The Picayune's Creole Cookbook

Today we did some errands and, as usual, couldn’t stop ourselves from visiting Half Price Books. I was so pleased to pick up an actual treasure: The (http://www Picayune’s Creole Cook Book – Sesquicentennial Edition (http://www! It contains 150 years worth of recipes compiles from The Times Picayune (http://www NULL.timespicayune, the New Orleans daily newspaper. The Picayune itself is somewhat sentimental (http://www for me, in part because my grandfather always said it phonetically to make us giggle when we went to visit. Also, a lot of my mom’s own recipe clippings come from the Picayune, and, miraculously, the paper has two pages of comics on weekdays! Weekdays! Can you believe it?

This isn’t the newer version, printed in 2002, with the pretty cover. The hardback of that edition seems not to be available now for less than a C-note,  but I’ll settle for the more “homey” version from 1987.  It is a reprint of the second edition of the Picayune Cookbook from 1901, which is considered the definitive collection.  This edition was edited by Marcelle Bienvenu, of St. Martinville, LA. She worked for the Brennan’s family of restaurants, as well as opening her own restaurant, Chez Marcelle.

I love, love, love this cookbook. After Hurricane Katrina, everyone was not only traumatized, but most of us were (and still are) scattered to the four winds. Entire neighborhoods that have stood for three hundred years disappeared, and some of those neighborhoods are still toxic piles of sticks today. I am especially distressed about it because in New Orleans going to a different neighborhood can be like visiting a different country. The entire city evolved like an ecosystem with the different cultures blending and overlapping in unique ways. It’s depressing to think that some of those ways of life could be gone forever.

New books and cookbooks have been published since Katrina in an attempt to preserve New Orleans culture and also to help the rest of the US understand why it matters so much that New Orleans is in such dire straights. It’s comforting for me, personally, to have such a tangible collection of Creole culture in my hands. It’s a substantial book, containing recipes I would never eat paired with recipes I grew up eating or remember from special occasions.

The Picayune Cookbook began in 1901, carrying on the tradition of New Orleans Creole cooking and household management. It actually began as the old Creole cooks began to die off after the Civil War (or as my old New Orleans History professor called it, “The WAW-uh”), leaving the ladies of the house (who could no longer afford cooks) to carry on. Can you imagine living without the family cook? The humanity! The horror! Actually, I have some older friends who had personal acquaintances who thought the kitchen was the place where the cook went in and the food came out, and that was rather much later than 1901.

Especially entertaining is the section with various menus: Under the heading of “Economical Menus,” The Picayune insists that a family of six can live “comfortably and with variety” on $1.00 to $1.50 per day, and proceeds to list menus with so much food on them that if I had to cook it, much less eat it, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else all day! Incidentally, the money with inflation would be around $25 or so. I don’t know if that’s what it costs to feed a family of six today.

I am especially looking forward to a brunch of grits and grillades (round steak) with red gravy. I ate this dish when I was a kid and gave my mom grief about it, but strangely my grown-up palate craves those flavors! My friend Eric asked me to explain how red gravy and tomato sauce are two different things. This one’s for you, Eric: red gravy is made when you make a brown roux over some onion and garlic, and throw in two chopped tomatoes in their juice. As it browns, put your meat on top, and cover it, turning after one side is browned. Then add a little vinegar and and simmer on low for around half an hour, still covered. Then you have meat and red gravy. The cookbook will give you exact proportions for doing so, and page 139 asserts that “[t]he great truth is that the Creoles knew how to fry meat.”

The are very few illustrations in the book, and what pictures there are have to do with Creole history. Just about every category of food item is covered, including syrups and cordials, as well as pickling and preserving, and even condiments! Caveat: Although I have always thought I would be an excellent book reviewer, I haven’t come up with any sort of rubric or rating system for books, much less for cookbooks. There goes that dream. I can say, however, that I haven’t been as excited by a secondhand cookbook find in some time, and anyone who wants to come over in the near future for a complete “Picayune Creole” meal is going to be pretty lucky!

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