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New Orleans family keeps on cookin'

Red beans and fried chicken are a staple at Dunbar's Creole Cooking in New Orleans.

TEXT OF STORY

BILL RADKE: Five years ago today, restaurants in New Orleans were closed. The city was full of water after Hurricane Katrina over-topped the levees. The only meals to be found were emergency rations. But New Orleans' food culture has come back since the storm.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh met a family who found an unlikely way to keep their cooking alive.


EVE TROEH: It's 10:30 a.m. at the cafeteria of Loyola Law School, in Uptown New Orleans. The staff's preparing for the lunch rush.

PEGGY RATLIFF: So today for lunch it's mustard greens, smothered pork chops, candied yams, corn bread.

Peggy Ratliff runs this kitchen. And no, this is not normal college fare. Ratliff and her mother -- Celestine Dunbar -- used to have a soul food restaurant called Dunbar's Creole Cooking.

RATLIFF: It was family. You could just come in, put your arms on the table, get your fingers greasy, and so it was just home.

The restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The family business was closed -- until Dunbar had an idea. She called universities to ask if they needed help running their kitchens. Ratliff says they landed the law school contract a few weeks later.

RATLIFF: Well, it looked like we would've been out of the restaurant business if Loyola hadn't opened up their doors to her so generously.

It was a deal specific to post-Katrina New Orleans -- when creative partnerships were vital.

Liz Williams directs the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. She says Katrina drove out many corporate food franchises.

LIZ WILLIAMS: In their place came up all those little mom-and-pop places that had been displaced. So now we have more restaurants that are owned locally than before Hurricane Katrina.

And Peggy Ratliff says local cooks are more appreciated, too.

RATLIFF: Now people are more conscious of preserving the food culture here.

Dunbar's may be the only creole restaurant on a college campus.

RATLIFF: She's doing fried chicken.

And the family members plan to keep the cafeteria contract. But they also want to serve their old neighborhood again. It's about a mile away, called Freret. Peggy Ratliff doesn't know when that will happen.

RATLIFF: It's not clear yet. By it being closed so long, you have to redo the whole building, the plumbing, the electric. Just don't have the funds.

There is a difference, she says, between finding stability and truly rebuilding.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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