From Boarding House and Side Board to Wooden Spoons and Wooden Cookbooks

cover artI’d never seen a wooden cookbook cover until last week, and then in a span of four days I saw two cookbooks with wooden covers – published 32 years apart.  The older one, published in 1939, has reached American Folk Art status – but I didn’t know that when I bought it.

My copy of Fine Old Dixie Recipes cost me $3.50 at an estate sale. It’s an unusual yet confusing find. The cover, inside cover and title page all list different titles. There’s Fine Old Dixie Recipes on the cover, Southern Cookbook: 322 Old Dixie Recipes on the inside inside covercover, and Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes on the title page. According to a cookbook history site, the book’s publisher Culinary Arts Press in Reading, Pennsylvania produced small cookbooks from 1934 until almost fading away in the 1990s, to finally reissue classic cookbooks in 2009. My estate sale find originally sold for five cents and I found it online for $97. That’s when I learned it was folk art.

This cookbook is a piece of history (well, maybe historical fiction) that extols the sunny South as a place of fertile fields, plentiful fruit trees and bountiful waterways. The editors promise to “reveal carefully guarded secrets of real Southern cooking.”  The recipes, the editors write, are mostly from Southern city folks, some who undoubtedly gathered their recipes from their mammies (yes, they say that).  A few more pompous assumptions, poems in rhyming dialect, and African-American caricatures foster stereotypes of the South which no doubt added to today’s current racial discord. It’s definitely a collection of Southern recipes for Northerners (note I didn’t say Yankees). Regardless, the gumbo recipes look authentic.

Southern Gumbo FODShrimp Gumbo FOD

Fine Old Dixie Recipes

Chicken Oyster FOD

I recognized the wood encasing the second cookbook instantly.  When my husband sold paneling in the early 1970s, I helped him learn product names using flash cards taped to the back of paneling samples. A Dash of Sevillity, published in 1971 by Pensacola Heritage Foundation, is bound between two pieces of Georgia-Pacific’s “Piccadilly” paneling.


I’d recognize Georgia-Pacific paneling anywhere after learning all the designer names in the 1970s. This “Picadilly” makes  a great cookbook back.

I’d seen a 2003 edition of this cookbook at the genealogy library, but even the library doesn’t have this wooden-cloaked treasure. Fellow writer Lucie Wade shared her copy with me and pointed out the three-and a-half- page primer on “The Authentic and Original Way to Make Oyster Gumbo.” The first ingredient is one full quart of Tennessee sour-mash bourbon for the cook and his helpers. The second ingredient stopped me in my tracks — a 7-pound elderly rooster.

I probably won’t cook the following gopher gumbo either because it took me two years to realize a gopher is a Florida tortoise. But the recipe looks simple enough – except for finding turtle meat.  Besides, in Florida now gopher tortoises are a threatened species and both tortoise and burrow are protected by state law.  Pensacolans must have dined on lots of Gopher Gumbo.

Sevillity 2

Sevillity 3Sevillity 1

Pensacolans take great pride in their gumbo, gopher or not. So with this ending quote, I tally 113 in my quest for 300 gumbo recipes to celebrate New Orleans’ 300th birthday.

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Restaurant Gumbo: Half a dozen bowls worth sampling

Rue Royale

I rarely order gumbo at restaurants, and if I do, it’s because I’ve sampled it first. I’m picky about gumbo. Far too many people dislike gumbo, and that’s probably because they haven’t tasted good gumbo like my grandmother’s, my father’s or mine. Gumbo at restaurants is rarely the real thing.

I like to know what’s in restaurant gumbo. Before ordering a sample, I ask the server about the ingredients; I don’t even taste those with oysters or fish (except grouper). If a sample is too watery, too spicy or too fishy, I suspect the cook is serving six-day-old gumbo. I haven’t yet mustered the courage to ask a server “What day of the week does your chef make gumbo?” but I’ve heard some cooks just water down what’s left in the pot. Daily, they add a little more hot sauce and a little more stock to make the gumbo last the full week. Making gumbo is hard work but if it’s not fresh, it’s not worth 99 cents or $4.95 a cup.

Some restaurants are famous for their gumbo and share elaborate recipes with the world. After the home cooks see the ingredients and the time required, chances are they’ll order a quart to go, just what the restaurant intended.

The Gumbo Shop

630 St. Peter 

New Orleans

One restaurant takes a different approach. The Gumbo Shop in New Orleans, which serves the best I’ve eaten in the Crescent City, offers one of their gumbo recipes to tourists so they can cook gumbo at home to savor their love of The Gumbo Shop and the French Quarter until they return.

Gumbo Shop Sseafood Okra

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant

110 Rue Magnolia, Biloxi, Mississippi

mmoneysBiloxi, located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, is home to, Mary Mahoney’s, an upscale restaurant located in the Old French House dating to 1737.  Famous for seafood, steaks and French cuisine, Mary Mahoney’s been operating in the historic house since the 1940s.  It survived Camille and Katrina and is on the National Register of Historic Places. While a college student, I dined there and was so enamored with the beauty of the historic home and the lore that surrounded it, I can’t remember what I ate. At that time, legend claimed the bar was located in old slave quarters.  I don’t know if Katrina washed away the slave quarters and spared the home or if the owners are more sensitive now because there’s no mention of slaves on the website. It would be nice if I could say Mary Mahoney’s is named after the first African American licensed nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, but it’s not so. The original owners were the late Bob and Mary Mahoney and her brother Andrew Cvitanovich. Still a family operation, their gumbo is famous. In 1987 the restaurant shared the recipe with the cookbook editors for Keesler’s Art in Cuisine from Keesler Air Force Base. I spotted one at an estate sale a few weeks ago and photographed the recipe.

Mary Mahoney's

Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s

200 E 25th Ave, Gulf Shores, AL

cp2Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is a beach-style dining experience where folks wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, bring the kids and often arrive by boat. The food is exceptional and Lulu’s is as famous for gumbo as its owner Lucy Buffett (Jimmy’s sister) is for cooking and storytelling. Her cookbooks delight the reader with tales of friends making gumbo, an all-day event. You can see it takes a crew to make it from this restaurant recipe featured in Coastal Palate.



12595 Sollace Freeman Highway, Sewanee, Tennessee

51PKnrxXyCL._SX260_In his book Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South, food and drink writer Chris Chamberlain recommends eating gumbo at only one Southern restaurant before you die, and it’s not in New Orleans. This choice is on top of Monteagle Mountain in the college town of Sewanee, Tennessee, home to University of the South. Chamberlain should know – he lives in nearby Nashville. Shenanigan’s is a restaurant and pub in a funky old  house, but Chamberlain’s readers might be disappointed because the menu (online) doesn’t list gumbo. Maybe they ladle it out from their food truck. Gumbo or not, I’d still try their muffaletta.

Shenanigan's Seafood Gumbo

Marina Café

404 Harbor Blvd, Destin, FL

marina-cafe-grand-entranceWhen I found the book Marina Café: Flavors of the Gulf Coast at an estate sale, I was surprised to learn Marina Café, which overlooks Destin Harbor, serves classic Chicken and Andouille gumbo – not seafood. That’s refreshing. I’ve never visited the restaurant or tried the recipe, but both look enticing.

Marina Cafe

Dooky Chase’s

2301 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans

or Louis Armstrong International Airport (Kenner)

tremeCreole chef, restaurateur and nonagenarian, Leah “Dooky” Chase is legendary for gumbo. She’s also a New Orleans television personality, author and household name when it comes to making gumbo. Her main restaurant is located in Treme near the French Quarter, but I found her location at the Louis Armstrong International Airport excellent, and the lines much shorter. Her recipe for Gumbo Z’Herbes is featured in the book Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans by Lolis Eric Elie.  The author, Elie, is a New Orleanian filmmaker, journalist and food historian. I first learned about him when I read an article he wrote about gumbo for Smithsonian Magazine.

I love Gumbo Z’Herbes and could drive to New Orleans in less than four hours, which is about how long it takes to make the following recipe.  A commuter flight would be faster, but the cost of a cup of gumbo at the airport would soar over $300. If only we had the Amtrak back.

Dooky Chase's


D Chase Airport (2)gumbo crp

Right: A cup for gumbo from Dooky Chase’s airport restaurant. Photo by Diane Skelton


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Green Gumbo Recipes: 100 and Counting

NOLA new

The City of New Orleans is celebrating with birthday signs displayed across the city. This one is located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Pat Gould-Black.

When a friend refused to believe there could actually be 300 recipes for gumbo, he mimicked the Bubba Gump routine “fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, baked shrimp, shrimp with rice, shrimp etoufee.”  His remarks made me pause to wonder if my quest for finding 300 different recipes to celebrate New Orleans 300th birthday was improbable.

I’d never stopped to think about it before. When I boldly began the quest, I not once questioned my chance at success.  Long before I read the article in Bon Appetit  I knew there are as many variations of gumbo as there are pots in Louisiana. For me, gumbo is as diverse as the city that made it famous.Pull quote box

We journalists aren’t known for our math skills, but any good mathematician or computer programmer could figure my odds of success based on provided variables. The varying instructions and ingredients could implode a calculator.  The steps for making a gumbo can rival the text of a dissertation, while the ingredients usually mean a trip to the grocery store. Here’s what makes recipes different:

Brew the Roux

Either you start with a roux — or you don’t. If the recipe calls for a roux, it will usually specify a color, often that of a copper penny,  while others use a more artistic palette. Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen includes photos of the four key colors of roux along with a great explanation of each.

Top Row: Light brown is used more often in sauces and gravies for heavier dark meat such as beef, venison and game like wild duck and goose.  Medium brown roux is used instead of light brown roux when a somewhat stronger, deeper and nuttier flavor is desired. Bottom Row: Dark red-brown roux is for light, sweet meats as domesticated fowl and rabbit, pork, veal and seafood. It is also used for gumbos. Black roux is used for a stronger flavor than dark red-brown. It takes practice to make a black roux, but it’s really the right color for a gumbo. From Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Blessed Be

A major component of most gumbos is the Holy Trinity — celery, onions and bell pepper. Onions matter – red, white or yellow, Vidalia or Noonday or Bermuda or Peru, and some cooks, like John Besh, don’t use bell pepper in gumbo (his mama didn’t like it).

Spices of Life

Bay leaves, basil, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne are typical but occasionally a recipe calls for Kitchen Bouquet, Tony Chachere or Old Bay. Bay leaves are the spice most used, but it’s that other sacred ground leaf that some gumbo cooks swear by, but never add until the last minute. Filé is ground from sassafras leaves.

Kick it Up a Notch

As Emeril says, what will you kick it up with? Red pepper pods,  Tabasco or Worchester or Louisiana Hot Sauce? That varies, too.

 It’s Not Gumbo Without

The most debated ingredient is okra. Some people say gumbo isn’t gumbo without okra. For many cooks, okra is the thickener for their gumbo, but the absence or presence of okra adds to the variable list along with tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. After all, the word “gumbo” is derived from the West African “ngombo” for okra.

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The Kitchen Sink

Add meat, poultry or seafood – oysters, shrimp, dried shrimp, crabmeat, crab bodies, crab legs, frog legs, fish, crawfish, beef, chicken, smoked sausage, andouille sausage, ham, duck, goose, turkey, guinea, boiled eggs, venison, quail or any combination that suits you. Or make it vegetarian.

Cook it Your Way

I like to add fresh garlic after the liquid like Leah “Dooky” Chase, a ninety-five-year-old New Orleans chef. The garlic doesn’t’ burn that way. Some cooks make their own seafood or chicken stock, while others use stock straight from the box or water out of the faucet.

Serve it Your Way

Usually over rice, but will it be with potato salad, chopped green onions or parsley?

To celebrate a milestone in my adventure (100 of 300 gumbo recipes), I’m posting a dozen variations of Gumbo Z’Herbes and its cooking cousins Gumbo Vert and Green Gumbo. It’s the most difficult gumbo I’ve ever made, but also one of the most delicious. The ingredients alone are mind-boggling but the superstition that goes with it is even more fascinating.

The original Gumbo Z’Herbes (pronounced gumbo zav or zab) was a dish prepared on Holy Thursday for good luck. It was made of seven greens ranging from spinach to beet tops to dandelion leaves. The original version was meatless, and Cajuns believed if you ate seven greens on Holy Thursday and met seven people on Good Friday, you would have good luck all year.  Others say Gumbo Z’Herbes is to be eaten on Good Friday. It is, for sure, a Lenten dish delicious anytime of the year when fresh greens are available. Tradition holds you can make it with more than five or seven greens, but the number must always be odd. I used eleven in my first attempt!  As tradition evolved, cooks have added meat, but I prefer the original vegetarian version.

My Favorite Gumbo Z'HerbesGulf Coast KitchensGourmet's Guide 1 greenGreen Gumbo Talk About GoodGumbo&Soup1NO Cookbook Gumbo Z'HerbesLittle Gumbo Book Gumbo Z'HerbesGourmet's Guide 2 greenJCFG Gumbo Vert

You might notice this post features only nine recipe cards when I promised a dozen Gumbo Z’Herbes recipes.  On closer inspection, you’ll see the last two recipes have enough variations to add three more recipes, for a total of twelve recipes for Gumbo Z’Herbes.  The hardest thing making this dish, for me, is saying it correctly.  Here’s a great John Besh Food Netowrk video. He’s cooking Green Gumbo with Dooky Chase, famous New Orleans Gumbo Z’Herbes  chef.  He says “gumbo zav” enough times I can almost pronounce it just like John Besh, with that soft New Orleans lilt.

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Where You From?

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I started to eavesdrop when I heard the word “gumbo.”  Behind the beauty shop privacy screen, two strangers, each getting a pedicure, were discussing a new Cajun restaurant on the beach. As my stylist shampooed my hair, I listened carefully, enjoying anonymity while the two women talked about jambalaya, shrimp creole, and red beans and rice. From their voices I detected Louisiana accents, one more pronounced than the other.

The older, stronger accent inquired what part of Louisiana the young voice came from.

“I’m from Jeanerette, that’s in Cajun country.”

The mature voice, heavy with its New Orleans intonation, asked “How long you been here?”

The Cajun gal answered, “Thirty years.”

New Orleans replied, “Well, you’re not from there anymore.”

I disagree. Everybody’s from where they say they’re from. It might not be where you were born, but it’s where you say you’re from even if it’s thirty years past. For Southerners, it’s usually the place of birth. Geography settles in our skin and bones during the formative years. Subtle reminders bury into our subconscious. For me, the smell of marsh mud reminds me of where I’m from, even though I’ve been gone twice as long as I lived in Pascagoula, Mississippi. I’ve lived all over and called lots of places home, but I’m from Pascagoula.

The day after overhearing the conversation, I headed out on my usual Friday morning rounds to estate sales. At the first stop, I discovered immediately where the homeowner was from without a word.  She hails from Louisiana – maybe even Jeanerette like the Cajun gal in the beauty shop. Jeanerette is located in Iberia Parish, home of the World Championship Gumbo Cook-off.  The estate sale homeowner probably spent a few years in Mississippi before moving to Florida.  Sometime from 1969 to 1992, with emphasis on 1984, she probably lived around Lafayette.

I learned all this in a kitchen closet studying her cookbooks — the bookmarked pages, food splatters, copyright dates, publishers, inscriptions on the title pages, and notes in the back.  And, I didn’t need to eavesdrop, except I did overhear the owner had sold the house and moved to a retirement community.

Her collection of Creole and Cajun cookbooks was so remarkable that I broke my cardinal rule and shelled out cash for cookbooks – five of them at two bucks each.  I did louisiana regionsphotograph a few recipes in other books, but these five cookbooks alone contain a total of 63 gumbo recipes.  That’s proof positive the homeowner appreciated Cajun and Creole cuisine.  According to tourism sources, Cajun Country is one of the five regions of Louisiana and stretches from Houma to Lafayette to Lake Charles. New Orleans isn’t included – it’s a tourist region all of its own. IMG_3998

The real puzzle for me is the year the homeowner settled in the Pensacola area. I could have figured it out if I’d been a better sleuth.  One tell-tale cookbook, published by Odom Realty of Pensacola, looked like a newcomer-gift a realtor would present to a client who purchased a home. Either the cookbook didn’t have a publication date or I didn’t photograph that page.  Regardless, the Cajuns would appreciate the recipes, especially the first one with its canned seafood. In desperate times, Cajuns are known to add dried shrimp to their gumbo.Odom REalty 1Odom REalty 2The cookbook favored most by the homeowner according to its splatters, missing back cover, and the recipe card tucked inside, is Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo (If you want to sing along with Jerry Lee Lewis, click here) published in 1984 by Cooking Cousins out of Harahan, Louisiana. A copy like mine, sans splatters with cover intact, sells for $45 on Amazon. Here are two variations of the same recipe. JCFG Red BeansJCFG Gumbo d'FeveTalk About Good II, Le Livre de Cuisine des Acadiens, is still available on Amazon, too, though it’s much more pricey at $202. I’ll keep my second-hand one to try Wild Duck-Sausage and Oyster Gumbo, and Crawfish Gumbo.Talk About Wild DuckTalk About CrawfishThe Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans Creole Cookbook (1964) thanks famous restaurateurs the likes of Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Brennan’s, Dunbar’s and the Pontchartrain Hotel for recipe donations.  My favorite part, though, is the acknowledgment page honoring local writers for contributing recipes since the book’s first printing in 1933. Where else would you find Grace King’s recipe for Crab Meat Newberg or Harnett Kane’s Oyster and Sweetbread Pies? A copy like mine is available on Amazon for around $20, but it won’t have the cook’s favorite recipes checked and underlined in pencil. Here’s one she checked:Gourmet OCSGAlso included, though missing a check mark, is the recipe for crab gumbo served at The Shadows-on-the-Teche Plantation in New Iberia submitted by plantation owner Weeks Hall.Gourmet Crab PlantationThe Supplement Section (late recipes, perhaps?) includes a gumbo recipe from former newspaper reporter Merlin “Scoop” Kennedy, who gained fame for his WDSU-TV cooking show and his book Dining in New Orleans, published in 1945. The name of the recipe, I suspect, comes from Irish Bayou, a small bayou and community by the same name within the city limits of New Orleans.  There’s no “irish” cabbage or potatoes in the gumbo – thank goodness.Gourmet Scoop KennedyVoila!, the 1984 Lafayette Centennial Cookbook, celebrates a hundred years of the city, with 246 pages of recipes. At the end of the book, Jake Valentine, a so-called cosmopolitan cook, describes the 80s – “Acadian food being served in restaurants . . .skinny was in, fat was out . . . saturated fats were taboo . . . recipes were modified for microwaves.” Though the back of book has a nice clip-and-mail form to order copies, I doubt if the post office box is valid, but the book’s on Amazon.Voila TassoVoila LentenNo Cajun recipe collection would be complete without one contributor. There are more tall tales, legends and jokes about Boudreaux than I can count. The name’s even gone mainstream with products like Boudreaux’s Butt Cream for diaper rash and as a reindeer in The Cajun Night Before Christmas.  So, it’s seems only fitting to include Mrs. Walter Boudreaux’s (but it’s no joke) seafood gumbo – and it looks delicious (no oysters for me though).Voila BoudreauxThe newest book of the five I bought is the 1992 Rouxdolph’s Gumbo and Soup Book, illustrated by Andrew Smith. Almost every recipe of the 25 gumbo recipes begins with “Make a roux,” which the editor calls “the most important ingredient in making a gumbo.” His tips for making roux are well worth the price of the book. It’s available on Amazon or eBay. In my copy, the first owner dog-eared the recipe for Seafood-Okra Gumbo.Gumbo&Soup2That’s 13 more recipes to total 88 in my quest to collect 300 gumbo recipes to celebrate New Orleans’ 300th birthday.  More estate sales adventures await, and I haven’t told you about my second sale on Friday. That cook owned books from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Saturday’s sale yielded recipes from a pastor’s wife.

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Recipes from the shelves of a bibliophile

Cover art

Almost every room in the house at this Florida estate sale offered bookshelves filled with books to answer any question, solve any problem or cook any dish. I wasn’t the only shopper frozen in my tracks staring at titles.

Shopping at an estate sale of a bibliophile is better than any trip to a library or bookstore, especially when the book lover likes the same topics I do.  The setting of last week’s sale — a rambling 3500 square-foot Brady Bunch contemporary overlooking a bayou – inspires reading. Bookcases graced almost every room, sometimes walls of built-in bookcases, all brimming with words about cooking, architecture, photography, travel and IMG_3929history.

The number of diet, cooking and culinary titles was staggering.  From specialty diets like Sugar Busters! to curious collections like Low-Carb Dieting for Dummies, I was spellbound by the first bookcase.  Even though some books didn’t contain gumbo recipes, I was still mesmerized. I’d never seen E.M. Minkler’s White Trash Cooking and The Manna Food Bank’s Making Do with recipes for a near-empty pantry.

I started piling cookbooks in my arms – for myself and as gifts – then remembered my shelves, too, were overflowing. I needed to photograph recipes and covers, not buy books. I couldn’t resist a few, however, and bought a rare copy of North Hill Cookbook for myself, a copy of Santa Rosa’s Woman’s Club Recipes and Remembrances to donate to the Benson House Museum in Gulf Breeze, and a copy of Paula Dean’s The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook for my friend in Texas. I spent nearly an hour at that first bookshelf snapping photos of recipes from cookbooks I’d never before seen – and I still wasn’t in the kitchen.

A gigantic map of the world covered the entire kitchen wall behind the breakfast table. I noticed a few locations marked with push pins and wondered if the family enjoyed morning coffee while discussing the whereabouts of the daily headlines or if they were pinpointing places to visit.  In the kitchen bookcase, I found classic cookbooks like The Joy of Cooking snuggled right next to smaller ones like The Complete Toaster Oven. A book lover hangs on to the cookbook that accompanied the 1973 gas oven as well as the recipe pamphlet that came with the blender. In the first two rooms alone I found over a dozen recipes in my quest for 300 gumbo recipes to celebrate New Orleans’ 300th birthday.

I was surprised to see that neither of two gumbo recipes in New Orleans’ Favorite Recipes uses a roux. That cuts down on cooking time, but I wonder if the flavor is diminished.

LaGumbo Aux Herbes

The copy of Four Great Southern Cooks (subtitled Four old-time professional cooks share their recipes with you) was published in 1982. Its best Amazon reviews are for desserts, however, the foursome included a tasty-looking recipe for Okra Gumbo calling for a ham hock.  Though it might sound like a specialty ingredient, Walmart usually carries ham hocks right by the salt pork and misshapen bacon products.Four Cooks Okra Gumbo

Mrs. Edna Clark, another great Southern cook, I suspect, contributed her version of okra gumbo to Pensacola’s YMCA Cookbook. The editors, however, omitted the okra from the cooking instructions. I wish I’d taken a photo of the publication date, but they might have omitted that, too.  I’d love to see a modern, healthy version of the YMCA cookbook, this one with recipes contributed by the members of the new state-of-the-art downtown “Y” that looks like a college campus.Okra YMCA

On that same kitchen bookshelf, I found a 1970 copy of Pensacola’s Temple Beth-El Sisterhood’s Kitchen Symphony From the Gulf Coast with two non-kosher gumbo recipes. Bound with black plastic spirals, the recipes look hand-typed, then mimeographed, but I put a lot of faith in these cooks because they represent the oldest Jewish congregation in the State of Florida, established in 1876.

Temple Beth El 1Temple Beth El 2


Old Christ Church, Pensacola, now part of the University of West Florida Historic Trust.

A second church cookbook on the shelf, Angel Food from Christ Episcopal Church, dates to 1995.  I can’t help but wonder how many cookbooks this parish has published since the original Christ Church opened its doors in 1832. The original building was used by Union forces during the Civil War as a jail, then barracks, then hospital, and finally as a chapel. Old Christ Church is now part of University of West Florida’s Historic Trust. The parish worships in a spectacular Spanish Renaissance sanctuary completed in 1903.

Christ Church 2Christ Church 1

IMG_3961Of all the cookbooks on the kitchen shelves, the DeFuniak Springs’ Garden Club cookbook demonstrates “never judge a book by its cover.”  The cover and pages are held together with office rings. The collection is packed with recipes from around the globe and down the street, but some ingredients haven’t passed the test of time. Nowadays, few people know a 20-oz. can was once referred to as  a #2 can and a #10 can feeds dozens. But like many folks’ personal recipes passed around, a certain ingredient makes their gumbo individual.  In DeFuniak Springs, one cook calls for mustard while another uses celery leaves – not ribs or stalks – celery leaves.

DeFuniak Springs 1DeFuniak Springs 2DeFuniak Springs 3

In an upstairs bedroom I found the 1971 best seller Diet for a Small Planet slightly diminished by its bookcase neighbor The Gulf Breeze Sightings.  I bought the UFO book – we only had one at home and you never know when company’s landing for dinner.

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Hot off the Press! Get Your Gumbo Recipes Here!

LOC Newsboys NOLA

News boys, aged seven and nine, sell newspapers in New Orleans in 1913. Photo courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-nclc-03923.

Like any student of journalism in the Deep South, I know exactly what a “picayune” is.  I learned the term in Journalism I at University of Southern Mississippi and have grown to appreciate the newspaper lore that accompanies the word.   The New Orleans newspaper now known as the Times-Picayune was originally named after its cost – one picayune. picayuneDespite setbacks, the paper has outlived its namesake, the small Spanish coin worth a little over a nickel, while winning profession’s most coveted prize, the Pulitzer.

Established in New Orleans in 1837, The Picayune struggled early on to make a profit, despite its bargain price.  To survive, its female publisher Eliza Poitevent Nicholson sought new readers, especially women. Though she died in 1896, culinary historians think her efforts led to the 1900 publication of The Picayune Creole Cook Book. The treasured book has seen over 15 editions. The original is so old the copyright has expired.

The cookbook is a mainstay in New Orleans’ kitchens. After Hurricane Katrina while 51Dt+7JlzZLTimes-Picayune reporters were covering their evacuated, underwater city from a college newsroom eighty miles away, New Orleans cooks were bemoaning the loss of their beloved Picayune Creole Cook Book.   Former Times-Picayune Food Editor Judy Walker says after Katrina she received call after call requesting copies of the cookbook. Fortunately, newer versions are available on Amazon. One heartwarming story is woven into an Amazon review. “My mother gave me this book when it first came out and I lost it in Hurricane Katrina. Once we were back in our home, 2 years later, I was able to  . . . get another copy . . . It was the FIRST cookbook I replaced from my collection.”

NicolsonEliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, the cookbook’s inspiration, began as a poet, using the nom de plume Pearl Rivers after the river near her Mississippi birthplace. Upon the death of her much-older husband Alva Holbrook, she inherited the newspaper along with its $80,000 debt. She later married the business manager George Nicholson. Together they brought the newspaper from bankruptcy into profitability.

Both legend and Wikipedia say the town of Picayune, Mississippi was named for the newspaper. When railroads were bargaining their way through the Pearl River area, hometown girl Nicholson, by then a famous publisher, was given the honor of naming the depot stop. She called it after her newspaper and it remains the only Picayune in the U.S.  About four miles away is Nicholson, also named in her honor.

She gained respect nationwide as the first female publisher of a major metropolitan daily newspaper. An early advocate for women writers, she hired both a female columnist and a female reporter. Under Nicholson’s leadership The Daily Picayune became one of the leading newspapers of the South. In 1884, she became the first president of the National Woman’s Press Association.

Nicholson added innovative features  to increase readership including recipes which often appeared in a household hints column. Some of them appear in the first Picayune Creole Cook Book. The cookbook doesn’t list an editor, but culinary historians suspect it was Marie Louise Points, a writer and editor of the women’s department of The Picayune. She was working there in  1892  when Nicholson was at the helm. Points, who later edited the Morning Star Catholic weekly for the archdiocese, was a New Orleanian — a white French-Creole herself. Who better to recognize and preserve Creole recipes for the future?

The 1900 Picayune Creole Cook Book has over 1500 recipes in 300-plus pages, and is downloadable at no cost. Though the ingredients might be dated and the instructions challenging, the recipes still work. I haven’t cooked all the gumbo recipes, but the okra gumbo is one of the best I’ve ever made.  And for that delicious dish, I can thank Eliza and Maria, two Southern gals who blazed the trail for female journalists everywhere. Turkey GumboGumbo FileSquirrel or RabbitGreen GumboShrimp GumboCreole CB Recipe cardOyster GumboCrab Gumbo


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Cookbooks for a Cause: Ursulines make history in New Orleans

Opening photoI turned to the church for my latest cache of gumbo recipes to celebrate New Orleans’ 300th birthday. To be precise, I turned to the nuns at Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. They’ve been mixing the right ingredients since they produced the first female pharmacist in the New World, added pecans to pralines and invented the hush puppy.

Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans, published in 1971 by the Ursuline Academy Cooperative Club, Ursuline Alumnae Association, and Old Ursuline Convent Guild, is a IMG_3922charter member of the Southern Living Community Cookbook Hall of Fame and included in the Walter S. McIlhenny (Tabasco) Hall of Fame. I paid two dollars for my copy at an estate sale. Rich in content, its true value came in helping raise three million dollars to restore the Old Ursuline Convent Museum. The convent, built in 1751, is the oldest surviving building in the Mississippi River Valley. The next time I’m in the Crescent City, I’m taking the tour.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the wonderful illustrations penned by Emery Clark for the cookbook. The book also preserves history with beautifully crafted narratives about the convent, its past, and its architecture and herb garden, as well as anecdotes on early and contemporary New Orleans cooking. The recipes are brimming with oysters and seafood, except for the mouth-watering desserts, which rival that of any French patissier. The section on soups introduced me to Gumbo Choux or cabbage gumbo, the soup of the poor. Cabbage Gumbo

The editors included recipes from famous New Orleans restaurants as Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Pittari’s, Masson’s, Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain but also added contributions from the nuns and Ursuline Academy alumna. I can’t help wonder if contributor Barbara Connick is related to Harry Connick Jr.

A dozen sisters of the Ursuline teaching order arrived in New Orleans in 1727 and by 1728 the convent was on the map. The nuns were educating the daughters of French officials and plantation aristocracy in cooking, wifely arts, and reading, writing and arithmetic.Gumbo Z'Herbes

Now, 290 years later, the nuns continue their calling at Ursuline Academy. I live 200 miles away in Florida, and last week I saw a woman wearing an Ursuline alumnae t-shirt volunteering at St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Despite devastating fires, Mississippi River floods and Hurricane Katrina, Ursuline nuns continue educating young women and sending them out into the world to make a difference. Ursuline Academy of New Orleans remains the oldest, continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States.


Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first disaster to challenge the Ursuline Sisters. Shown here is the current 11-acre campus on State Street which flooded during Katrina but is now flourishing. The staircase in the second Ursuline Convent, a National Historic Landmark and now a museum in the French Quarter, was salvaged from the original building. The left photo (from the academy’s website) shows the 2005 flooding during Katrina when the nuns were forced, for the first time ever, to evacuate. On the right is today’s glory.

The history of the City of New Orleans can’t be told without mentioning the Ursuline Sisters. They cared for young female orphans who survived Indian massacres, provided shelter for the outcast Acadians seeking a new home, tended both the British and American soldiers during the War of 1812, taught classes for daughters of the wealthy as well as African American and Native American girls, and hosted the Casket (Casquette) Girls, young French virgins brought to the New World as brides for colonists.

So it comes as no surprise, after nearly 300 years of caring and educating women in New Orleans, that the cookbook includes a ten-point guide on becoming a Creole cook and hostess with a flair. My favorite tip is number three – cook a good thick gumbo.

Chicken Gumbo File 1Chicken Gumbo File 2Seafood Gumbo

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