Education Opinion

Cooking New Orleans Style

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — October 12, 2007 3 min read
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Remember these words from the hit song in the early 1980s recorded by the Pointer Sisters?

I’m so excited
And I just can’t hide it.
I’m about to lose control
And I think I like it.

I’m so excited
And I just can’t hide it.
And I know, I know, I know, I know
I know I want you. I want you.

Well, that’s how I am feeling this evening. The “I want you” that I’m singing about is a new kitchen for our charter school. I love cooking and I love good food, especially New Orleans favorites like Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo, Jambalaya, and Bread Pudding. Unfortunately, we can’t serve traditional dishes like this at our school because we don’t have adequate kitchen equipment yet. All of the school’s equipment was ruined by flood waters. The “warming kitchen” that we’ve been using is woefully inadequate.

Our lunches are cooked at a neighboring school and brought in to be served in a beat up, borrowed serving steamer. We don’t have a stove (a requirement for real Gumbo preparations) and we don’t have ovens large enough to bake our own bread. We have a small freezer that can hold one day’s frozen goods. We have warmers so we can serve things like pizza and hot sandwiches. We need to buy a milk cooler, refrigerator, and steamer among other things. The cafeteria manager is a very creative chef who has figured out how to serve an abbreviated menu to our students. She made delicious “baked” red beans one day. But even pizza ceases to interest children, if they get it too many times in a month.

Today, I got a message from the Principal that our food service vendor had visited the school. She went in this morning to ask us to purchase the proper equipment for our kitchen to ensure that she can deliver meals that are safe. The vendor said there is a high risk serving food that cannot stay at a safe temperature. The lack of equipment limits the foods she can serve safely for our children’s breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. Also, she wants to be sure we can meet codes from the health department. Last year, the school didn’t even have a serving steamer. Students were served the infamous frozen sandwiches which were distributed across folding tables covered with vinyl tablecloths.

I decided to make the kitchen renovation a top priority. My request for attention went straight through the chain of command all the way to the top. The first response came from Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s State Superintendent of Schools. I was impressed, shocked, and delighted to hear from Paul within minutes of my appeal for attention. His email was followed by a response from Karen, who is in charge of RSD kitchen equipment purchases. She gave me specific “short steps” that we can take to purchase our equipment and get our kitchen up and running. I’m so excited that I want to stop typing for a minute and sing along with the Pointer Sisters . . . . . . Done.

Here’s a coincidence in this story, although I don’t believe in coincidences. Up until last week, my family had been living in our house without the benefits of a functioning kitchen. Hurricane Katrina’s flooding poured 4 ½ feet of muddy salt water into our house and soaked it for two weeks in 2005. We were able to move back home in October of 2006 after living for three months in Baton Rouge, LA and 10 months in a rental home in the lower garden district of New Orleans.

Before moving back into our house, we purchased all new stainless steel appliances (refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, washer, and dryer). However, the electrical work was not finished in the kitchen until last week. I’ve been cooking our meals on a two-burner hot plate, a tabletop grill, a toaster oven and a microwave. I baked last Thanksgiving’s turkey in an electric roaster and I have lots of other electric equipment (skillet, waffle iron, mixer, George Foreman grill, etc.). I even cooked Gumbo on the hot plate. How hard can it be? Very hard. I don’t recommend it.

Even though all of the electrical appliances are new, there are some things that can’t be cooked correctly unless you use a seasoned cast iron skillet. A cast iron skillet requires the even heat distribution of a real stove. I hugged the startled electrician when I heard the “Beeeep” of my electric stove’s clock for the first time. Now I’m cooking in style! We’ve had Chicken and Dumplings, Smothered Okra and Shrimp Stew, and Southern Fried Catfish in the last two weeks. Last night, I baked a cake in the oven for the first time. It came out perfectly.

I can’t wait for the first day I get a whiff of the aroma of homemade bread wafting from our school’s kitchen. I’m so excited.

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.