It all started with “Mama Georgia,” who would attract neighbors from blocks around to her Central City porch when the smell of yakamein wafted through her front door.
Fast-forward several decades, and Linda Green is carrying on her grandmother’s tradition, cooking up gallons of the soup — and presiding over a small food empire — at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
“Everybody that tastes it, they say it goes straight to the brain,” said Green, better known as “Linda the Yakamein Lady,” in between giving orders to her sous-chefs — her grandchildren and their friends — in a Jazz Fest food booth over the weekend. “It really is that good.”
The award-winning culinary artist has been making her famous dish, a New Orleans-specific blend of Chinese and Creole flavors, nearly her entire life.
The secret recipe is a family affair, passed down from Green’s grandmother to her mother and then to Green and her daughter.
The dish combines boiled beef stew meat, flavored with a secret seasoning mixture, with the Creole trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper, plus chopped green onions.
It’s served over spaghetti and topped with a hard-boiled egg — a “magical mixture” that’s believed to cure hangovers, making it sought-after fare on the last day of a long Jazz Fest weekend.
In 2005, the festival’s food managers saw the light, and Green and the famous soup were given a coveted spot in one of the dozens of food booths around the Fair Grounds.
A year later, Green’s homemade soul food business took off.
Now, she manages two separate booths at Jazz Fest, where she offers seven dishes.
In addition to her beef yakamein and its vegetarian version, she began offering festival patrons bread pudding and fried pork chop sandwiches, served with mayonnaise on white bread, about four years ago.
Green said the pork chops became famous after they caught the attention of local food personality, culinary teacher and author Poppy Tooker.
“It’s been history ever since,” she said, adding that Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Shamarr Allen and Bo Dollis Jr. are among the many artists who make their way to her booth for them every year.
Last year, Green expanded her food selection again, adding Sloppy Jeaux to her booth at the Kids Tent. The sandwiches are now served up alongside baked macaroni and cheese and her “huckabuck” frozen cups — ice pops made from sweet syrup and fruit.
In keeping with family tradition, that booth is run by her daughter Nikita Green, a pediatric nurse who lives in Houston but travels to help her mom.
“This is all for her,” Nikita said. “She’s come a long way.”
Thanks to recent press, Green’s fame now extends beyond the festival circuit.
In 2012, she won the Food Network’s “Chopped Pride of New Orleans.” She’s also been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and “United Taste of America.”
And food isn’t the only thing Green is known for. This year, she’s brought her second-line expertise to Jazz Fest as well; members of her social aid and pleasure club, the Lady Rollers, will be parading through the festival’s grounds Friday.
Green’s story is a circuitous one.
For more than 25 years, she worked as a kitchen manager for the Orleans Parish School Board, until she was fired amid a reorganization of the schools following Hurricane Katrina.
She loved her days with the school system, she said. She remembers serving up sloppy joes and even wrapping up extra food for some kids whose moms worked two jobs and weren’t home in the evenings to make dinner.
“I knew they weren’t gonna eat otherwise,” Green said. “I knew how it went.”
This weekend, fest patrons munched down on her pork chop sandwiches, slurped up the yakamein and dug into macaroni.
“We get it every time we come,” Shean Phillips, 44, said of the pork chops.
Green said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I went out on faith, and I never look back,” she said, laughing. “I haven’t even ever taken a peek back.”