Poppy Tooker Knows Best

Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...


It is one thing to know a recipe, but it is another thing to know where that recipe came from. When you understand why certain ingredients or seasonings are called for (oftentimes based on region) or how a seemingly odd name became attached to the dish, you gain a deeper appreciation for what you are preparing.

Poppy Tooker embodies this notion to the full. Not only is she a classically trained chef, she is also an inexhaustible resource of local New Orleans food history. Her cooking class at the New Orleans Cooking Experience is as much about ingredients and culinary tips as it is historical provenance. It is a small luxury to be able to attend the class with Poppy, but if you have the time or the means to do so, I highly recommend it. Poppy’s slogan, “Eat It To Save It!,” is her rallying cry to keep little-known Creole and Cajun recipes from being completely lost – and she is definitely practicing what she preaches.

Her biggest success to date has been reintroducing the rice calas (a sweet or savory rice fritter) to both the citizens and visitors of New Orleans. Predominantly sold as a street food (as opposed to market stalls for the beignet) by Creole women, rice calas fell into obscurity right around WWII. In the 1990s, Poppy realized this incredibly important, indigenous food was on the verge of being forgotten and made it her mission to keep the calas alive.

She’s certainly succeeding. Today, you can find calas on the menu of several New Orleans restaurants and on the mind of anyone who has tasted them.

Watch an excellent video of Poppy explaining her calas campaign here.

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon attending Poppy’s lunch class at the NOCE. She showed us how to make: Crabmeat Calas with Green Garlic Dipping Sauce; Seafood Gumbo; Crawfish Étouffée; and Bread Pudding with Hard Sauce. Between carefully preparing her roux or emulsifying the green garlic mayonnaise, Poppy fed us delicious facts about how the Po’ Boy came to be known as such, an explanation of the New Orleans “Holy Trinity,” how to salvage frozen okra and so much more.

I walked away (or possibly waddled) with a mind as full and satisfied as my belly.

Poppy's class made me realize that although I have several family recipes in my cooking arsenal, I have scant knowledge of where the dishes came from or why. Time to pick up the phone and quiz my mother and father…

Do you have a family recipe that needs saving! Don't delay, write it down and "Eat It To Save It!"