Oral History: Poppy Tooker, Slow Food New Orleans founder, Louisiana Eats host, Cookbook author.

There is a great oral history of Poppy’s food activism courtesy of ©Southern Foodways Alliance and interviewer/writer Rien Fertel, found at | www.southernfoodways.org.


On the Slow Food New Orleans chapter she founded and how she rallied the SF USA chapters to help local food producers in and after 2005:

Poppy Tooker: Oh, yeah! Oh it not only went through Katrina, Slow Food helped save the food producers of the city.

Rien Fertel: Can you give a short history of that, or how that—?

Poppy Tooker: Of course. By that time I was very involved, because when Slow Food started that’s how I met Richard McCarthy and became involved with the Crescent City Farmers Market because that’s part of the mission of Slow Food is to support our food producers. And so I don’t even think I was—maybe I was on the Board then. I don’t know. I just know that I was like Richard’s sort of right-hand girl, me and Darlene Wolnik, and when Katrina happened they both left the city and were living outside the city. Darlene was in Cleveland or Cincinnati and Richard was in Houston.

And so I was the one who was back here immediately and—

Rien Fertel: How long were you away after the 29th of August?


Poppy Tooker: I was living back in the city again by October 1st. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina I was here. So I began to reach out to the food producers from the Market to find out their needs and what their condition was. And before I got back, like September—the letter’s actually printed as it was on my computer in the Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, the letter from Kay Brandhurst describing what had happened to she and Ray.

And I was in Baton Rouge at my sister-in-law’s house and I started getting emails from my Slow Food friends all across the country asking how they could help. Well, I couldn’t tell anybody how they could help. But what I did was I just flipped Kay’s email to them and said you tell me how you can help this. And I don’t know what to say.


Rien Fertel: And she was the shrimp lady right?

Poppy Tooker: The shrimp lady.

Rien Fertel: Known as the shrimp lady.

Poppy Tooker: Yeah, I mean she even—

Rien Fertel: At the Farmers’ Market.


Poppy Tooker: —signed it aka the Shrimp Lady. “We will be back,” she said. I mean the boat was sunk, Ray was trying to get the boat lifted, she and the kids are living first in Shreveport and then in a one-bedroom apartment out in Metairie with four children. I mean it was just terrible times. And so what ended up happening was we created a fund that was called Terra Madre Fund that was committed to getting the money that people raised quickly into the hand of the food producers who could get back into business again. And so a lot of that money went to Crescent City Farmers Market people, but there were also really genius things that we did with the money that makes me so happy to this day.

Of course some of that money went to finance the promotion and getting Leah Chase’s first fund-raiser to get the restaurant reopened, and that was on Holy Thursday in 2006 at Muriel’s Restaurant. And across the country people couldn’t believe somebody would give another restaurateur their restaurant, but that’s what we do here in New Orleans. The other part of the money probably the one I love the most is I did not know the Brocatos at the time of the hurricane, personally. But I knew Dana Logsdon and her mother Mary from the Market. And they had La Spiga Bakery down in the Marigny, which was fine, but their houses had flooded. They were in Baton Rouge; they were only running the bakery part-time. The Brocato’s flooded, everything; they were wiped out.

Rien Fertel: Were wiped out.


Poppy Tooker: They’re in Houston and they’re thinking about not coming back. They were actively thinking of opening a Brocato’s in Houston. And Dana got in touch with me and she said we cannot let this happen. And so we tracked down the Brocatos they next time they came to New Orleans. We sat down and met with them—this was probably January of 2006—and we worked out a deal so that when Dana couldn’t be at La Spiga having it open, the Brocatos had use of their bakery, and that was how on St. Joseph’s Day in 2006 the Brocatos cookies were back on the shelf, because they were at La Spiga. And the wonderful thing was that that meant that Slow Food money, that dollar, helped two businesses, because the Brocatos paid rent that was paid by Slow Food to Dana and her mother, so it got the Brocatos back in business and it kept La Spiga in business.

Rien Fertel: Wow. And helped Leah Chase also.


Poppy Tooker: And helped Leah Chase, and helped Ray and Kay get the boat lifted, and helped, oh my goodness, the citrus people, the L’Hostes. I ran their whole Christmas in—at Christmas 2005, they had oranges, they had citrus, but they had no way to sell them except the Market and so Slow Food people across the United States, for $25, bought a box of citrus that got shipped and made it in time for Christmas, and the L’Hostes had no way of taking payment except a check in the mail. And the mailman didn’t come on a regular basis in those days.

And to me that was a further illustration of how good those Slow Food people were because Linda L’Hoste shipped every one of those boxes on the promise that the checks were in the mail and she got every single check.


Rien Fertel: Wow. So—


Poppy Tooker: And every order went through me on my computer. I almost lost my mind. I would print them out and bring them to her at the Market. I took all the orders. That was an insane thing.

Rien Fertel: Was this—


Poppy Tooker: Slow Food USA advertised it and that’s how they got the word out. And then all the Slow Food members across the United States.


On tradition:

Poppy Tooker: Yeah, totally, because that’s my whole bent. I write about—it’s all about food history. It’s all about the food tradition. It’s all about what makes us who and what we are here.


Her recent activism connected with food:


Poppy Tooker:  I have been doing—well, really the charitable organization that I’ve worked the most for in recent times is the NO/AIDS Task Force, which has become CrescentCare. And just on a lark we’ve started doing these drag queen brunches that benefit CrescentCare, and they have just gotten such an incredible response and I just think that that book will be a hoot. And so if I manage to pull that off there will be a charitable tie-in to that, and then maybe I’ll be ready for the memoir.


On her famous “Eat It To Save It” slogan:

Rien Fertel: What did your grandmother mean by—

Poppy Tooker: My great-grandmother?

Rien Fertel: —your great-grandmother mean by eat it to save it?


Poppy Tooker: She meant clean your plate.

Rien Fertel: That just meant clean your plate?


Poppy Tooker: It just meant finish eating. Finish what you’re eating. Don’t make me throw it away. So save it: eat it to save it. And so it has now come to mean something vastly different.

On women in food:

Rien Fertel: Okay. This is my second to last question: a lot of your relationships in the food world have been with important women. We’re talking about Leah Chase, we’re talking about—

Poppy Tooker: Susan Spicer.

Rien Fertel: Susan Spicer.

Poppy Tooker: Lee Barnes.


Rien Fertel: Lee Barnes. Do you see New Orleans as particular having an important community of women in the restaurant world? Is there a reason for that? Am I just making that up?

Rien Fertel: We’re in a moment now where things are changing politically, socially, in restaurant kitchens.

Poppy Tooker: Yeah, we did that show, too.

Rien Fertel: So—

Poppy Tooker: We did that show, too, [Laughs] the sexual abuse show.

Rien Fertel: Yeah. So what is there—

Poppy Tooker: I think it’s just a— this is just something that, thank God, has naturally happened. You’ve got people like Kristen Essig, Danielle Sutton—help me with this—Allison Vines-Rushing, even though she’s mostly cooking for her babies—


Rien Fertel: Yeah, but I want to talk about personally, because you even talk about your—you have a very deep and personal relationship with a ghost, with a woman, right, Elizabeth Kettering, Madame Begué.

Poppy Tooker: Oh well, so yes, yes, the ghost of Madame Begué. I took cooking classes from her—because I revised all the recipes that she did and so I felt like I took cooking classes from the 19th century ghost. But then you have to remember I also have a very close relationship with the cross-dressing ghost from Tujague’s, the cross-dressing ghost who was a fan of Madame Begué’s, and he’s very happy to be back from the dead and better than ever. So the drag queen thing is just chasing me, see?


Rien Fertel: I think you have to write the book.

Poppy Tooker: Uh-hmm.

Rien Fertel: All right I have—


Poppy Tooker: So did I answer that? I just think it’s about time and it’s way too late. It’s ridiculous, it’s absolutely absurd that we’re talking about a time forty years ago, when I had a hard time getting a job in a restaurant kitchen because I was a white woman. So great, forty years later, and I’m having a really hard time coming up with all the women chefs—really, all the women chefs. It’s still a good old boys club. Okay, great, Rebecca Wilcomb won best chef of the South; way to go, girl. Who am I not thinking of? Well, of course Kelly Fields is nominated twice, but it’s about damn time, huh? But look at it; it’s still not—no.

Author: DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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