Poppy Tooker's Mission: Rebuilding the Food System

New Orleans-based Poppy Tooker opened Seattle's 2010 Farmer-Fisher-Chef-Connection with a compelling and thought-provoking keynote.

Take a trip to New Orleans and you will quickly learn, the citizens of that great city have a shared identity, bound together through food. Legendary New Orleans dishes like jambalaya, red beans and rice, beignets, and Creole cream cheese, have had a tremendous cultural impact, and resonate with the flavors of “home.”

But in a post-hurricane Katrina world, the citizens of New Orleans are asking themselves some tough questions. While the nightly news coverage featured devastating images from hurricane Katrina, when the camera crews packed up and went home, what remained was an equally compelling story about basic survival: How do you save the food system?

In the days following hurricane Katrina, Poppy began to assess the damage. Taking up residence at her sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, Poppy was the sole remaining person from New Orleans’ Crescent City Farmer’s Market still in Louisiana. The mandatory evacuations had scattered residents across the country, and basic communication--phone service, internet and even mail was disrupted for months. (Some residents were without phone service until February 2006, six months after the hurricane hit shore.)

From her southern outpost, Poppy sleuthed together the puzzle: What happened to the farmer’s market vendors?

Assessing the damage, she embarked on a mission to determine the impact on the vendors: What was their current situation? Their loss? And did they have anything left to sell?

An e-mail from a shrimp fisherman, dated September 15, 2005 painted a grim picture:

Hi y’all.

Things could definitely be better. We have lost everything. The boat
has sunk. We are at the hands of scalpers to rent a barge, a crane, a cherry
picker, and $5/gallon gasoline.

We’ve just about exhausted our savings. I just received my $2,000 from FEMA, and $1,500 is going to the crane operator.

Well, there are some good Samaritans. Ray has nowhere to stay, and the Vietnamese fishermen have taken him in on their boat. They’re helping him, for free. There is a silver lining for everything.

Our home still has 3-4 feet of sludge sitting in it. The only good thing is, I still have some insurance. However, if they bull doze the house like the parish official said in Baton Rouge yesterday, it won’t be enough to cover the mortgage and rebuild. I guess we should have revamped our insurance when real estate soared. Oh well. At this point I can only push forward and I do have beautiful memories of my parents, grandparents, and children.

There is nothing left to our business but a fish cutting room and the cooking rig. I’m sure the Lord is trying somehow to guide me, but I just need to find the path. It will be hard to rebuild the business and the boat, when neither one had any insurance.

I’m wondering how I could possibly get work? Maybe cooking for the workers who are rebuilding everything? I’ve never been afraid of work. I’m willing to do anything to save my family and my husband’s heritage.

I hope that maybe any one of you could shed some light on this grim, grim subject.

Thank you for thinking of me. Words of hope from good friends are
worth their weight in gold. Our home is in Shreveport until my nephew kicks me

I know you’ve all faced tragedy from Katrina and I wish you all the
best in the rebuilding process.

Kay, a.k.a The Shrimp Girl – this girl will be back!

They quickly learned, desperate times call for basic solutions.

Eventually, Poppy identified the few farmers who had crops left, and cobbled together a 19th century distribution system. Farmers took turns driving produce to a cooking school where there was a working walk-in cooler. The first chefs to return to New Orleans after the hurricane—like John Besh—bought whatever the farmers could supply. An envelope with cash would be left for the farmer, and retrieved on his next trip into town.

As you can tell, Poppy Tooker is a woman who gets things done. In 1999, she founded the New Orleans chapter of Slow Food and is Vice President of the Crescent City Farmers Market. Raised in a food culture with deep traditions, her quest is in preserving both foods and traditions quintessential to their culture.

Through Slow Food’s Arc of Taste and her own “Eat it to Save It” mission, Poppy focuses on regional foods that are often crowded out of the marketplace. Ever heard of Creole cream cheese? A throwback to her childhood, Creole cream cheese was delivered weekly by the milk man. As Poppy puts it, nostalgically, “It was like solid mama’s milk.”

When the local dairies folded, the larger, industrial corporations supplied their dairy from out of state. They didn’t understand this local product. Without a supplier, Creole cream cheese was nearly driven to extinction.

At a Slow Food meeting, Poppy posed the question, “What local food needs to be saved?” The response was unanimous.

Enter the Creole cream cheese revival.

Next question: “How do you save something?” If you can’t buy it, teach people how to make it themselves.

A demonstration at the Crescent City Farmers Market began the Creole cream cheese crusade. Within weeks, dozens of people were making it at home. Add some news coverage and few well-placed articles and eventually, and an artisan Creole cream cheese market was launched. The first product available at the farmers market drew over 200 people. That day, 500 units of Creole cream cheese were completely sold out by 10 AM. “This created a craze like you cannot believe!”

As Poppy tells it, “Today, Creole cream cheese is commonplace again in New Orleans.”

Weaving together survival stories from hurricane Katrina and the urgent need to preserve our food culture, Poppy is quick to note, “Preserving our food traditions, lies not only in an awareness, but a market demand for culturally-rich foods.” Here in the Pacific Northwest, we too have a thriving local food tradition—Olympia Oysters, Shuksan strawberries, etc. Without market demand, these indiginous regional foods could be pushed to extinction.

Poppy’s mission reminds us that food—local food—is an important cultural link. And behind her message is bold-faced call to action: to preserve local food traditions, you must “Eat it to Save It.”

The challenge we are left with is great.

Under the presence of a catastrophic event, like hurricane Katrina, what three things would you preserve? Fundamental to our local way of life, what seeds would you save? Build an ark. What native animals would you include? Consider that during hurricane Katrina, thousands of people lost their entire recipe collection. The displaced citizens of New Orleans, attempting to recreate local dishes were without recipes to guide them back to the flavors of home. In an evacuation situation, what recipes would you bring?

This is your food heritage.

What would you preserve?