Reporter's Notebook: The Sweet Smell of Starting Over

Jeff Goldblatt

Tuesday, February 21Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. The calls are constant. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. When possible, the calls are answered. But work takes priority here and inside this building, time has never been so precious. The rush is Mardi Gras. And it's just one week away.

"I didn't think it was physically possible," said Tricia Randazzo-Zornes, a former court reporter, who, for 26 years, documented legal battles that seem to pale in comparison to her real-life fight.

Without any levee system, Slidell, Louisiana — a city with an estimated population of 25,000 — was a sitting duck on August 29, when the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed just to the east of this New Orleans suburb. On the city's Internet home page, you'll learn Katrina ravaged Slidell with a 23 to 26-foot storm surge. During the hurricane, sustained winds reached 176 miles per hours here. Gusts were clocked at greater than 190 miles per hour. [The preceding storm information was retrieved from the City of Slidell website. The National Weather Service has revised its original Katrina statistics.]

When she returned to her business two weeks after the storm, Randazzo-Zornes says a two-inch thick film of gooey mud covered every inch of the floor. Gnats and flies flew unrestrained. Mold had climbed her interior walls as aggressively as Kudzu vine seems to devour trees and abandoned homes. "I thought it was the end of Randazzo's," Tricia recounted.

Instead, it was just the beginning. With the help of her husband and brother, Tricia started the painstaking process of cleaning up, removing debris "one wheelbarrow at a time." New sheetrock went in. Fresh paint went up. And the gasp-inducing stench went out.

"I Can't Believe We've Come This Far"

The smell is the first thing you notice when you walk through the door: it's an aromatic intoxication of sorts. Your mouth immediately waters. Your eyes widen. You search for the source. Welcome to Randazzo's Camellia City Bakery.

For the last nine years, Tricia's bakery has been a fixture in Slidell, but her baking roots date back to 1965, when Tricia's father and her uncles opened a family bakery in Chalmette, Louisiana. Baking courses through her blood as much as sugar permeates her desserts. As a Christmas baby, Tricia benefited from an upbringing of special birthday cakes. Her wedding cake was homemade too. But, pardon the play of words here, Katrina threw a beastly pie in Tricia's face.

Tricia lost everything at the bakery to Katrina. She was told four feet of water rushed through Randazzo's. She returned to find, in her industrial mixer, water from Lake Pontchartrain, which her husband estimates to be nearly two miles away. She tells me she strongly considered forever shuttering the bakery doors, but that her 25-year-old son's encouragement forced a change of heart. "He felt it was important to keep going," Tricia recalled, with a resolve of steel that belies her short stature. "He didn't want the legacy to die."

With the encouragement and elbow grease of family and friends, and, perhaps most important, an equipment loan from her brother, who is also in the baking business, Tricia reopened for business January 3. She re-launched with just one product — her "bread and butter," if you will — the king cake. "I knew what I had to concentrate on to get back and run faster. It was just the right time of year. It could have been wedding cake season. Or birthday cake season."

Without getting overly bogged down on the history of the king cake, let's just stipulate that historians have traced this braided, baked, yeast bread to Western Europe, eons ago. King cakes were traditionally served on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. These days, however, the cake is predominantly sold and eaten throughout the Carnival season, which culminates with Mardi Gras (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday). The cake has evolved over the years, and you'll find it filled with innumerable fruit flavors. But the sugar-dusted colors atop traditional cakes remain consistent: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power, all traditional Mardi Gras colors. A miniature, plastic figure representing the Christ child is placed into each cake. In New Orleans, the person who forks into the piece with the "baby" is supposed to fork over the cash for the next king cake. In some offices, there might be a new king cake every day this time of year. I'm told they're a Mardi Gras must-have.

"It's a tradition with king cakes to try all different kinds, because they're all different," informed Janice Stockstill, who made the 45 minute drive from New Orleans to get her first taste of Radazzo's. On the way, she says she got lost a few times, but the "ultimate mission" seemed worthy nevertheless. "I'm glad I bought the king cake knowing what they've gone through. This is more than just about eating. It's a symbol of resilience."

"A lot of 'em make king cakes, but Randazzo's is the best to me," an emphatic voice tells me. Cindy Miller's favorite flavors are cream cheese filled and traditional. She loaded her car with four king cakes before setting out on a 9-hour drive. Miller says she rarely travels home to Lakeland, Florida without her Randazzo's fix. "It tastes VERY good. It's VERY fattening. We love it."

"People are ordering them because they miss home. I'm giving them a little bit of the home they're yearning." Because so many of her customers have been displaced by Katrina, Tricia tells me she bakes with greater purpose. But she does so with a staff that's about half that of a typical pre-Mardi Gras year. "She'll recruit everybody," jokes employee Drew Galatas. "If you all stick around long enough, you'll be working here too." Sure enough, two of Tricia's girlfriends, with zero experience in the baking business showed up today to help Tricia braid king cakes. "They have no idea what they're doing," laughed Tricia.

Everyone Pitches In

"She inspires me. It makes me feel good to help someone rebuild," states Jim Rabb, an account executive for worldwide shipper DHL Express. A couple of days a week for a couple of hours, Rabb drops by the bakery to help coordinate Tricia's shipping. Tricia refers to Rabb as a "lifesaver," because he integrated the bakery's internet ordering system with DHL's express package delivery. Tricia intends to make as many king cakes for Mardi Gras as in prior years, but with a third the number of employees and over the course of less time. "I'm gonna bake until I drop," deadpans Tricia. Rabb says, "She's one of the sweetest ladies. She kinda reminds me of my mother."

Like all good mothers, Tricia leads by example. As far as her bakery, she gives the impression that she wants it to be a lighthouse of sorts, guiding far-flung boats into a safe, familiar harbor. "There are too many people not wanting to come back to New Orleans, and I thought if they saw some form of life in the area, they would want to come back. I'm trying to give people hope that there's something to come back to. That it's not all gone."

Tricia doesn't just speak about optimism, hope and self-reliance, she personifies those adjectives. During Katrina, six huge trees crashed into her home. Rain poured into more than 20 gaping holes in her roof. "It looked like a pin cushion," she told me. In terms of sheer possessions, her life was trashed. Since December, Tricia has lived in a FEMA trailer outside her home with her husband. To this day, the rehab process has not started there. Instead, a good chunk of the insurance money collected from the house went into jump-starting the bakery. "I'm giving people jobs. I'm making people happy. That's what it's all about."

Immediately after Mardi Gras, Tricia plans to take a three-week vacation. She will get a much deserved rest, but also start the lengthy process of attending to her personal life. Until then, it's non-stop baking and non-stop phone ringing. "Nothing is impossible. It can be done. I'm living proof."

Over the next two weeks, I hope to be able to share with you my thoughts about the “New” New Orleans. If you have questions, please feel free to e-mail me: