It was always there. Woven into the fabric of almost every cooking memory, every kitchen, of my Louisiana childhood. There, along with the cast-iron pot, aluminum Magnalites and Chime-O-Matic rice cooker. Its mischievous plastic teeth underbiting the worn-out spiral binding, tattered yellow tabs frayed and curled, stamped with grease stains and reinforced with rubber bands. Four hundred fifty pages of green-inked recipes by the women whose footsteps paced the linoleum floors of the kitchens before us.
“Talk About Good!” was originally published in the summer of 1967 by the Junior League of Lafayette, La., as a community fundraiser. Fifty years, 30 editions and almost 800,000 copies later, the book’s yellow-and-white-striped cover occupies kitchen shelves across the region known as Acadiana — and far beyond its borders.
The story of a community cookbook is the story of a community. Steeped in the tradition of hospitality and blessed with an abundance of natural culinary resources — Gulf seafood, long-grain rice and sugar cane, to name a few — this map dot known as Cajun country sustains one of the richest and most popular food cultures around. You may not be able to pronounce etoufee, but you probably know you want some.
Like the swirl of flour and oil that serves as the base for so many Cajun recipes, the roots of “Talk About Good!” are remarkably simple. Women in the organization culled their family and friends’ recipe boxes and each submitted a handful of handwritten recipes, which, as the oral history goes, were never tested and throughout all 30 printings have never been edited. (Not even the infamous one — none of the league members I talked to could remember which it is — that calls for a whole cup of salt.)
Along with three other Cajun cookbooks the group publishes, “Talk About Good!” has raised upward of $1.2 million for “projects to promote the positive and healthy development of the families of the Lafayette community.” The chapter’s unrelenting focus on community service fundraising is evident, even in the way it’s choosing to mark the cookbook’s anniversary. Instead of fanfare, the Junior League of Lafayette has focused its efforts on offering an upgraded version of the book with a more durable concealed wire binding and commemorative $19.67 price tag.
“If you look back, there were thousands of community cookbooks like this published, but there are only a few that have kept on and on,” said Alison Kelly, a research specialist and culinary expert at the Library of Congress. “It’s pretty unique and confirms a lot of things we know about food traditions in Louisiana.”
According to Laurie Dodge, director of marketing and development for the Association of Junior Leagues International, recipe books as fundraisers first became popular in the early 1940s. “In the early days, in addition to raising funds for the community, it gave members an opportunity to run a business venture,” Dodge said. “Women who weren’t in the workforce could get marketing and business skills.”
The organization originally relied on grass-roots marketing to promote the book. “When people in the club would go on trips all over the world, we would say, ‘Go into stores and ask if they’re interested in selling the book,’ ” said former Junior League of Lafayette cookbook committee chairwoman Bootsie Arseneaux. “We sent it to every little place that we could get a connection to.”
Lisa Mann Breaux, an entrepreneurial-spirited former cookbook committee chairwoman, spearheaded the organization’s first mass sales deal in the early ’90s with Sam’s Club stores across the country. “We had a giant map on our wall,” recalled Breaux, who at the same time secured the book’s move to a hard cover. “We’d add a little red pin of any new store that carried the book.”
Breaux said there was always some friendly competition with the nearby Junior League of Baton Rouge’s “River Road Recipes,” which has sold 1 million copies and, according to a 2001 report by the Junior League, holds the record as the best-selling community cookbook of all time.
“When you look at the towns with the top League cookbooks, it’s Baton Rouge, Charleston and us,” Breaux added. “It’s that old small-town culture of tightknit families. When you get someone’s grandmother’s best recipes, you know it’s going to be good.”
Former Lafayette Junior League president Sarah Berthelot emphasized that even though the capital city of Baton Rouge is only an hour away, there are distinct cultural differences. “The Lafayette area has a high concentration of descendants of the Acadian French people,” she said, “so you see that French influence in the recipes.”
“These were our early League members’ most cherished recipes,” Berthelot said. “Some of these recipes had been in their families for generations.”
Even the name, “Talk About Good!,” is a Cajun phrase, which evolved as a literal translation of the Cajun French expression “parles de bon.” The book itself houses 1,200 authentic Cajun recipes — from court bouillon and crawfish pie to stuffed mirlitons and maque choux — some with a touch of late-’60s flair. The sparse pen-and-ink illustrations, created by one of the original cookbook committee members Jane Flores, pay tribute to the region’s unofficial icons: mossy live oaks, oil rigs, carnival masks and humble coffee pots.
“I think it’s a wonderful way to honor our mothers and grandmothers and keep our heritage and tradition alive,” said another former cookbook chairwoman, Carolyn Fontenot. “It was such a staple for any new bride. When women passed away, the daughter would take the cookbook. They would never throw away the original.”
Sheila Thomas, publisher of Favorite Recipes Press, which specializes in community cookbooks, has been working with “Talk About Good!” in some capacity for her entire 25 years in publishing. She said the book was already considered old when she started in the business. “It’s significant, not just for a Junior League cookbook, but for any cookbook to do that kind of print run,” she said, referring to the 800,000 copies sold. “It’s amazing that a group of volunteers has run this cookbook business and continues to be successful.”
My mom’s edition, still in heavy rotation, lost its cover, introduction and table of contents a long time ago. It begins abruptly — but festively — with the “Mardi Gras” section. It’s the book she and my dad turned to for Sunday dinners of rice and gravy and special-occasion breakfasts of egg casseroles and flour-dusted biscuits. She recently told me that for the longest time, it was the only cookbook she owned and the one she turned to for the jambalaya she made the first time she had her parents over for dinner.
My own copy was given to me by my husband’s grandmother and my mother-in-law (whose own mother-in-law happens to be the author of “Congealed Asparagus Salad” on page 95). Members of his family wrote cooking tips in the margins as a special wedding gift. His grandmother passed away this year, and the curve of her handwritten “I love you” next to each piece of advice takes on an even deeper meaning.
The binding is already broken, crushed from too many do-it-yourself moves across the country. I don’t cook out of it as much as I aspire to, but it became my security blanket the decade I spent outside the arms of the South. Faced with blustery nor’easters and Midwestern ice storms, I instinctively turned to the gumbo recipe on page 59, whispering the method like a prayer as the sweet incense of chopped onions, celery and bell peppers rose to the heavens. “A heavy pot is a must to make a pretty roux. The heavier the pot, the easier your job will be . . . ”
Oliver, a former Washington Post staff member, is a writer, editor and award-winning digital journalist based in New Orleans. She will join our Free Range chat with readers Wednesday at noon.