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PAST & REPAST: The Picayune's Creole Cook Book

new orleans food writing

Photo of the columnist by Denny Culbert.

Food and History:

Discussed:

The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book 

(First Edition: Times-Picayune Press, 1900)

and

Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker

(Chronicle Books, 2008)

Just weeks ago, on May 24, a gut-punch of a corporate move knocked the wind out of an entire city. The Times-Picayune announced that, come fall, it would no longer publish daily (decreasing to just three times a week) to focus instead on digitally enhanced coverage. As David Carr, The New York Times media reporter who initially broke the story, wrote this is “a story about a town that loved its newspaper…but just not enough to keep it.”

The Picayune, like Mardi Gras or gumbo, is one of those stereotypical and singular identity markers that the great majority of New Orleanians actually consume. For one hundred and seventy-five years, the paper has not only chronicled the city’s history, it has itself become, as historian Thomas Ruys Smith points out, “part and parcel of that history.” Facing a paperless future, this is a city collectively deflated. 

For a newspaper that prides itself on its participatory nature—the obituary write-ups, provided by family, often span several pages—the Picayune’s founders envisioned an exclusionary commercial-meets-entertainment journal for the city’s Anglo-American populace, a rapidly gaining minority in the French-Creole city. (In 1914, the paper merged with its bitter rival, the Times-Democrat, to form The Times-Picayune.) In those first decades of publication there appeared police reports and poetry from the North, notices for the city’s English-language theatre, and advertisements selling cases of recently imported Gruaud Larose and Chateau Margaux (despite ethnic strife, it seems that Americans could not forego their French wine).   

Throughout the nineteenth century, The Picayune maintained a conservative editorial streak for the city’s elite: pro-slavery, anti-Reconstruction. That inflexibility changed in 1876, when Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook (later Nicholson), a literary editor and sometimes-poet writing under her pen name, Pearl Rivers, inherited the paper from her late husband.

Mired in debt, the nation’s first female publisher of a major metropolitan daily, modernized and feminized the paper. She hired women writers, most famously Catherine Cole and Dorothy Dix, included a scandalous society page, and added a weekly Household Hints feature. Alongside recipes and economic tips, this kitchen-focused column—one of the nation’s first—sought to tip the household scales by preaching a gospel of gender uplift. The first Household Hints essay, appearing in October 1882, encouraged women to “estimate their services at their proper worth” and seek equal pay. 

Eliza Jane’s little column led to a recipe collection that would become one of the most critically important in the history of cookery letters. In 1900, twenty-five cents bought The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, a kitchen compendium that vouched to be “the first that has ever been attempted, and probably the only one that can ever be made.” Experts have called it not only “the ultimate cook book on Creole cuisine,” but the “most notable among early-twentieth-century food writings.”

new orleans southern food

The cookbook’s editors promoted the notion that New Orleans’ cuisine was exceptional. One Picayune staffer wrote that it “is cooking, the art that sets us apart,” not Mardi Gras or jazz music that marks “the joy of life in New Orleans.”

Over sixteen editions (the last appearing in 1989), the Creole Cook Book sold widely. In 1905, the United States Navy recommended the book “for a cook to use and to use constantly,” while encouraging every military mess hall to stock a copy.

In the months following Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I hunted down each of the sixteen editions on eBay (finding all but the second volume from 1901). These books provided ballast in the rudderless drift of those post-storm months. I dreamt that some kindred bibliophile had once owned a complete set, only to lose it to the wind and water.

With friends and family scattered across the country, I imagined that by putting all these lost books back together, by collecting the full set, I was not only saving a culture but reuniting a city, renewing some semblance of normality, completeness. Of course, such dreams were all but impossible: People I love still no longer call this city home, and I have since given up the search for that missing 1901 volume.   

Years later, when I started researching the history of the Creole Cook Book, I was struck—haunted even—by a quotation in an article announcing the original edition. Though turn of the century New Orleans was a violent, unprogressive place where racial and ethnic strife ran rampant, the Picayune assured its readers that their new cookbook embodied the city, that the enclosed recipes represented every sector of society, that “everybody seemed willing to help.”

(Note: We must, of course, accept this assurance with reservations. “Everybody” is an audacious word, especially considering that the editors marketed the Creole Cook Book, much less the newspaper, with a specific audience [white, American, middle-to-upper-class] in mind. The provenance of the recipes therein, though, seems to have been gathered from a more diverse audience. And, New Orleans’s cuisine is well understood and documented to be racially and ethnically heterogeneous.)

new orleans southern food

A century later, Picayune readers across the nation, if not the world, endeavored to replace their treasured recipe and cookbook collections step by step, page by page. Longtime subscriber Phyllis Marquart encouraged food section editor Judy Walker to renew and refocus the popular recipe exchange column. On October 27, 2005, less than two months following the upending of the Gulf Coast, “Rebuilding New Orleans: Recipe by Recipe” (since collected in Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans) incited the storm’s diaspora to rebuild their lives by reconstructing their shared culinary history. Again, it seemed that every willing New Orleanian helped.  

This conviction echoes today. As The Times-Picayune is being systematically dismantled, perhaps even destroyed, the news of the loss hits at the identity of the city and anyone who calls it home. My first byline appeared in the paper. Several friends find themselves jobless. Advance Publications, the media conglomerate that owns the Picayune, terminated two hundred employees—staffers and contributors—on June 12. In New Orleans and across the nation, everyone appears to carry a connection, a story, a history with the paper. Over the past weeks, facing loss, subscribers and supporters have commiserated, cried, and lost sleep. Here and abroad, rallies, petitions, assistance funds, and bar tabs sprout up daily to support quotidian print journalism and the terminated employees. We have exchanged ideas, memories, and dreams for the future. Once again, everybody is helping. 

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