No surprise, food quickly became a centerpiece of our collective response to the epic flooding that began here in the greater Baton Rouge area on August 12. Chefs and home cooks in a position to help sprang into action, furiously preparing meals for family, friends and strangers who were leveled by a weather event that seemed to have come out of nowhere. In those first few days of the catastrophe, with many roads closed, businesses shuttered, and homes swallowed up by water, restaurateurs who didn’t flood cooked thousands of meals they brought to shelters and to affected neighborhoods. There was no great plan — just urgent, heartfelt action.
Ruffino’s prepared 3,000 servings for the Salvation Army, while City Pork teamed with farmer Galen Iverstine, cook trailer chef Alex Barbosa and food media personality Jay Ducote to feed first responders at the Louisiana State Police Headquarters. Restaurant IPO executive chef Scott Varnedoe assembled a team to cook a massive pot of jambalaya for those sheltered at Celtic Studios (later protesting passionately on Facebook about a run-in with law enforcement who suggested he wasn’t authorized to do so.) And over the first week of the tragedy, the Louisiana Culinary Institute supplied 35,000 meals to first responders, flood victims and volunteers using vast ingredients donated by national food vendors.
Meanwhile in unharmed kitchens, everyday cooks got to work preparing the belly-warming classics that define us as a people: red beans and rice, gumbo and casseroles. School groups, sports teams and faith-based organizations created web-based sign-up sheets to keep flood victims supplied with regular lunches and dinners. While heartbroken homeowners ripped out sheetrock and dragged ruined possessions to the curb, friends brought sandwich trays, jambalaya in Styrofoam boxes, fried chicken and potato salad –ordinarily the fare of fall tailgates now served up at tragic job sites.
Amid the loss, pain and downright confusion, there has been the steady arm of culinary generosity that Louisiana is known for. By their very nature, the thrifty one-pot dishes we have cooked for generations are mysteriously bottomless; add a little more water, toss in some extra pork fat, serve with a side of fluffy rice and a meal can stretch to accommodate whoever needs it.
These dishes aren’t just mouthwatering; they’re infused with our culture’s tenacity and resilience.