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Eating Between the Lines

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, LA – Good cookbooks typically provide alluring food photography, plus tidbits of information that reveal some insight about a recipe.

But in a new cookbook from local photographer and journalist Elsa Hahne, the most memorable pictures are of home cooks themselves, and the back stories the book shares reveal more about these people as New Orleanians than they do about the featured dish. This unique book is called "You Are Where You Eat," and in a moment I'll tell you why I consider it a peek into the secret lives of New Orleans eaters.

But first, there's another new cookbook getting attention around town, one that seems aimed squarely at people who want to cook more fresh, healthy, locally-produced foods but sometimes need a little help getting started.

It's the Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, and as the name implies its recipes revolve around the seasonal offerings sold at the city's weekly markets. The book was written by Poppy Tooker, a food educator and advocate for the New Orleans culinary way of life. She is a regular at the Crescent City Farmers Markets, of course, and she has compiled a trove of both recipes and stories from the farmers and fishermen who sell their goods there, as well as from their loyal customers.

In one sense, she has created a useful, conventional cookbook to keep near the kitchen. But where the book really stands out for locals is as a field guide to the farmers markets themselves. Those beautiful vegetables gleaming on farmers' tables, those fruits glistening in the baskets, the fresh seafood, the beef and pork from local producers - all of it finds inviting, accessible recipes in Tooker's collection -- even cucuzza, that curious Italian squash now coming into season. Equipped with such a good, local reference tool, you can always haul something new and interesting back home from the market and have a time-tested recipe ready to prepare it.

Cooking traditions and home-spun kitchen innovations are at the heart of Elsa Hahne's book "You Are Where You Eat."

She began the project by asking locals to talk about food, how they prepare a favorite dish and what it means to them. She deliberately avoided the chefs and other spokespeople usually tapped to represent the city's food culture, and instead selected a truly diverse collection of home cooks. The result are intimate oral histories that put readers around each subject's kitchen table, outdoor grill or even beside them in the grocery aisle as they shop.

The book is packed with entertaining glimpses into the quirky world of New Orleans eaters, like the Metairie man who adds dried shrimp to his oatmeal, the Uptown housewife who keeps vats of bacon grease expressly for cooking okra and tomatoes, or the Gentilly physician who quizzes patients for info about fig trees with ripe fruit to use in his favorite duck recipe.

"You Are Where You Eat" can certainly be used as a cookbook, but its inside perspective on the food traditions and improvisations running through New Orleans make it so much more.

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