New Orleans has always been like nowhere else in America, less "rise and shine," more "bon temps." It's still like nowhere else. But the "rise and shine" quotient is higher now as waves of volunteers bring their elbow grease to town. Since Hurricane Katrina, willing individuals have arrived by the hundreds and put themselves to work. "Bon temps" has hardly disappeared, though. For all the suffering, having fun is still very much on the agenda. If you want to combine good works and good times, this is the place to come.
The Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has invited me and other journalists on a media tour to observe local possibilities for joining tourism with volunteer activity—voluntourism, it's come to be called. The need here is so great that there's no end to the opportunities. Whatever your particular bent, you can find a suitable way to make yourself useful.
Here are a few:
* If you like digging in the dirt, ReLeaf New Orleans has a job for you. The city lost 50,000 trees during the hurricanes and ReLeaf is bent on replacing them. You can sign up for tree-planting duty at www.parkwaypartners.com. Or kick in funds for a tree – from $300 for a crepe myrtle to $800 for a phoenix palm. (This includes maintenance.)
* Prefer clearing brush? New Orleans City Park schedules Super Saturdays, usually the first Saturday of the month, for volunteers to pitch in with pruning, raking, and clearing away underbrush. Or on any weekday you can show up at the Park's Botanical Garden and help propagate and care for plants.
* You can even cook for the cause. The inimitable Poppy Tooker teaches creole cooking at the Savvy Gourmet, and if you're on the Culinary Voluntourism package at the Windsor Court Hotel (designed for groups of at least 10), you can learn how to make chicken etouffe, for example, and then deliver the meal to volunteer job sites.
It's worth seeing Poppy do her thing, even if you're not on the package deal. She's as much culinary historian as cooking teacher, as she shows us in her entertaining demonstration on how to prepare cala (pronounced ca-LA). Calas are a kind of rice fritter, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. They are, Poppy maintains, much more tasty than the better-known beignet, and they have a poignant backstory, as well. In antebellum New Orleans slaves were granted a day off and women often used that time to sell calas on the street, in many cases earning enough money to purchase their freedom. (*See below for Poppy's Cala recipe.)
The possibilities I've just mentioned are voluntourism lite. Lite is fine—you're contributing to the city's recovery, even if you're just there eatings calas. If you'd rather do heavier work, there's another way to go. You can build things or tear them down. More on this kind of volunteering in later posts.
If you want to get involved, www.volunteerlouisiana.gov will match prospective volunteers with organizations needing help.
* Poppy Tooker's Cala Recipe
2 cups cooked rice
6 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla
Mix the rice and dry ingredients together thoroughly. Add the eggs and when thoroughly mixed, drop by the spoonful into hot deep fat (360 degrees) and fry until brown. Drain on paper. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot.
(Note: Maintain mixture below 70 degrees before frying or balls may separate when dropped into the oil.)
Makes 12 servings