Although Martha Alexander isn’t from Louisiana – she was born one of 13 children in Alabama – she was accustomed to southern cooking in her youth. Over the years, she’s learned to make a mean gumbo as well as red beans and rice with baked sausage on the side.
Her skills are not only visible in every meal served at the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center in Metairie, but also while saying prayers with groups before dining.
“I lead them in prayer and then I open the doors and they eat,” Alexander, 68, a grandmother of 16 and great grandmother to one, said.
Her work day, often including weekends, begins at 6 a.m. This ensures groups have hot coffee, cold water, ice and fresh lemons with breakfast.
“I don’t want them to ask for anything,” she said. “They can ask if they don’t see something they need, but I like to have it all ready.”
Reared just two states east, Alexander said her mother didn’t cook gumbo.
“She made chicken and greens, pork chops and all kinds of stuff like that, but she never made gumbo,” she said. “I had to learn that when someone requested it at Malta Park (a pre-Katrina senior living residence in New Orleans).”
She came to New Orleans when an older sister living in Harvey had kidney problems. Alexander had lived in Queens, N.Y. for 28 years.
“I came here to give her a kidney and I wound up staying,” Alexander said, now living in Harvey.
She’s adapted to a more New Orleans-style of cooking.
“In Queens, we had meat loaf and fried chicken. I learned how to make lasagna from an Italian friend when I was in New York. It’s much different than here. We didn’t have red beans.”
In addition to working at Malta Park, her varied cooking experience comes from working at Metairie Healthcare – where everything was made from scratch – and she retired from Poydras Home as a cooking supervisor, sometimes cooking for as many as 300 people at the Thanksgiving feast. Her gumbo was lauded at Poydras Home, she said.
When she first arrived at the retreat center, the Cenacle Sisters still owned it and were living there.
“I learned how to make different amounts for the size of the groups on retreat,” she said. “Here we do an awesome baked chicken and gumbo that is out of sight! They love my gumbo. I make three different kinds. I make a pot of seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo then a pot with chicken, sausage, shrimp and sometimes crawfish. It’s different from what everybody eats. I had someone tell me that their son is a chef, and he doesn’t make gumbo like mine.”
She said she started making three different gumbos after a retreatant mentioned she couldn’t eat seafood. (Alexander also fulfills special dietary requests for those who can’t have gluten and salt.)
“I was so hurt,” she said. “She couldn’t eat the seafood gumbo, and I want everybody happy. I don’t want to put something out, and people aren’t satisfied. I want them to enjoy it.”
Other popular entrees are pork roast baked in its own juice with onions and bell pepper on top, baked catfish and corn bread dressing from scratch.
“I love it when they say, ‘Your food is so good.’ I try with all my heart to make it the best I can,” Alexander said. “In the kitchen, we don’t call it cooking. We call it our kitchen ministry.”
Alexander said cooking was something she gravitated to because she noticed people were happy when they ate.
“Food makes everybody happy, and, in my life, I just want to make everybody happy. So I said I wanted to cook. The more I cooked, the more I learned, and I kept getting better at it. I am glad I did it.”
Dr. Paul Ceasar, center director, agrees that Alexander serves a ministry beyond cooking.
“I think it’s her spirituality, her dedication, her prayerfulness and love that permeates her cooking, and it’s her interaction with the retreatants,” Ceasar said. “For her, cooking is not just a job. It’s much more. She makes people happy, and when they they respond to her, she delights in that. She is a joy to work with and be around.”
Alexander truly enjoys her job cooking for a variety of people, sometimes six days a week at the retreat center.
“I thank God for being here and being able to serve. Some people just do it. I don’t. I do it because I love it and love people.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.