyster boats, and Hurricane Rita did more damage a month later. To everyone's surprise, the state Department of Health found the beds uncontaminated and opened them to harvest three weeks before Thanksgiving. The oysters are scarce and more expensive than usual, but that won't stop anybody from buying -- and eating -- them.
Our Thanksgiving table is full of side dishes. We have all the cliches out there for the kids and the elders. One such -- sweet potatoes, a major Louisiana crop -- has a dual function. We just bake them and put some out with the main dinner. The rest are needed for a great encore -- but I'll get to that later.
The sides that go fastest are the local dishes. Dirty rice, for example. It's cooked down with pork and livers (turkey livers, on this day), flavored with green onions and crushed red pepper flakes. There seems to be no upper limit on the amount our guests can consume.
Another dish we like a lot involves a green, squash-like vegetable locally known as a mirliton (chayote, to you). It's a great vehicle for garlic, bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, all of which I bake with no small amount of butter in a shallow baking dish.
New Orleans is a sausage town, and we use plenty of that on Thanksgiving. Last year we stuffed mushrooms with the very hot Creole sausage called chaurice.
In a very good year, the crawfish start appearing in time for Thanksgiving. If that happens -- as it did last year -- we work crawfish into anything we can think of.
Outside many Louisiana homes, you'll see a crawfish boiler, even if no crawfish are available. It's a 10-gallon (or larger) pot set up on a propane burner. It doubles as the apparatus for frying a turkey.
I remember when the fried-turkey mania started in the Cajun country and spread. Fried turkey is not bad; on the other hand, it's not good either. And the oil costs 10 times as much as the turkey. Every year, I check the newspaper to see how many people around town burned their houses down while trying to fry turkeys.
We had a fried turkey only once, when my brother-in-law insisted on bringing the rig and doing the deed. I insisted that he do so at a safe remove from the house.
Fried turkeys are not in a league with our smoked turkeys. When they're done, I bring them in for show and smell. Both sensations are so different from those of a standard turkey that they wow the crowd.
I carve the birds as fast as I can, because I need the carcasses to make turkey gumbo, a light supper for guests who are still around at 7 or 8. That's when those extra sweet potatoes come out. I grew up eating chicken gumbo with sweet potatoes, a flavor match so good that all it takes is one sample to acquire a taste. We eat the gumbo every day until it's gone.
In normal times, Thanksgiving would be the time of year when the incomparably sweet navel oranges arrive from Plaquemines Parish. That's the land along the last 100 miles of the Mississippi River. In all my touring of this region, I have seen no place more thoroughly destroyed by Katrina. Nevertheless, some of the citrus groves survived, and their produce will once again be part of my orange-flavored cheesecake. We'll also have Plaquemines satsumas (like tangerines, but sweeter) for the kids to peel and devour (my son among them; he stayed in Maryland to finish the school year but is coming home Tuesday).
Pecan pie is always on our menu, too, using pecans from the gigantic tree in the back yard of Mary Ann's mother's house. These will be the last pecans from that tree. It blew down during the storm.
Things like that make me want to get everybody home for Thanksgiving. Southeast Louisiana is a new world now. We need our culinary culture more than ever, just to remind us that not everything has changed.
Tom Fitzmorris, a restaurant critic and radio talk-show host, is the author of "New Orleans Food," to be published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in the spring. The following recipes are adapted from the book. Fitzmorris is donating half of his royalties toward the New Orleans restoration efforts.