Poppy Tooker is a native New Orleanian and culinary activist. Her motto is “Eat It To Save It,” which she has used to revive endangered foods across the U.S. and abroad through her collaboration with Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. She is the host and producer of Louisiana Eats!, a local radio station’s weekly program for people who cook and people who love to eat. If you’re in the area, her show airs on WWNO 89.9 FM on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. She was recognized by the Times Picayune as a “Hero of the Storm” for her work reviving New Orleans restaurants and food providers following Hurricane Katrina. Poppy also wrote the Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, which tells the story of New Orleans’ market history, and discusses the importance of today’s local markets. She attended California Institute of the Arts and received her master chef’s and cooking teacher’s diploma under the legendary Madeleine Kamman.
Suzannah Schneider: What was your dining hall go-to?
Poppy Tooker: Well, my favorite food at the dining hall was what I cooked! I went to California Institute of the Arts and ran the dorm restaurant when I was 18, called Mom’s Cafe. I cooked for 60 people every night. I would whip up Louisiana favorites, like red beans and rice, jambalaya, or stuffed bell peppers – but in a different LA! It was shocking for the students, but they ate it up.
SS: What’s your biggest early cooking disaster?
PT: When I was probably 12 or 13, I tried to make a lemon pound cake that used to be very popular. The recipe called for cooking oil, and I had no idea that my mother kept used oil for re-frying things. So, on a mother’s day, I used some oil that fish had been fried in! I’ll never forget how my grandmother continued to eat it even though I begged her to stop. She said, “Oh Poppy, it’s fine! It’s delicious!” That was clear evidence of how much she loved me.
SS: What is your earliest cooking memory?
PT: I started cooking when I was 10 or 11, when our housekeeper retired. My mother never replaced her, and her cooking was so bad I had to cook in self defense! I started with breakfast food, like scrambled eggs. I thought I was doing something delightful when I put green food coloring in the eggs!
SS: What is your drink order when you go to a bar?
PT: It depends on the season! In spring and summer, I prefer white liquor. In winter I go for dark brown liquors. I prefer wine, unless I’m having boiled seafood.
SS: Best hangover cure?
PT: Benadryl and a cold beer. I have a theory that a hangover is just your brain being allergic to the alcohol! So Bendaryl is the perfect hangover drug.
SS: If you were a food what would you be?
PT: I would be Creole cream cheese, which is the indigenous single-curd, soft curd cheese that naturally formed out of milk before refrigeration. French Creoles would eat it with sugar and cream for breakfast, whereas Germans in the 1800s preferred it savory with salt and pepper. Now it’s in all sorts of things, like cheesecake. You can also find frozen Creole cream cheese, which is like ice cream, but frozen and tangy.
SS: Is there anything you won’t eat?
PT: I won’t eat sea cucumber. I always order the most unusual things on a menu, and it was the one thing I got in my mouth that I absolutely couldn’t swallow. I just remember chewing and chewing it and it never got any smaller. I tried it in Chinatown in New York City.
SS: What is one thing you wish someone had told you earlier in life?
PT: The only true limitations are the ones between your own ears.
SS: What’s your favorite cookbook?
PT: It used to be The Making of a Cook by the French woman with whom I studied professionally, Madeleine Kamman. Quite honestly, nowadays I think the best desert island cookbook is John Besh’s My Family Table. Everything you need to know is in there, and it’s very clear. He provides great formulas that allow people to get creative.
SS: Do you have a favorite dessert?
PT: Gâteau St. Honoré – lots of whipped cream, lots of vanilla pastry cream, perfect perfect perfect puffed pastry, and cream puffs. But I never make it myself! I’m too free-form for baking.
Suzannah Schneider is studying Environmental Studies and International Development at Tulane University. She beats the heat of New Orleans by drinking lots of iced Genmaicha and eating plenty of funky rice salads.