Tricentennial Reading List (Cookbooks): Two Classics from the Newspaper

Jun 22, 2018

Susan Larson sit down with Judy Walker to discuss cookbooks, part one of four.

Two classics from the newspaper:

  • Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker
  • The Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook is a classic.

Transcript:

Susan Larson: What a lot of people don't realize, and this has been true for such a long time, is that the single best-selling category of book in New Orleans, is cookbooks.

Judy Walker: Yes. One of the stories that I did early on, after Katrina, was a story that you gave me the tip for, which was that bookstores were telling you that people were coming in and buying cookbooks because those were their reference books.

Larson: They had to get nice, new ones instead of spattered and stained and annotated ones that they'd had over the years.

Walker: Yes. Their grandmothers' copies of The Picayune's Creole Cook Book that had been in the family for years, just destroyed.

Larson: Tell us a little bit about Cooking Up a Storm and how it came into existence with the recipe recovery project.

Walker: Well, because we started the recipe recovery project, is basically the readers ask for it, and so we followed up on it. It took us three years. When readers specifically wrote me a letter and said, "I collected cookbooks. I lost all my cookbooks in the storm" and she said, "Can you please make a cookbook of all the recipes." We had been asking readers already to send in favorite recipes and talk about their favorite recipes and restore them for each other. This was a regular column. We had two or three regular columns at the time after the storm that all dealt with recipes and getting them together and getting them back to people who needed them. We asked the readers to send in recipes they thought were important at this time. Recipes that were important to them, that had been printed in the paper at the time before they had recipes from their own collection. They nominated recipes that had been in The Picayune's Creole Cook Book. Anyway, it was a tremendous project that I did with Marcelle Bienvenu which was just a joy to do with and our publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books. They totally got it and they were very involved. They thought it was going to be a regional book and it ended up being more of a national book. It really touched a chord with people because we told all these stories. We didn't just record the recipes. We told the stories of the people who asked for them and supplied them as well as the stories of the recipes.

Larson: Every great recipe has a story.

Walker: It does.

Larson: That's the great thing.

Walker: It really does.

Larson: We should say Marcelle Bienvenu is the author of Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, And Can You Make A Roux?, which is one of the best titles.

Walker: Yes. The best title of any cookbook in Louisiana history, and that is a great cookbook and has Marcelle's personal story in it too. That is also a wonderful cookbook.

Larson: Well, let's talk about some of the other books on the list, because there are many. There are many. One of the great favorites, for a lot of people, is The Times-Picayune Creole Cook Book.

Walker: Well, yes. If you had to ask me which is the most important New Orleans cookbook, period, number one on the list, I would have to nominate The Picayune Creole Cook Book because of the time that it was in, because it collected all these recipes from a huge time period before, because it went through so many editions and it added in whatever was contemporary at the time. It's given this thing that scholars-- It's just this rich, rich, rich history, that scholars had been able to go back and examine.

Larson: It's been an evolving record.

Walker: It was an evolving record of Creole cooking. From the first one, which was 1901, there's a whole story about how there's only a few extanct copies. Rien Fertel is the person who's done all the great scholarship on this book and found the original author of it, which was unknown for decades and decades. Nobody knew who actually put this book together. It's just such a great collection, and people still cook out of it. People still use it as a jumping off point for all kinds of recipes. I have gone back and cooked some of the old recipes out of it and they work. Remember when I made the cabbage gumbo?

Larson: Yes. Yes.

Walker: With cabbage and ham and milk, and it's delicious. It's weird but it's delicious.

Larson: Sounds weird but it is delicious.

Support for the Tricentennial Reading List comes from the Helis Foundation, the John Burton Harter Foundation, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

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What are some of your favorite cookbooks? Add them in the comments section.