Keeping Creole Cuisine Alive

New Orleans is widely known for its delicious Creole cooking. It's a blend of Spanish and French food, sprinkled with a Caribbean influence.

A unique school project is trying to keep the Crescent City's cooking style alive.

The Early Show correspondent Melinda Murphy explains in a "Study Hall" segment that it was an oral history project that started last spring, months before Hurricane Katrina hit. The project involved four schools in the city.

In the process, Murphy observes, one student learned how important Creole is to his own family, bringing with it a culture Murphy calls "as rich and murky as a pot of gumbo."

When Jerry Reese first heard he had to do a project on Creole food, he decided to interview his grandmother, Ruth Byers.

"He questioned everything I did with the cooking," Byers told Murphy. "He wanted to know all about it, where it came from. And he was very inquisitive. So, I told him all I knew!"

"I asked her about her mother," Reese says, "and her husband's mother. And not only about the food, but you know, where they used to live, what were they interested in?"

Turns out, Creole cooking is a family tradition, which was borne out by Reese's great-grandmother, Camille Cotton, who's about to turn 100.

She says she learned to cook "from my Momma," who in turn learned from her Momma. So, cooking Creole-style has been in the family for generations.

Tracing the roots of Creole was the whole idea behind the project, Murphy points out.

Besides interviewing relatives, students spoke with folks at a local market, and sampled Creole at some of New Orleans finest restaurants.

The students' work was part of a larger project for the Historic New Orleans Collection, the brainchild of Sue Laudeman, a curator of the museum.

"There's hardly any subject that … doesn't have a connection of food in New Orleans," she remarked. "It's always on people's minds. So I thought, if we ever lost this, it'd be a pretty boring city!"

They almost did lose it. Creole's future was changed forever, as was Reese's, when Katrina roared ashore.

Reese lived in the shadows of one of the levees that was breached.

"My uncle's house was damaged," he says. "My grandmother's house was damaged. My house got about eight feet of water in it."

Reese's family was ripped apart and with it, his Creole tradition.

He moved to Atlanta with his mother and brother, Ryan, along with his aunt and three cousins, while everybody else stayed in the New Orleans area.

Creole suppers have now become a tale of one family in two cities, Murphy says.

The smell of Creole food makes Reese think of home, he says.

But home isn't the same, and neither is home-cooking, Murphy notes.

"We can longer get our good meat," Byers, Reese' grandmother, says. "And then there was a little seafood place around the corner. They're no longer there. So, it really hurt our family and the way we eat."

And so what started out as a homework assignment has become much more to Reese's family.

"It was like a piece of history," Reese's mother, Paula Byers-Reese, said of the home video Reese took for the project. "And really, all of our pictures are gone. And we were able to get a copy of that videotape and it's part of our family now."

But perhaps, Murphy says, it means most of all to the city of New Orleans.

"If we could do this before Katrina," Reese says, "then, after Katrina, that's the perfect time, you know, to show the world, you know, we're not stopping. We're still gonna do this no matter, you now, nothing's gonna slow us down."

The project was funded by a grant from The History Channel as part of its "Save Our History" program. A spokesperson for The History Channel describes the program as "a national history education and preservation initiative that raises awareness and support for preserving local heritage" and says, "Educators can apply online for grants at the Save Our History Web site."

Amazingly, most of the research compiled by the students survived, and is still being reviewed.

The initial results, Murphy reports, show that Creole culture and Creole cooking may very well have been on the decline even before Katrina so now, with so many families split up, it may be in even more danger.

Recipe for "Grandma Ruth's Jambalaya"

1 stick of butter (1/4 lb)
1/2 small onion
1/4 bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
1/2 stalk celery
1 stalk green onion
4 cups rice
1 can of tomato sauce (w/Italian Herbs)
1/2 can of Rotel tomatoes w/green chilies
1 1/2 lbs. Shrimp
1 cup of raw ham
1 package of smoked sausage

Cook rice in rice cooker. In heavy pot sauté all seasonings (green onion, bell pepper, garlic, onion, celery) in butter on low flame/heat. Add tomato sauce and rotel and cook. Steam sausage and ham. Cool and cut sausage into small cylinders and dice ham. Add sausage, ham and shrimp to pot. Sauté three minutes. Add rice and mix everything together.