Tricentennial Spawns St. Philp Neri Cookbook

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By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

A wonderful souvenir came out of St. Philip Neri’s salute to New Orleans’ 300th birthday.

When members of the middle school faculty were asked to create a New Orleans-centered project for their students within their respective subject areas, reading teacher Melissa Kessler decided to ask her students to submit a beloved family recipe and a paragraph on why the dish was so special.

What emerged was a spiral bound cookbook of nearly 200 recipes.

“We were in the middle of reading novels already and I didn’t want to stop that, so I tried to incorporate writing into reading and came up with the idea of making a cookbook and having the kids tie in their family traditions to a specific New Orleans recipe,” Kessler explained.

The cookbook, divided into “Appetizers and Dips,” “Soups,” “Side Dishes,” “Entrees” and “Desserts,” ended up boasting nearly 40 recipes alone for gumbo, 10 versions of red beans and rice and more than a dozen spins on pralines.

“We’ve also got a lot of beignet recipes – because people like to eat beignets around here!” Kessler said.

The blurbs preceding each recipe tell of the students’ love for food and gathering around the table.

“We can smell this dish from a mile away,” rhapsodized fifth grader Kylie Wright about her submission: Bacon-Wrapped Honey Garlic Shrimp.

Fifth grader Austin Dupuis noted in his recipe for Shrimp Balls that he and his relatives held an eating contest one Thanksgiving to see who could eat the most. Austin came in fourth out of 22.

“First (place) was a shocker,” Austin writes. “It was somehow my dad.”

Other anecdotes reveal families’ culinary habits. For example, cookbook readers learn that the family of fifth grader Bryce Johns eats Creole Crab Dip every Wednesday. Seventh grader Kali Schopfer notes that she and her family always dive into her grandmother’s Creole Cream Cheese Cheesecake while unwrapping Christmas presents.

“Since my grandma made all of the food, including the cheesecake, my whole family will clean the dirty dishes from the meal,” Kali writes.

The young foodies also made some culinary observations.

“Jambalaya will make you feel New Orleans’ essence. It can be wolfed down or savored, but it should never be passed up,” opines sixth grader Brandon Johnson.

Sixth grader Peyton Bayard notes that her submitted recipe – Aunt Ernie’s Shrimp and Crab Casserole – has stayed inside its envelope within an old family cookbook for years.

“When you eat this delicious meal, you will taste most of the flavors. I would recommend dipping the French bread in with the casserole,” Peyton advises.

The students’ recipes and paragraphs were graded and edited for the cookbook. Because many family recipes are not written down, missing ingredients or say “add a pinch of this or that,” many of the contributors had to interview their relatives to get clarity.

“We also talked about the measurements. Some of them were confusing the ‘tsp’ and the ‘tbsp,’ so we talked about that,” Kessler said. “It was a lot of legwork, but it was totally worth it!”

St. Philip Neri’s cross-disciplinary treatment of the Tricentennial culminated in a two-hour “NOLA Fest” for students and their parents. Math students created diagrams and graphs on the themes of “Mardi Gras,” “Lagniappe” and “Hurricane Katrina”; English students interviewed and wrote articles on family members who grew up in New Orleans; social studies students constructed historical timelines; science students created flip books with information on hurricanes; in religion, students studied saints with links to New Orleans (see photo); art students made NOLA-themed ornaments; famous New Orleans musicians were profiled in music class; and computer/technology students made videos about New Orleans’ history.