"We need Americans to come see us, meet us and hear our stories."
The impassioned plea comes from Frank Brigtsen, James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Brigtsen's Restaurant in New Orleans.
A native New Orleanian and protégé of culinary great Paul Prudhomme, Brigtsen recently stood before a group of volunteer chefs (myself included) who spent a week in his still-ravaged, oft-forgotten city.
"All they know is what they see on the news. Our leaders do not represent us," added Brigtsen, who's been running his own den of superior Creole and Acadian cuisine since 1986. But he's not letting the politicians or the media get in the way of his determination to get New Orleans back on its feet, which is why he keeps cooking.
"Food is the greatest medium to share with people," he declared. And then there was a pause. "Socially, emotionally and spiritually."
It's been far from easy in the Big Easy for nearly two years, and based on my recent experiences working with various relief and rebuilding projects, easy is a long way off. In a city with this country's deepest and richest culinary traditions, people are hungry, queuing up for three hot meals a day at disaster relief sites. In a city known for its architecture, people are still living in FEMA trailers. In a city known for its sense of community, many neighborhoods are deserted, decimated and destroyed.
So why go, you might argue, if things are still so bad? Because if we don't, we will collectively wipe New Orleans from our hard drives, just like we've done in Africa.
Below, a recipe for Brigtsen's bread pudding, one of the most traditional New Orleans desserts, to get a taste of what we'd be missing should collective amnesia set in.
Chef Frank Brigtsen's Banana Bread Pudding
6 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 very ripe bananas, pureed ("black-spot" bananas)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 cups whole milk
1/2 can (or 10 tablespoons) sweetened condensed milk
12 cups stale French bread, diced into 1/2-inch pieces (2-3 loaves)
3/4 cup raisins
2 ripe bananas, thinly sliced (no black spots)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs and yolks, and whisk until frothy. Add nutmeg, cinnamon, pureed bananas and vanilla. Whisk until fully blended.
Add both sugars, and whisk until blended. Add milk and condensed milk, whisking again until completely integrated.
Add diced bread to the egg/milk mixture. Mix well until bread has absorbed most of the custard mixture. Add raisins and sliced bananas, and stir to combine.
Pour pudding into a shallow baking pan and let sit for 30 minutes. Place pudding pan into a slightly larger pan and add about 1 inch of hot water to large pan, to create a water bath.
Bake uncovered until center of pudding is no longer runny, about 1 hour. Serve by itself or with ice cream, whipped cream or caramel sauce. Makes 8-12 servings.
Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at email@example.com.
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