"I don't cook with a recipe, I cook with talent," he tells writer/photographer Elsa Hahne in her book You Are Where You Eat (University Press of Mississippi). "I just know how I want it to taste. I got it in my head some kind of way."
Cousin, a retired contractor, is one of 33 people who share their stories about cooking in New Orleans as well as some of their recipes in the series of oral histories that comprise Hahne's beautifully crafted book. Through them, Hahne illuminates the unusually strong cultural connection New Orleans people have with their food, and does so while deliberately avoiding the chefs, restaurateurs and other spokespeople typically tapped to represent and explain the city's polyglot food culture.
Instead, she interviewed a diverse collection of home cooks and let them do the talking. This approach, and Hahne's graceful editing of lengthy interviews into concise, intimate profiles, puts readers around each subject's kitchen table, outdoor grill or even beside them in the grocery store aisle as they shop.
A native of Sweden, Hahne has worked as a journalist in Europe and New York. She first came to New Orleans as a tourist in 2002, met the man she would soon marry in a barroom and has called the city home ever since. She was fascinated by the many ethnicities that make up New Orleans culture and discovered food could be an entry point to explore them. For three years, she tracked down home cooks who could help her tell a story of New Orleans food by telling their own stories, photographed them at home and turned it all into her first book.
Hahne describes what food says about people: "Food is not an isolated thing. It's who we are, who we've met and talked to, where we live and work, it's not just stuff to eat on a plate. It's part of our lives, and it's much more encompassing than it might look like at first glance. So talking with these people about food, it was talking about them, their lives. Food was the vehicle to talk about their lives, and the essence of what it means to live here."
Hahne's subjects come from different walks of New Orleans life. Some are recent immigrants from Central America and Eastern Europe. Some can still pull out heirloom cookbooks handwritten in the 19th century. Some share how housekeepers and maids of yesterday and today had their hand in family recipes, while from others, readers can learn how to behead, shell and bleed a snapping turtle or make a banana sandwich on the run.
With 85 recipes included, this can certainly be used as a cookbook, but the anecdotes, the candid photos of cooks in their homes and most of all the inside perspective on the traditions, evolutions and improvisations of food running through New Orleans families and neighborhoods make it much more.
'Food is a good thing to focus on doing well since it's something that happens every day," says Karen Clark, a Gentilly resident who contributes her traditional Greek recipes to the book. "It won't be perfect, life's never perfect. But at the end of the day, you sit down with a meal. Here's heritage, history being passed on in a very organic way, a common way, it's not in the history book, yet it's a part of the whole chain of history and life."
With You Are Where You Eat, Hahne gives us a better grasp on that chain and a unique, accessible and heartwarming portrait of a city's food life.