There’s a cornucopia of Louisiana cookbooks out there. Some, like The Fonville Winans Cookbook, the one I co-authored with Melinda Winans, not only have good recipes, but they give the cook an overall idea of what makes the cuisine of south Louisiana so unique.
I’ve been a food writer for the Newcomb College Culinary Writers Group and the Baton Rouge and New Orleans Advocate newspapers, and I’m currently editor of the LSU Press cookbook series “The Southern Table.” I thumb through a lot of cookbooks, and I’m always amazed at how much I learn from those mouthwatering pages. Remarkably, in this digital age, readers still find physical cookbooks entertaining. I, for instance, am the type who’d rather get lost in a cookbook at night instead of a novel. I like turning a page to find someone’s family’s favorite soup, or a new chef’s innovative desserts. There’s also something about a clever recipe title or a heartwarming header that is, well, exciting.
While with the Newcomb group, we were writing a scholarly book on food, and I was instructed to scour that institution’s massive cookbook library for my research. Wow! I was in heaven. At my fingertips were copies of some of the first cookbooks published in Louisiana. From them, I figured out how gumbo evolved over the years, how calves foot jelly was once popular, and that now-hip quenelles, egg-like shapes of forcemeat, were common on nineteenth-century New Orleans tables. All it took was a little detective work, and I had the basis for my work. It was also at this time that I realized that the popular cookbooks of bygone eras had two things in common: their recipes were relatively easy to make, and reading them made you want to rush out to your stove. Both of these distinctions still separate extraordinary cookbooks from the rest.
I met Melinda Winans at an Herb Society meeting in Baton Rouge, and we instantly connected based on one thing—we both love everything about food. Like me, she has an extensive home cookbook library, where there are books she turns to time and time again. Also, her late father-in-law, the internationally famous photographer, Fonville Winans, liked to cook, and he wrote down a mountain of his recipes. One day while browsing through Fonville’s scribbles, we realized we were not only reading a cherished family keepsake, but we had the foundation for an outstanding cookbook.
To make things interesting and to put things in perspective, we made The Fonville Winans Cookbook a compilation of recipes, his photographs, and his biography. He spent most of his youth in Texas, and is most famous for his photographs of the impoverished Depression-era Cajuns who lived on Grand Isle on Louisiana’s coast. During those years, when he was in his early twenties, he became good friends with many of his subjects, and they taught him how to cook what became his favorite cuisine, Cajun.
Fonville later settled in Baton Rouge, where he raised a family, became a sought-after portrait photographer, an inventor, and a pilot. He was also a cook who incessantly experimented. And it is from the many, many versions of his recipes that we get a glimpse of what families were eating in mid-century south Louisiana.Fonville adored both Creole and Cajun food, but his natural curiosity led him to experiment with cuisines such as Mexican and Chinese, creating dishes that were mostly unheard of in the region at the time. His notes tell us that he studied cookbooks, too. He was especially enamored of a book called The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller. In our cookbook, we include many of Fonville’s interpretations of what was, for him, exotic fare. These creations give insight into a man who was definitely ahead of his time, and who was often credited with introducing many new dishes to the Baton Rouge mainstream.
This brings us back to the question of what makes a cookbook exceptional. To me and Melinda, any cookbook tells a story. But many, such as the ones listed below, are encyclopedic, not so much for their girth, but for what their recipes tell us. Importantly, they give a broad spectrum of what folks in Louisiana think is good food. Most of those recipes have a history, some that can be traced back hundreds of years. These recipes also work in a home kitchen and, above all, our modern palates think they still taste great. Once you start reading through them, you’ll pick up on recipe titles, ingredients, and cooking techniques that are found nowhere else. Like The Fonville Winans Cookbook, they capture the local food experience, and any meal made from them would put something authentically Louisiana on the table.
Six Cookbooks that Explain Louisiana’s Unique Flavor:
River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine (The Cookbook Marketplace,1950) – This “textbook of Louisiana cooking” was published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, and has sold over 1.3 million copies. Recipes were contributed by home cooks and run the gamut from roux to courtbouillon to the now-world-famous Spinach Madeleine.
The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine (Chef John Folse & Company Publishing, 2004) – This is the first of Chef John Folse’s gigantic cookbooks. Along with a healthy dose of culinary history, he includes 700 recipes for cooking traditional south Louisiana cuisine.
Cooking up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans (Chronicle Books, 2015) – In 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away many a recipe collection. Times-Picayune food editor Judy Walker and food writer Marcelle Bienvenu came to the rescue with this cookbook based on treasured local favorites.
Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1984) – Chef Paul Prudhomme shook up traditional New Orleans Creole cooking with his down-home, rustic Cajun cooking. This cookbook is classic Cajun.
A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans (LSU Press, 2015) – Cynthia LeJeune Nobles turned the food found in John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel into a cookbook that reflects what was popular on tables in New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s, before south Louisiana cooking was all the rage.
Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans (LSU Press, 2016) – Elizabeth Williams, Director of the Southern Beverage Museum, and Chris McMillian, co-founder of Museum of the American Cocktail, teamed up to write a detailed history of New Orleans’s varied cocktails. Authentic recipes are included. If you’re interested in cocktails, this book is a must.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, series editor for “The Southern Table” from LSU Press, is the author of A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans (LSU Press, 2015) and The Delta Queen Cookbook: The History and Recipes of the Legendary Steamboat (LSU Press, 2012).
With Melinda Risch Winans, Nobles co-authored The Fonville Winans Cookbook, which was published by LSU Press earlier this week. You can read more about their cookbook in The Advocate and SIBA News. Take 30% off select Louisiana titles, including this one, during the month of October with offer code 04LBF! Buy your copy while it’s still hot off the press by clicking here.