- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — I’ll never be asked to help prepare Crabmeat Maison at Galatoire’s, or Turtle Soup au Sherry and Onion-Crusted Gulf Snapper at Commander’s Palace, examples of the cuisine that made New Orleans famous. But I can say I’ve cooked in the Big Easy.

On some days we cooked 15,000 meals. That’s a lot of ravioli, spaghetti, carrots, potatoes and chicken.

I joined the armies after the storm, dispatched to New Orleans by hundreds of churches of many denominations from across the nation to help the thousands of men and women called from every state to search, rescue and start the grim and arduous task of rebuilding a crushed and abandoned city — and for the residents now drifting back home.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have always been special to me. As a little girl, I spent summers here, with my extended family of Greek cousins who operated several popular restaurants in New Orleans during the World War II years — the Claiborne Oyster House, George’s and the Theater Grill just off Canal Street opposite the Roosevelt Hotel, and the cafeterias at the Andrew Higgins plant on City Park Avenue, feeding the men who built the landing boats of Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

All those restaurants are history now, but I felt friendly ghosts calling to me when our church, the First Baptist Church of Geyer Springs, Ark., a suburb of Little Rock, was asked to join other Southern Baptist churches of Arkansas — and elsewhere — in sending helping hands to the Gulf Coast.

Long days that stretched into the night — we were up at 4 a.m. and finished by late afternoon — exhausted us all, but we never felt we were doing anything heroic, or even necessarily deserving of anyone’s thanks. We were only living our faith.

To keep memories fresh, I kept a journal.

The four women from my church and a female security guard were assigned to sleep at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, a suburb in Jefferson Parish. We bunked down in the women’s changing room off the baptistry — a small pool where converts are baptized by full immersion — and the men and women in charge, wearing blue caps, gave us our work assignments. The Yellow Caps did the actual cooking.

As an apprentice, I was first a Beige Cap, assigned to arrange pieces of chicken on the baking sheets. We were cooking for 5,000 for lunch, and each meal included two pieces of chicken. That finished, I was switched to the rice cookers, to deal with the vegetables. I learned that there’s a right way and a wrong way to stir a pot of green beans when you’re cooking 100 servings at a time. As each pot reached 180 degrees, we called for the men, “dumpers” who lifted the pot and poured the contents into a container called a Cambro.

The Red Cross trucks arrive just as the cooking is done, to be loaded into trucks called ERVs. We could relax a bit and watch, but only a bit. Soon it was time to start the evening meal (always called supper in the South). This was usually spaghetti or ravioli. This went into the rice cookers, too, and I soon learned cooking in this volume meant a lot of stirring. I used a stirrer as big as a boat paddle.

One day, we finished the supper meal early, and the Red Cross driver invited me to accompany him to deliver meals in one of the most heavily damaged areas. The streets were piled high with debris and refrigerators. Refrigerators were everywhere.

Just ahead of us was a bus full of young men, mostly Mexicans who had come into New Orleans to help with the cleanup. When they saw our van, they poured out of their bus, through both front and rear door, and ran up with pleas for food. They had not eaten all day. They had not been paid that day, and there were no restaurants open if they had been.

We told them to form a line, and I was assigned to hand out the Styrofoam “clamshells” containing the meal. I asked whether they wanted one or two; most asked, shyly, for two. I had to fight back my tears; I had never seen people crying for food and water. Most did not speak English, but a smile is a smile in any language.

On another day, the Red Cross trucks arrived at our kitchen, honking their horns. The Blue Caps called us together. A cheerleader, complete with pompoms, led a cheer for us. They told us it was Baptist Appreciation Day. More tears. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything special.

After cleaning up for the day, several of us drove into New Orleans to see the infamous 17th Street Levee. Broken houses, broken lives. One sight particularly broke my heart. A small church building stood abandoned, with the high-water mark clearly visible above the doors and windows. Nothing was saved. We were told the church would not be rebuilt. Most of the congregation had fled New Orleans, and few would be back.

On my last day, we went again into New Orleans. I wanted to find the house of my cousin Val, who had fled for refuge in Baton Rouge. Her house is just off Canal Boulevard in Lakeview, near Lake Pontchartrain. The water line was 15 feet above her front steps. Her new car stood in the driveway, a waterlogged wreck. We drove away at dusk through the abandoned streets. All was dark, silent, and shrouded in mystery and woe.

The next day, I returned to Little Rock. On the drive home, I thought about the people we met and what they had said to us. They thought we did something special, but I don’t think so. What did I give up? My living arrangements were better than when I go camping, and we call camping fun. I had three hot meals every day, more than most people are still getting in New Orleans, which is no longer so big, and no longer easy.

What did I give up? A week of stale television. A week of idle shopping, a week of meaningless accomplishment. I made no sacrifices. And I must go back.

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