OffBeat Magazine's art editor collects her conversations in musicians' kitchens in a new book.
"When I started working at OffBeat, my first book had just come out, You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans," Elsa Hahne says over bagels and coffee at Stein's. You Are Where You Eat took Hahne into the kitchens of average New Orleanians - if such things exist - and let them talk about their history with food, cooking, and New Orleans' culinary culture. These conversations were edited into monologues in the voices of her subjects and ended with one of their signature recipes.
"It became an obvious transition to transfer the same idea to musicians," she says. The series started when Irma Thomas made macaroni and cheese for the September 2008 issue and has continued monthly since then (this month with Jean "Mr. Big Stuff" Knight), and Hahne recently collected the pieces into The Gravy: In the Kitchen with New Orleans Musicians. She'll sign copies book and talk about it Thursday night at Octavia Books.
Hahne is OffBeat's art director, and last year she left the privacy of people's kitchens to start holding the conversations in public with an audience in the French Market - the next one will be March 15 with drummer and Green Goddess owner, Chef Paul Artigues. In her conversations for both books, she realized that at a fundamental level, New Orleanians understand food and how to get good dinners out of it. "Musicians are no exception to this because unlike in other places, musicians are human beings," she says, laughing. "Regular people trying to make a living." That might mean living on beans and affordable foods, but they know how to do them right.
Hahne knew it would last for at least a couple of years because she started with a list of 20 or so musicians that cooked, but once the series began, she learned of more and more musicians who cooked. Soon the list of musical cooks grew to include such talents as John Boutte, Susan Cowsill, Eric and Ryan Rogers, Mystikal, Monk Boudreaux, 10th Ward Buck, and Theresa Andersson, and it continues to grow.
Many of the musicians have surprised her, including guitarist Brint Anderson, who had been to cooking school and had an academic culinary background. "I was really surprised by Big Al Carson," Hahne says. "I was expecting a version of the Elvis Presley sandwich, but his recipe is extremely healthy and extremely light. Even Lars [Edegran] surprised me. He cooks so many different kinds of Indian food, and he is distinct about it."
Her experience on The Gravy helped her see the role food can play in musicians' careers. Martin Krusche of The Magnetic Ear cooked as a way of getting his band to come to practice, and a value-add for those who came to see the band when it had a residency at The AllWays Lounge. "James Westfall did the same thing when they would roll up with the barbecue truck outside the Blue Nile and were dishing out free food and basically telling people to buy a ticket and go in," she says. Food became an additional point of contact and a way to bolster the feeling of connection fans have with the artists.
Her subjects generally cooked a dish while talking to Hahne, which made it easier for her to note the occasional difference between the recipes and the food that was actually cooked. "They're not lying to you," she says. "They think that they do X, but in practice, they actually do something else. I put a spoon of this in. You don't know if it's a teaspoon or a ladle until you see them do it. Very often they give you the measurements of what they start off with, but they forget to tell you that two hours later they add the same amount of spices once again." Because of that, she had to test drive all the recipes and make sure that they worked and resulted in the intended dish. In some cases, getting the subjects to agree to her suggested revisions after her test efforts wasn't easy.
"I suggested two things to Mystikal," Hahne says. When he made pancakes, she noticed that he skipped salt. Salt enhances the flavor and helps pancakes rise, but when she asked him about that during their interview session, he said, "Salt? Hell no! Get out of my kitchen. Scram! No, we’re going sweet. Who wants salty pancakes? Just the thought." As a result, the recipe in The Gravy doesn't call for salt. "Baking soda or baking powder had to be there," she says. "That one you can't do without." She also had to keep working with 10th Ward Buck on the amount of cayenne pepper in his Mardi Gras wings sauce. He was accustomed to making it in restaurant-sized batches, and the math got away from him as he tried to scale down to family dinner proportions. "It had so much cayenne in it that you couldn't get close to it. It wasn't that it was hot so much as that it was gritty."
One thing writing The Gravy confirmed for Hahne is the idiosyncratic nature of creativity. She'd also thought that music creation was a mystery, perhaps one connected to a large source of knowledge that others could tap into even though she couldn't. "I learned that there is no big vat," she says. "Everybody had their own little container, and it can be entirely different from one person to the next." She remembers her visit with funk guitarist Renard Poché, who meticulously crafted a citrus cocktail. "He tweaked and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked his citrus cocktail, and that's kind of how he approaches his music. He tries it out, tastes it, feels it, decides the balance is not quite right. For good reason, the guy can play, like, 25 instruments. He wants to get it exactly right."
On the other hand, she was in the kitchen with musicians who cooked very much by feel, and their music was often similarly about the experience. "The emphasis isn't on trying to create the perfect X, Y or Z; it's on making people happy, being in the moment, having fun with it. People's cooking is extremely revealing of who they are as people, and also of their creative process."
Note: I was Elsa's editor at OffBeat for much of the period covered in the book.
Elsa Hahne will be at Octavia Books Thursday night at 6 p.m. to talk about and sign copies of The Gravy: In the Kitchen with New Orleans Musicians.