Micki Bronston may have left New Orleans, but the city has never left her. It still has her heart locked in a box.
New Orleans is hard to let go, and Bronston and her compatriots cling to its joie de vivre spirit through family recipes and traditions. They’re the things that remained intact even after Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in history, pummeled the city and flooded homes.
By the time Bronston could return, her home in Lakewood South was destroyed by mold and muck. Among the items she managed to salvage was a tin box. The box had belonged to her grandmother. It contained 150 family recipes, some hand-written, but most, thankfully, were typed. One by one, Bronston hung the cards on a clothesline on the balcony of her Houston apartment.
“It did the trick. The cards that my grandmother had typed were as clear as day,” says the 44-year-old public relations consultant. “There are about five or so of her recipes, most of them desserts, that I make often to remind us of New Orleans. That’s what keeps it alive in our hearts.”
Bronston was among the thousands who fled the largest city in Louisiana during Katrina in late August and September of 2005. Many friends and family members have drifted back to the Big Easy. But Bronston and husband Ben decided to remain in Houston and build a new life for their two teenage daughters. “It was the hardest decision we’ve ever made,” Bronston says.
It’s hard to leave behind a city, they say, that stirs people to dance during a jazz funeral. What a place, that rattles with high spirits, not to mention ghosts and vampires. What a testament, to inspire writers and others to live fully and eat plenty, especially in February during Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is when the Big Easy sparks the minds and hearts of Katrina evacuees such as Tom Sternberg, who still yearns to be amid the toe-tapping revelry in the French Quarter.
Instead, the corporate-housing expert immerses himself in the sounds of his hometown every Sunday in his Houston home by tuning into WTUL, a Tulane University radio station on the Internet. His wife, Cindy, stocks their pantry with olive salad and stuffed artichokes she buys on infrequent trips to New Orleans.
Former New Orleanians find it impossible to not wax nostalgic about their rich culinary heritage. But what retired Shell Oil geologist Mark Juedeman misses about New Orleans is its sense of community. “It was difficult to go to the store and not run into somebody you knew. Houston is so large; it’s rare to bump into people you know.”
So recently, to promote that sense of community, he helped start Transition Houston (www.transitionhouston.wordpress.com), which encourages a low-carbon lifestyle by connecting with neighbors. The group hosts frequent potlucks and discussions on topics ranging from changing weather climates to supporting local farmers.
New Orleans native Terri Havens still decorates her Christmas tree in black and gold colors in honor of her New Orleans Saints. And the holidays always culminate with a réveillon dinner, which is still observed in New Orleans because of its French heritage, says Havens, who resides in Houston and owns the five-star Cal-A-Vie Spa in California. “Réveillon” means “awakening” and commences after Christmas Eve midnight Mass and can last until dawn.
But perhaps the most buoyant time for Havens rolls around after the 12th day of Christmas, or Epiphany, Jan. 6.
This is when king-cake season commences, and parties are thrown in New Orleans daily until Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent in the Catholic Church. The parties require a ring-shaped king cake baked with a plastic baby charm inside. Whoever gets the charm receives luck and has to buy the cake next time.
Every year since Katrina, Havens has kept this tradition alive by bringing a king cake to her three children’s school classes at St. John’s School and The Fay School. “But I go a step further,” she says. “I play Mardi Gras music, and I bring king and queen costumes. I have the kids line up to pick a king and queen. Afterward, the kids bow to the king and queen before they put on a parade and throw beads and doubloons. I’ll make the kids yell, ‘Throw me something, mister!’ I make sure they have fun and everybody gets stuffed animals.”
For New Orleanians, life is about family, food and letting the good times roll, whether in New Orleans or Houston.
Grandma Sadie’s Shortbread Cinnamon Cookies
Recipe courtesy of Mick Bronson
½ pound of butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg, separated
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour, lightly scooped into a measuring cup with a spoon
4 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
4 Tbsp. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolk, cinnamon and flour; mix well. Transfer mixture into a 9-by-13 pan and place a sheet of plastic wrap on top of the dough. Using fingers, gently press on the plastic wrap to spread the dough evenly in the pan. Remove plastic and brush dough with lightly beaten egg white; set aside. Prepare topping by combining sugar, cinnamon and pecans in a bowl. Sprinkle topping on top of dough. Bake for 30 minutes. While mixture is still warm, cut into 2-inch squares. Allow the cookies to cool completely before removing from pan. Makes about two dozen.