One Good Fortune After Another

09 May

Poppy Tooker has been a part of the New Orleans food scene for a long time. During the city’s struggle post-Katrina, Tooker earned respect throughout New Orleans with her work in rebuilding and bringing back beloved local restaurants that have been with the city for more than a hundred years, such as Angelo Brocato’s. Since then, Tooker has hosted her weekly radio show "Louisiana Eats" and published three books on Louisiana food and culture. She has also traveled the world as founder of Slow Food New Orleans, a movement promoting the preservation of food culture.

My family and I were in Baton Rouge one day and decided to visit the Red Stick Market. When we reached the end of the market, I noticed Poppy Tooker across the room doing a live cooking show. After her show, I joined the line of people waiting to try her oyster sauce and pasta dish. When it was my turn to meet Tooker, I asked if she would be willing to meet one day over coffee for an interview for my school newspaper. Despite being busy with interviews for internationally famous broadcasts such as CBS, Tooker immediately wrote her email down in my journal. 

We met at Monkey Monkey Coffee and Tea in Midcity. She wore a fairly simple outfit: a green button-up shirt with jeans. Her hair was up in a 50s do.  While the barista was preparing my coffee, Tooker pulled out her phone and started showing me pictures of a ghost that once haunted Tujaque’s while excitedly telling me the story of how the owner got rid of the ghost. 

Tooker pulled me into the conversation with her animated actions and expressive personality. Her background in theatre and television broadcasting showed as she waved her hands in the air and changed the melody of her words with each sentence. I became so enrapt by Tooker’s life stories, from her days in California to her travels in France, that I forgot to photograph her, despite the perfect sunlight pouring through the coffeehouse windows and my camera bag sitting right by my chair. However, Tooker’s unapologetic showing of her charismatic personality is more powerful than my photograph of her could have ever been. 

Wolfe: I understand you moved to California to study acting. Why did you chose to pursue a career in cooking rather than strictly acting?

Tooker: Because food had always been as much as the love of my life. I graduated from school in 1975. There were no white women, or really women, chefs. There were underpaid black ladies peeling shrimp. I had a little catering business in high school, but my great passion was theatre. That was the only thing that interested me in high school. I hated high school. I couldn’t wait to get out. So, when I got to Cal Arts, that was quite something because I graduated from NOCCA in the second graduating class for theatre. All the best things in my life happened by accident. You can put myself in your shoes. I was like a year older than you, and I didn’t have a clue on what I was going to do because I can’t add two-and-two and I never could. I was convinced I was just going to do theatre. On the board at NOCCA, there was a notice that Cal Arts was going to be holding auditions. So, Poet, I don’t know if you can imagine how things were in 1975, but I showed up and I believe I wore my ballet leotard and tights. I don’t even know what I was thinking about when I got dressed that day. They need one dramatic piece and one comedic piece. I don’t even remember what the comedic piece was that I did, but I do remember that I had memorized Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, and I am stating there in front of this man who would later be my theatre teacher, and so I get to the part where I go, “Come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,” and everything else went out of my head. I am standing there and think, oh, no, I can’t remember anything. I open one eye and I give a look to him and say, “I forgot the rest.” He laughed till he cried. Within a month I got a letter that said based on your audition you are accepted, please apply. And that’s how I went to Cal Arts. So, when I was at Cal Arts, I had to have a work study job because my grandmother helped with my first year of color. It is a long, sick, twisted family tale. I ended up working Mom’s Cafe.  It was like this cool cafe, where all I had to do was serve fifty people one meal a night. So, I made red beans and stewed chicken, and things I knew how to cook. There was some guys coming through the line looking at that stuff like okay, if anybody like you cooked it we wouldn’t eat it. Then they came back for seconds. What I learned in that year was that I really did get the same charge for cooking for people as I did theatre. Before I was twenty-one, I was able to figure out food was going to be happier, safter, and better of a life than theatre which was going to be the ultimate crapshoot.

Wolfe: Having all this experience in cooking, why did you decide to never open up your own restaurant?

Tooker: Because I wanted to have a life. In my early 20s, I had the restaurant fantasy. It’s all just been one good fortune after another, keeping my doors open. I was divorced, and working in restaurants, but I was having a horrible time getting a job because I was a white woman. When they would hire me, we’re talking the early ‘80s, Susan Spicer was the pioneer around that time. She was the only white woman in the industry, and in general there were no women chefs. So, my mother actually was on Lee Barnes cooking school’s mailing list, and she gave me a flyer that had come with an that said they were looking for cooking assistants.  That was where I learned about teaching cooking. I discovered I really didn’t want to work in a restaurant or own a restaurant. All I wanted to do was teach cooking because it was theatre and food together. Boom, done. I loved it. 

Wolfe: You said your father was in the sales business. What really drove you to have a passion for cooking? What it someone else in your family?

Tooker: It was my great grandmother. My great grandmother taught me how to love people through people. She was alive till I was ten. She was a fabulous cook. We had Sunday dinner virtually every Sunday and every holiday. The food was just outrageous, between what she cooked herself and where we went. It was just oo la la lovely. I remember being at MaMaw’s dinner table and being served my own little complement frappe when I was five. MaMaw always kept a covered cake keeper. In the butler’s pantry they had an angel food cake that I could go grab a piece of anytime I wanted. She would take me out to lunch, just her and me. She was a little tiny woman who drove a great big Cadillac and always wore white gloves, and the armrest was a special little seat she had put in her car just for me. We would go have lunch at Camellia Grill, or Angie Cafeteria. My great grandmother was such a huge influence in my life. 

Wolfe: You played a major role in helping beloved businesses like Brocato's’ and the Roman Candy Stand coming back during the storm. Looking now post-Katrina, do you think the city has done a good job in preserving its culture as you envisioned in 2005?

Tooker:  I’ll give you an example. I didn’t have anything to do with Mandina's coming back. I love Mandina's, and I think it might have been the last restaurant I ate in New Orleans before the storm because I was at, what I think to be, the last Christian burial on that Friday afternoon, one of my best friends dad died. That’s always the funeral food because Shane’s is across the street. I can’t explain why. My friends and I always ended up in Mandina's for turtle soup and bugle fashions, and when I went back when they reopened, that was the only place I can remember going back into where I cried. I cried because I felt like it was gone. It had physically changed so much inside. The only thing that made it better was they had perfectly replicated their food. Their food was perfectly, exactly the same. I loved Mandee’s and I got over my distress about the look because of the taste of the food. Because if I closed my eyes, I knew where I was.

Wolfe: I suppose this is a difficult question. Do you have a number one favorite restaurant in New Orleans?

Tooker: Mofo is my clubhouse because they’re practically in my backyard, and I have my own table that I like to eat at. Tube South is right outside of my recording studio door. Everytime I record for my Louisiana Eats! radio, it’s hard not to be crunching on crackles. I mean, how can I pick a favorite? It all depends on what day it is and what I feel like eating. 

Wolfe: In an interview, you said Leah Chase is like your second mother.  How would you say she's played a major role in your cooking career? 

Tooker: Well, everything changed for me after Hurricane Katrina, and life is so funny how often it has to do with finance. And for the first time for a variety of reasons, after Hurricane Katrina, I was not maintained for the first time. So I had all the time to do whatever I wanted to do. I got really involved with rebuilding. In the book, you'll see how she and I developed this relationship. I can come to her with anything. She's such a great cheerleader. She tells me when I'm doing good and doesn't bother to hold it back if she doesn't think I'm doing good. 

Wolfe: Some chefs like Anthony Bourdain travelled the world to learn more about food in different  countries. A lot of your work is mainly Louisiana focus. Why have you chosen to keep your work focused on Louisiana culture rather than other cultures around the world? 

Tooker: It's just been my life. I have done extensive traveling. I had to travel when I was an international governor. I've traveled with the Food movement to Portugal, Greece, and Italy, and spent an immense amount of time in France. But this is where I live. This is my food culture. I was married twenty-eight years, I have a thirty-one year old daughter. And that really tied me here. I love the New Orleans the way some people love their mothers. You know, this, oh, this is thrill that I can get certain times a day just at the Neutral Ground and St. Charles Avenue. Take an afternoon and go to the French Quarter, and it's like you went on a vacation. 

Wolfe: Out of the four books you have published, is there a book that you enjoyed the most in terms of researching and writing? 

Tooker: Oh, I loved writing the Tujague's book. I think people love it because so many people  feel like it’s a little bit of their story, too. Tujague’s is like my home away from home. It's like I'm a member of the family. I also found that it's so much easier to write about dead people than it is to write about live people, because everybody in the Tujague’s book is dead. 

Wolfe: What’s your favorite New Orleans dish and which is your favorite one to cook?

Tooker:  I would say that is my gumbo. I make seafood gumbo. And I love my seafood gumbo. And everybody else does, too. I think one of my very favorite gumbo moments was on CBS Sunday morning was Wynton Marsalis took one spoonful of gumbo, closed his eyes and said, “Have mercy, Poppy.” So my Wynton Marsalis “have mercy, Poppy” gumbo is probably my favorite.


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