How did you learn to cook?
I learned to cook through my mother and grandmother—they taught me how to cook. My mother retired after 30 years cooking with Orleans Parish School Board. I had 25 years with Orleans Parish but after Katrina I lost my job. I was fortunate enough to be doing catering for Tipitina’s. They brought me back from Texas, and I am forever grateful for that.
Even though you’re known as ‘The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady,’ you won a Food Network award for vegan gumbo. What’s your secret to a good gumbo?
My mom and my grandmother used to do the vegan gumbo. They used to go on the neutral ground to pick what they called ‘the greens’ and they used the greens in their gumbo. The secret is the Ms. Linda’s seasoning. The seasoning is what makes it taste good.
You do a lot of public events. When you talk about your food, do you have a sense of preserving local culinary traditions and passing that knowledge on to others?
I am from New Orleans, born and raised. We have a lot of out-of-towners that come and want to learn about New Orleans cooking. I want them to know how our city is different, culturally. So I don’t mind demonstrating what I cook and how to cook it. I want them to know that they came to a city that is one of the best in the world.
What are the origins of ya-ka-mein?
It is important to know where all our food comes from. Ya-ka-mein is a New Orleans dish with Chinese in it. I’m doing research right now with Amistad [Research Center at Tulane University] and finding out ya-ka-mein really came from Storyville, which was next to where the Chinese lived at the time. And African-Americans, what we did was add spices and herbs to it.
Did you ever think you’d become famous for cooking food?
No. I say no right quick, but then I think about my mom. And she was quite popular as a caterer—her name was Shirley Green. She cooked for all the judges back-of-town, and she was the lady cooking for the Zulus for many years, making breakfast for them before they got on their trucks on Mardi Gras. She was selling ya-ka-mein and it was such a hit that we were telling her to quit her school board job. But I’m glad she didn’t, because it wasn’t her time. She always told me, ‘Someday you can use this.’ Now it’s my time.
Find Ms. Linda Green at the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival, Sat.–Sun., November 18–19, in Armstrong Park. Free admission.