Cooking is LIFE!” Debbie Landry Brown says those words sitting in her mother’s kitchen, recipes on 3x5 cards spread out over the counter. “Before COVID, my mom would have all her kids and the grandkids over for a meal, once a month. It was Christmas Dinner every time!”
Mrs. Lou Montte Landry, widow of New Iberia physician Dr. Roy Landry, smiles modestly and nods. “I enjoyed cooking; it was my joy,” she says. Now, at 89, Mrs. Landry’s big family meals don’t happen as frequently, but daughters and daughters-in-law pick up the slack for holidays as they can.
Mrs. Landry’s recipe collection is huge, and varied. “Mama does great seafood,” says Debbie, pointing to her Oyster Dressing recipe, then Crawfish Bisque (complete with how to stuff crawfish heads). “One year I was tired of stuffing heads, so I said to Mama, ‘why don’t we just make boulettes? They’ll taste the same, and won’t be as much trouble,’” Debbie recalls. “But Mama put her foot down; she wanted stuffed heads, because they’re prettier.”
Some of her recipes go beyond a list of ingredients and method. For instance, Flo’s Macque Choux recipe doesn’t mention the cooking, except offhandedly. “Cooking was the easy part,” says Flo. “The real part was getting the right corn.” The recipe instructs: “Go to field, pick 20 dozen ears of corn. Pick really early, only yellow corn. Have kids shuck corn. Cut corn off cob, cook with onions and cooking oil til tender, cool in bathtub.” Lou adds, “I bought from a farmer in Coteau, he always gave me good sweet corn.”
A good cook’s kitchen doesn’t have to contain a vast collection of cookbooks, although most of the cooks in the area do own them – used mainly for reference, or even to peruse like magazines. Many have been gifts from family or friends, tokens of starting out in adult life or recognition of culinary skill. There even have been a few that figured prominently in divorce settlements. “My ex-husband wanted my autographed Alex Patout ‘Cajun Home Cooking,’ so I gave it to him,” a New Iberia cook declared. “Of course, I got another copy, and got Alex to sign it.” Another splitting couple nearly came to blows over Jane Brody’s “Good Food Book”. That was settled, again with two copies, one to each party.
The cookbook that has been mentioned most often as a great local reference is “Talk About Good!”, originally published by the Lafayette Junior League (then known as the Service League) in 1967. It is a collection of recipes submitted by League members, with everything from appetizers to desserts, party fare to Cajun basics like making a roux.
Cathy LaGrange, current president of the Lafayette Junior League, says the League has published three other cookbooks, but “Talk About Good!” was the first and is the most iconic. The book has had 30 printings, and sold over 775,000 copies.
“In 1967, to commemorate the League’s 10th anniversary, they decided to put out a cookbook,” says LaGrange. “The League’s newsletter, Petite Potpourri, featured members’ recipes, and these became ‘Talk About Good!’” LaGrange tells us that none of the recipes in the first book were tested – they were printed as submitted. Recipes sent in for subsequent cookbooks, “Talk About Good II: A Toast to Cajun Food”, published in 1979, “Tell Me More: A Cookbook Spiced with Cajun Traditions and Food Memories”, published in 1993, and “Something to Talk About: Occasions We Celebrate in South Louisiana’’ in 2005, went through rigorous tests and were subject to more restrictions than the first book.
Miriam Bourgeois, who with Anne Calhoun wrote “Behind the Pin”, a book giving readers a peek behind the curtain at the Lafayette Junior League, says “Talk About Good!” has an urban legend surrounding it.
“I heard there was a recipe that was supposed to list a teaspoon of salt in the ingredients, and it was printed with a cup of salt instead,” she says. Although Bourgeois says she went through her copy, as LaGrange has, and neither could find the offending recipe.
THE FAMILY BINDER
Many cooks rely on the family binder – family food secrets, first handed down at grandmother’s elbow by the stove, then written down and shared. Debbie Landry Brown remembers asking her son Timothy what he wanted for Christmas one year. “Grandma’s recipes,” was the reply. “No really, what do you want for Christmas?” He insisted, and Debbie collected her mother’s finest and bound them for him. “He still says that was the best Christmas present he ever got.”
Lisa Duhe Lourd has a family binder she cherishes, as well, from her mother and grandmother. “I have their rice dressing and many others,” she says. “I’ve made the rice dressing, but I can’t make it taste like I remember. I think the pork has changed, and mother would grind her own pork, which made a difference. If only I knew where that grinder went...” Another popular family recipe: Fudge Icing, which adorns family birthday and holiday cakes. “Making it was an ordeal, it took two people,” says Lisa. “It’s really making fudge to cover a cake. We would make it for tall round layer cakes, and defy gravity trying to make it stay where it was supposed to go,” she says. “Depending on the weather, it might just pool in the bottom of the cake, other times it would stiffen up before we were finished spreading it. It earned the name ‘GD Icing’ in the family. We struggled for a long time, until my mother said,’why not just pour it on a sheet cake?’ Brilliant. But it’s still GD Icing to us.”
Andre Bonin Bodin recalls her mother’s binder, however a recent search for it was unfruitful. Andre insists Mrs. Armine Bonin’s recipes are not lost, just put “in a safe place.” One recipe that is still handy, for her Lemon Icebox Pie, is still made by brother Patrick and his wife Karen as a tasty Easter treat for the family. “We took up the mantle of my mother’s Lemon Icebox Pie for Easter,” Patrick says. “It has to be made with real lemons, and my mother would always taste test it beforehand. If she made ‘the lemon face’, we were sure it was right.”
Search the kitchen counter of an Acadiana cook, and you’ll see it. It may be plastic, or wooden, plain or intricately decorated. It’s The Box. Inside, you’ll discover a world of great cooking, not to mention myriad stains, scratch outs and revisions – the messier, the better. Three-by-five index cards, recipes cut from the back of the box of pancake mix, some even written on the back of bank deposit slips. Folded and refolded, here’s Lemon Curd, typed out on a Royal typewriter, or Manicotti, in the last vestiges of Noni’s elegant longhand. The recipe box is not necessarily arranged in any order, except in the owner’s mind. The cards in the front probably have been used last, while the papers in the back may be pulled out just for reminiscence. There also may be recipes from The Box shoved into convenient places in cookbooks or binders, like Aunt Margot’s great cornbread recipe stashed near the instructions for the double- secret family chili.
Acadiana cooks rely on their family, their friends and their creativity for their marvelous dishes. So, this holiday season, read those cookbooks, drag out the family binder, rifle through the box. Enjoy the fruits of generations of awesome culinary artists, and remember, to us, cooking is LIFE.