Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
There are all kinds of Katrina stories: sad Katrina stories and terrifying Katrina stories and glad-to-have-survived Katrina stories. The best, however, are those that start out terrible but spin in the direction of hope, like an anti-hurricane, setting things right instead of wrong. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina blew through southeastern Louisiana and drowned New Orleans, there are tens of thousands of stories like that. One of them belongs to Chef Mindy Adams, executive chef at the cozy, rigorously authentic Cajun restaurant Mo'Betta Gumbo down in Benton. A former resident of Slidell on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, she said the love and acceptance she found here after her home was destroyed has made her an Arkansan for life.
Born and raised in south Louisiana, Adams was working at a hotel and raising her then-7-year-old son, Tyler, in August 2005 when Katrina spun up out of the Gulf and took dead aim on New Orleans.
"Honestly, I almost didn't leave for Katrina," she said. "Nine out of 10 times, the hurricanes would turn, and it's expensive to evacuate, especially our whole family. I didn't leave until the morning Katrina hit. The tail of it caught us the whole way to my uncle's house in Pensacola."
Watching the news from Pensacola while the edge of the hurricane loomed in the west, Adams saw the storm and its aftermath. "We were watching it all over the news: the Superdome, and the flooding, people on their roofs," she said. "It was horrible. But I didn't cry. It still wasn't real to me."
When they were able to go home a week later, Adams finally found her tears. "On the ride home, there were just caravans of utility [repair] vehicles, from Georgia, from Florida, from Tennessee. All these electric companies going to help," she said. "That's when it hit me. That's when I knew it was real. I cried the whole rest of the way home."
Back in Louisiana, her worst fears were realized. Eight feet of murky water had stood in her home for days, covering everything she hadn't brought with them in fish-smelling slime. There was a tree through the roof. Houses on her street had been raised to the slab by the force of the wind and water, and her son's school had been destroyed. Her house was salvageable, but would have to be completely gutted, a process that would take over a year.
Adams and her son stayed in Florida for a month, moved to Texas to stay with friends, then leased a house in Tennessee. Later, they lived in a FEMA trailer in the front yard of their house. During that time, they came to Arkansas periodically to stay with friends, and Adams would cook for them. She had no formal training, but had grown up cooking, standing on a chair at the stove beside her dad. "Girls night out became Dinner at Mindy's," she said. "They were like: You need to open a Cajun restaurant here! We don't have any good food here! The more they talked about it, the more I was like, 'You know ..."
Though she had planned on staying in south Louisiana, it was something her son said while visiting Slidell in 2006 that finally made her leave for good. "There was still so much debris everywhere," she recalled. "My son looked at me. He was 8 at the time. And he said, 'It's never going to be the same, is it, mom?' He just started crying. I thought: 'I gotta get him out of here' ... He cried so much about it. It hurt him to see the houses where his friends lived gone."
Adams moved to Arkansas and bought a house near Sheridan in 2007. She remembered her friends raving over her cooking and decided to follow their advice into a culinary career. "I was like, if I'm going to do it, I have to get an education," she said. "I enrolled at Pulaski Tech Culinary ... Things have just kind of progressed from there."
She hired on as executive chef at Mo'Betta Gumbo in October 2014 and the restaurant opened the following month. Adams said she insists on doing things there the same way she would if she were back home, including having her bread, seafood and sausage trucked in from New Orleans. "My family ships food to me — my breads, po'boy bread," she said. "I stock up on shrimp and boudin when I'm down there."
These days, Adams is engaged and her son is grown. He was soon to ship out to the Marine Corps when I spoke to Adams in late August. Though Katrina was terrible, the storm blew her life in directions she couldn't have considered before. She said she can't imagine going back to south Louisiana now.
"My dreams are too big," she said. "I want to open restaurants all over the country. I want to bring New Orleans to the world. That's my ultimate goal. That's my dream. That's my dream because of Katrina."
For a full menu, directions and hours, visit Mo'Betta Gumbo on the web at mobettagumboar.com.