NEW ORLEANS — Howie Kaplan was sitting inside his bar Monday morning, celebrating with friends that Hurricane Ida’s wrath wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as they’d all worried it’d be, when someone stopped in to ask if he’d be giving out food that afternoon.
An operation he started at the beginning of the pandemic to feed thousands throughout the city had started to slow down in the past couple of weeks, as New Orleans boasted an abnormally high vaccination rate for Louisiana and more and more service industry workers were able to get back to work.
But with the city’s electrical grid ruined by the storm, Kaplan realized it was time to ramp back up. Kaplan realized that approximately 1 million people in his neighborhood were without power, and therefore without the ability to cook.
“We can figure it out,” he recalled thinking. The Howlin’ Wolf has hosted many other activities during the pandemic. These include diaper drives and vaccine clinics.
“We’ve literally become a community center by accident,” Kaplan said.
There was no reason to stop the trend now, so he brought his grill from home and some friends started showing up to donate the contents of their freezers. An assembly line quickly formed between volunteers from different nonprofits. Kaplan’s beer company works with donated refrigerated trucks.
By Saturday morning, about 15,000 meals had been given out to front line workers, first responders and to the city’s “culture bearers — just everyone who makes New Orleans, New Orleans,” Kaplan said.
Despite his business being shuttered — which was also without power until Friday morning — and despite the blistering heat and humidity, droves of people have continued to show each day to prepare wholesome, and often quite intricate dishes.
Ryan Prewitt, who owns the award winning restaurant Peche and was named the best chef of the south in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation, was one of the many volunteers working Saturday morning.
As he stirred a pot of bacon, onion and mushrooms that would be combined with chopped cabbage, a pan of stuffed peppers were awaiting their place on a grill that would also heat bacon wrapped ribeye steaks. Workers prepared a homemade slaw to go with grilled fish tacos. At another station, cold meat sandwiches were prepared on toasted bagels, and garnished by fresh spinach.
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The burgers were being hand-pattied and the hot dogs had all the fixings. The food was not free but it didn’t lack flavor or sustenance — especially in a city that is known for its culinary talents.
“I think it’s incredible. Prewitt described the operation as a grassroots effort.
When he heard about Kaplan’s plan, he started to empty his walk-in coolers, a move several restaurants in the city followed. The experience of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath made them more prepared for Ida.
“A lot of us really remembered that period and everyone mobilized really fast because we all did it 16 years ago,” Prewitt said.
While Ida fortunately did not cause the destruction that was anticipated, it’s arrival came at an already painful time. The Labor Day weekend, after more than a year of suffering from the pandemic was a huge boost for the city’s service sector.
“You just have to give up on all of that,” Prewitt said of thinking about what could have been had the storm not hit. “Howie is a great example of how to put all that in the past and deal with the current situation.
As the clock ticked closer to noon — which is serving time — the line of people waiting for a fresh cooked meal grew longer. Drivers waited in line to collect several To-Go boxes that they could distribute throughout the city to those who couldn’t make it. The generator was attached to a pole and provided power for a mobile charging station. Music could be heard from the nearby radio. The streets around the Howlin’ Wolf were empty, but the air around Kaplan’s entertainment venue was vibrant.
“This is how we celebrate,” Kaplan said. “This is how you cry, and this is how you laugh. We celebrate when we’re in pain.
Drawing another parallel to Katrina, he reflected on how long it took for tourists to come back and support its economy. He said that New Orleans would be okay once the power is restored. “
Follow Montgomery Advertiser reporter Krista Johnson on Twitter: @KristaJ1993