This time of year has always been my favorite because it is just one holiday after another. With Halloween's passing everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving and for Christians, Christmas seems to be right around the corner. For most people it is a time a tradition and thanks, but what about the victims of Katrina? I couldn't imagine being in any position to give thanks if I were in their shoes. It is kind of hard to carry out traditions when your house has been destroyed and family members are separated or missing; but the disaster isn't stopping many New Orleans families and restaurant owners. They are determined to help New Orleans keep their Thanksgiving spirits up and celebrations alive!
Not that Greg (pictured below) and Mary Sonnier ever served a Thanksgiving dinner at their New Orleans restaurant Gabrielle: For nearly two decades, it's been the same routine: Mornings were spent eating with Greg's parents, and afternoons visiting one of Mary's sisters.
As it did to hundreds of thousands of families, Hurricane Katrina reshuffled the Sonniers' lives — including their holiday plans. Greg's parents are still patching up their New Orleans house after a pecan tree fell on it. Five feet of water flooded the house of Mary's sister Jean; her sister Ann's home is underwater. The couple are playing host this year to an expected crowd of 20 friends, relatives and neighbors. "We've never had a Thanksgiving at our own home before," says Mary Sonnier, "so this is the start of a new tradition for our family."
Few American cities have come to embrace a culture of food so wholeheartedly as New Orleans, and no holiday is as tied to food as Thanksgiving. For the city's chefs, this year's celebration has also become a time to reflect on life after Katrina — possessions lost, loved ones saved, traditions that need to live on. Some are set to return, like the annual Turkey Day Race held in City Park. One that won't be revived this year is opening day for thoroughbred races, held each Thanksgiving at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, home to the city's racetrack and to the world-famous Jazz Fest.
So much has changed since last Thanksgiving. In the French Quarter, where locals like Bill and Betty Norris would host open feasts for 40 or 50 people, few workers and even fewer visitors are around to liven up the mood. Elsewhere, some neighborhoods have come back to life as newly returned residents and visitors shop and eat. Certain landmark restaurants, like French Quarter icon Galatoire's, will be shuttered for months. (Meantime, Galatoire's is opening a bistro outpost in Baton Rouge, to the shock of many regulars.) But others, like oyster haven Casamento’s, are back in business. Many will be setting a communal table come Thanksgiving.
"It'll be the 16th Thanksgiving in a row for us since weve opened," says chef Susan Spicer(pictured below), who's planning a traditional meal for 100 at her French Quarter restaurant Bayona. "I think we will
probably know everyone in the dining room. ... It's a gesture of saying thank you for what's left." Spicer, 52, has been commuting from Jackson, Miss., where her husband and stepchildren are still residing after the family's home in the Lakeview neighborhood was totally flooded. They'll join her after the service for "a quiet night somewhere."
Bayona, which will reopen Nov. 18, lost power for three weeks but otherwise was largely unscathed. But most of the 8,000 bottles in its wine "attic" didn't survive the weeks of heat and humidity after the power went out and Spicer's chef de cuisine relocated to Portland, Ore.
Even for home cooks, the basics will be difficult. Stores are scrambling to line up supplies, worsening a logistical crunch most retailers already face in stocking once-a-year items like turkeys and cranberries. "Every store has a line halfway down the aisle, so I can only guess what its going to be like for Thanksgiving," says Greg Sonnier. "The cooking part will be the easy part."
The Sonniers, who returned to their Uptown home after sitting out the storm in Memphis, Tenn., are banking on the local Saturday farmer's market, and they solved part of the shopping dilemma with frequent trips west on I-10 to the towns around Lafayette, where their 16-year-old daughter Gabrielle is temporarily attending school. Greg knows the territory well. His father grew up nearby in Scott, and Greg's childhood Thanksgivings in Cajun country would draw 70 relatives and friends. "You're talking the longest table I've ever seen," he says.
Spicer's seafood vendors have again started bringing her top-notch crab and oysters. "The production is still limited but definitely available sooner than we expected, happily," she says. "The influx of salt water seems to have flushed everything out."
Traditions mean a lot in the Crescent City. For one of her two turkeys, Mary Sonnier will invoke her mother's tried-and-true method of covering the bird with a brown paper bag drenched in olive oil, then slow-roasting it at 200 degrees. She'll smoke the other. Greg will roast his brother's sweet potato recipe. "The culinary community feels a real sense of obligation to reestablish the culture that's made the city what it is for so many years," says Bayona chef Susan Spicer.
Though tempted to bag one of the wild turkeys she sees along the Natchez Trace, Spicer will opt for her traditional menu of suckling pig and brined turkey with an herbed bread stuffing made with shrimp, andouille and cornbread, and satsuma gravy. Green gumbo and the Bayona house special, cream of garlic soup, will be on offer. "If we're real lucky, we'll get nice enough weather to sit out in the courtyard, too," Spicer says. Nothing, she insists could beat "eating your turkey and stuffing under the banana trees."
I have provided some links to help you spice up this year's Thanksgiving. Here are some cheifs favorite Thanksgiving recipes
along with 9 tips for a great Thanksgiving
. I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving.