Q&A with Elsa Hahne

The art director at OffBeat magazine shares her take on food, music and Swedish.
MaryLou Uttermohlen Photographs
MaryLou Uttermohlen Photographs

“Creativity rarely limits itself to one area in life, and given time and means, creative people have a tendency to branch out.” – Elsa Hahne

While this opening line from the Preface of The Gravy: In the Kitchen with New Orleans Musicians (High ISO Music) is meant to describe the book’s inspiration – New Orleans musicians – when you learn more about who said it, you come to realize that it also describes a multi-talented writer, photographer and designer.

A native of Sweden and a resident of New Orleans since 2002, Elsa Hahne has created two books – it would be too simplistic to call them cookbooks – that are cultural celebrations and important archives of one of New Orleans most cherished traditions: food. Or should I say, New Orleanians’ relationship to food and cooking. It is a rocky territory, as we all know someone who has the best gumbo, etc, but Hahne approaches it respectfully, with a careful eye to detail.

Her first book, You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi) took three years of interviews (2004-’07), writing and funding – with major setbacks from Hurricane Katrina – that when the final book came out in ’08, it was a triumph in determination. For this book, Hahne went to New Orleans home cooks and cajoled them to open up about their lives, as well as their kitchens and secret recipes. It was also an exploration of the many cultures that make up modern-day New Orleans: not only do you have the traditional Black, Creole, Italian, Irish, German, Isleño and Cajun dishes, but those by more recent arrivals from Vietnam, China, Ghana, Mexico and Honduras. This book recognizes that there really isn’t one set “New Orleans” menu or cuisine.

Hahne’s latest book, The Gravy, evolved out of a monthly column of the same name in OffBeat magazine, a New Orleans music publication. The thought was that there was a strong connection between musicians and food: many cooked for themselves while on the road, and quite a few of them had jobs in the restaurant industry. The musicians are based in New Orleans, and Hahne got 44 of them to participate in the book: Irma Thomas, 10th Ward Buck, Susan Cowsill, John Boutté, Sean Yseult and Mystikal are just a sampling. Though not the book’s original intention, Hahne has illustrated again that there isn’t just one New Orleans genre – in this case emphasizing the city’s diversity through its music, and via that, its food.

(Hahne will be appearing at a booksigning at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at Ogden After Hours (music series), Thurs. May 30, 6-8 p.m. She appears regularly interviewing musicians at the French Market in the French Quarter, the third Friday of the month at 1 p.m.)

The OffBeat column has featured a lot of musicians. Did all of them get into the book? All of the musicians in the book were profiled in OffBeat; however, not all of the musicians are in the book. Not all of them wanted to be in it.

Of the featured musicians, who was the hardest one to convince to do it? I tried for quite a long time to get Mystikal, and I finally did. It was a big score; I’m his biggest fan – even before I knew he was from here.

Why these books? Why focus on food? This is my art. This is my passion. And to not do it would break my heart. The resource – the art that’s out there that needs to be recorded and captured – this is my way of doing it. You can do it a bunch of different ways, but this is what I’m bringing to it. For me to come at it as seeing it as advantageous to do from a financial point of view isn’t valid. As an artist, you’re going to end up using up all of your resources anyway. At least now there are two books on my bookshelves that I’m proud to show my kids.

In your first book, why did you choose the home cook vs. the chef? People here have such high standards about food – much more so here than elsewhere. You can do a chef book anywhere in the world. But doing a cookbook like You Are Where You Eat would be hard anywhere else, though there may be some places.

New Orleans is just a rich place. I never lived anywhere where so many regular people know how to cook so many specific dishes. If they don’t know, they know whom to ask. They don’t have to go to their computer; they know from family, friends.

What’s your personal Holy Trinity (a question Hahne asked her subjects in You Are Where You Eat and The Gravy)? That’s incredibly hard! Olive oil, garlic – no, honestly? Flour, butter and milk.

I’m sure some people are like, “How hard can a book about food be?” However, besides funding, what’s the biggest challenge of putting together these types of books? It takes a split personality. On one hand, you have to let things be a bit loose, creative and open, as well as be a good listener. On the other, you have to be super anal and a control freak when it comes to the actual recipes.

I figured this out with my first cookbook, and reconfirmed it with The Gravy, I wanted the story to be the person talking: their phrasing and cadence, you can hear them. But, you can’t do that with recipes. You have to be extremely exacting.

How about recipe testing? Is it time consuming? Not necessarily. The challenge was getting closer to what they actually did, which sometimes meant ignoring what they said they did. People aren’t trying to confuse or trick you up in any way – but what they think they do, and what they actually do, are often two very different things.

During the process of cooking, cooks don’t necessarily go through every step, or do it in a critical way. People have a very skewed idea of measurements. Even professionals do!

Most cooks never write down what they do, so it’s important for us to communicate: I had to watch them cook as opposed to rely on them to tell me what they did. Making suggestions like, “You sure you don’t do this?” Then they say, “Oh, of course I do that!”

True Confession: When I see actual huskies in New Orleans, I have to stop myself from shouting “höger” and “vänster” – Swedish for “right” and “left” – from the back of my (imagined) sled. (My oldest daughter Agnes goes to Edward Hynes Charter School, and the husky dog is strangely enough their mascot.)

At a Glance

Given Name: Elsa Anna Magdalena Hahne

Age: 37

Profession: Writer, photographer, designer and Art Director at OffBeat magazine.

Family: My two daughters; Agnes, 7, and Lucia, 5; my partner, Golden G. Richard III, and his son, Golden G. Richard IV. The rest of my family lives in Sweden.

Born/raised: Sweden, both in the Stockholm area and close to the Arctic Circle.

Education: Science major in high school (Sweden); Journalism in college (Sweden and France); Joint Masters of Arts in Journalism and French Studies (New York University, 2002).

Favorite book: When It Rains, It Rains by Bill Martin Jr., and Emanuele Luzzati (1970). It is an illustrated children’s book.

Favorite movie: My favorite movie of all time, which also had the most profound effect on me, is Sally Potter’s Orlando from 1992, but the movies I’ve watched the most times are probably Willow, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Terminator 2 (mainly because that’s what was available on VHS at the time).

Favorite TV show: *“The Walking Dead” (although the last season was bad).

Favorite food: Red gravy, pasta, Parmesan and pinot noir.

Favorite restaurant: Café Abyssinia on Magazine Street.

Favorite music: Blues. Everything!

Favorite musician: Black Keys

Favorite vacation spot: New Orleans

Hobby: Sew, sew, sew. (And I bake a lot.)

Categories: New Orleans Food Culture, Restaurants