Hurricane Katrina took lives, homes and possessions. In New Orleans, where traditional food is a vital part of the lifestyle, the loss of family recipes to flood waters struck an additional painful blow. For many New Orleanians, that loss became a lasting reminder of the things taken away by the storm.
Judy Walker, Food Editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper, saw a way to help in the recovery process. Through a column reminiscent of newspapers a generation ago, Judy built a forum where people could share the treasured recipes they had and request help in regaining recipes they had lost. In “Exchange Alley,” the old tastes and textures of New Orleans cuisine provide a common ground for both experienced and novice cooks to regain those treasured dishes.
“I grew up in a family of people who cooked,” says Walker. “Both of my grandmothers were great cooks.” She doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in cooking something. Her journalism degree, seasoned with some television work in college, merged with her love of cooking and led her to the home and garden departments of newspapers in three large cities over the years.
When Walker followed her husband to New Orleans ten years ago, she left behind a journalism career in Phoenix in which she had invested twenty years. One more time, she began as a home and garden reporter. When the previous Times Picayune Food Editor retired, Walker was offered the position and hasn’t looked back.
The recipe exchange column, once a standard feature In local newspapers, has fallen victim to financial pressure and space requirements at many papers. For Walker, the column offers a connection to the readers and a way to help in the rebuilding of the city she now calls home.
“We gathered many of the recipes into a book, ‘Cooking up a Storm,’ which was published in 2008,” says Walker. She co-edited the volume with Marcelle Bienvenue. The book was a milestone, but not the end of the project. She likes the interaction with her readers brought about through the column and the satisfaction of helping someone track down the recipe for an old favorite.
In addition to the cookbook and columns, Walker records a video for the newspaper, “In Judy’s Kitchen.” She shares tips and tools for cooks of all skill levels. Her “down-to-earth” personality comes through as she demonstrates and explains aspects of cooking, from haute cuisine to down-home cooking.
“Food is such an important part of what New Orleans means,” states Walker. Through her work in “Exchange Alley,” she uses her skill and forum to help keep the heart of New Orleans cuisine beating.