How it hurts to watch New Orleans and the Gulf Coast struggle. From the horrible images of desperate families and floating corpses to the damning knowledge of how New Orleans's levees might have been fixed in time for Katrina if it weren't for war spending and tax breaks, the vastness of the tragedy is unprecedented. Underscoring everything is New Orleans's stature as one of the greatest cultural engines our country has ever known—birthplace of jazz, cradle of the Delta blues, and proud home of zydeco, elegant, balconied buildings, and the Mardi Gras titty flash.

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Needless to say, the region's cuisine is also remarkable. We might have grown tired of the Cajun and Creole food craze of the '80s, but props must be given: With the possible exception of Santa Fe, New Orleans is the only city in the country with a cuisine distinct enough to launch a craze. In New Orleans and surrounding areas, the natural bounty of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico collided happily with African, French, Spanish, Native American, and German culinary traditions. The resulting grub can be grand and a little bit stuffy, like at white-linen restaurant dinosaurs Galatoire's and Antoine's, or it can be as rough and rustic as an oyster po' boy and a heap of crawfish served on newspapers. New Orleans is a place where roux—the flour-and-fat sauce base—is browned and toasted to a mystical darkness and where the delicate crispness of a sugary praline defies the city's overwhelming humidity.

If the Cajuns and Creoles of the Gulf Coast are great cooks, we here in Seattle are great eaters—eager, hungry, and loose with our dollars. Fortunately, many generous restaurants around town are hosting food-y benefits for the victims of Katrina during this month of mourning. Instead of hovering over a tub of pecan praline ice cream and shivering as you replay mental images of dehydrated babies and terrified, wheelchair-bound grannies, why not gather your friends and put your nervous appetite to good use?

Due to its time-sensitivity, the first event to mention is Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (727 Pine St, 624-6268). Through this Friday, September 9, the Louisiana-based chain will be donating 20 percent of all receipts to the Salvation Army's Katrina Relief fund. You'll never eat creamed spinach and rib-eye for a better cause.

Meanwhile at the Palace Ballroom, the new catering space next to the Palace Kitchen (2100 Fifth Ave), Tom Douglas will be putting on a big, New Orleans–flavored benefit Thursday, September 29, from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. 100 percent (!) of the proceeds from the $100 dinner—with its crawdad fritters and étouffée—will go to America's Second Harvest. For reservations, call the Palace Kitchen or visit www.tomdouglas.com.

Throughout September, Ray's Boathouse (6049 Seaview Ave NW, 789-3770) will harness the pride of the Northwest to raise money for the South, donating $1 for every order of salmon sold through its restaurant, cafe, and catering service.

Chow Foods will concentrate fundraising efforts at all its restaurants—Coastal Kitchen (429 15th Ave E, 322-1145), the Hi-Life (5429 Russell Ave, 784-7272), 5 Spot (1502 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-7768), Atlas Foods (2621 NE University Village, 522-6025), and Endolyne Joe's (9261 45th Ave SW, 937-JOES)—on one very resonant day, September 11, when 50 percent of the dinner sales will be donated to Mercy Corps' efforts to help hurricane victims. For more details, contact the Chow restaurant nearest you (you know they're practically stalking you).

Each Thursday in September, Madison Park's Attic Alehouse and Eatery (4226 E Madison St, 323-3131) will match patron contributions to Mercy Corps for up to $500. Bring your checkbooks and, if you can, your own darts, because frankly, the last time I was there, the house darts were a little pathetic.

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And finally, throughout September, the nouveau-Southern Sazerac (1101 Fourth Ave, 624-7755) will donate 20 percent of sales of the prix fixe menu, with duck and andouille gumbo and catfish with a jazzy jalapeño-lime brown-butter sauce, to the Red Cross's Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The menu is $28, or $40 with wine pairings, and available at both lunch and dinner.

These meals will raise just a small fraction of what will be needed to heal the Gulf Coast, but sharing food and toasting a great city seems a profoundly Southern and comforting way to start. recommended