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New Orleans Dishes on Utah Table

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

This is Howard Berkes in Salt Lake City, where Kenneth Watts(ph) combs his kitchen for the spices he needs for Thanksgiving dinner.

Mr. KENNETH WATTS: This is my season rack. As you see, I have chives, poultry seasoning, garlic salt, cinnamon, basil...

BERKES: Watts left New Orleans a week after Katrina after rescuers pulled him and his wife from their flooded home. Water had forced them into the attic before the rescue boat arrived. A military plane flew them to Utah where they've settled into this suburban apartment.

Mr. WATTS: ...oregano.

BERKES: And what do you wish you had?

Mr. WATTS: Oh, man, wow, I wish I had some files. I have nothing that I can really make jambalaya with because the jambalaya seasoning in the jambalaya seasoning--the stuff that you put into it besides the sausage and the rice they don't sell here as well. It won't have the same taste, you know?

BERKES: This is no small matter. File is powdered sassafras leaves which give jambalaya, gumbo and other foods Cajun and Creole thickness and taste. Watts escaped Katrina with old family recipes dependent on file and Thanksgiving traditions dependent on the food it flavors.

Mr. WATTS: You're going to have your deep-fried turkey. And you're going to have your cranberry sauce. You're going to have your dressing, but we make, like, stuffed bell peppers or stuffed avocadoes and you're going to have gumbo. I mean, any holiday whatsoever, you're going to have a gumbo, and, you know, in New Orleans, that and the crawfish etouffe and the jambalaya, those are just--to other people, it's delicacies; for us, it's a necessity. It really is.

BERKES: Cooking Cajun and Creole is one of the fundamentals Watts' late mother taught along with sewing and cleaning. His father cooked and he cooks, and it's not just the spices he misses. Catfish here doesn't taste like catfish there. Crawfish here are smaller. And fresh fish and shrimp costs more. If all else fails, Watts will make his father's shrimp and beans recipe for his Thanksgiving guests and he'll be thinking beyond food as he gives thanks.

Mr. WATTS: I'm thankful for my life 'cause I could have been floating like other people were. Instead, I was rescued in a boat and brought here to Utah. Pretty nice place.

BERKES: Even if it's hard to find file?

Mr. WATTS: Even if it's hard to find file. I have so many other things to be thankful for that I have to just accept that one. I have to accept that one from now on.

BERKES: Kenneth Watts is also thankful for his new job as a bus driver and his new Utah friends around the Thanksgiving table.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Bring that boy some of that bean dip gumbo. Bring that boy a steak.

MONTAGNE: For a roundup of the best cookbooks to give and get this holiday season, plus a selection of great recipes, visit the holiday books pages at

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I quiver and I shiver from the feeling it delivers and I keep coming back for a little more. I've got the right spices to make me feel so nice, my Louisiana file gumbo. So if you're down in the dump and you're stuck in a stump and you're looking at the wrong end of the blues, have yourself some of that file gumbo more better than that chicken barbecue. Bring that boy some of that bean dip gumbo. Bring that boy a steak.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.