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, Louisiana, as a community fundraiser. Fifty years, 30 editions and about 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 about 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 . . . "
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6 to 12 servings (makes enough dough for 2 double-crust pies and enough filling for 2 pies)
There are several recipes for crawfish pie filling in the Junior League of Lafayette's popular "Talk About Good!" cookbook, but this one comes highly recommended. It does take a bit of time, so be patient.
The filling can be served over rice, etouffee-style, if desired.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest at room temperature for a total of 1 1/2 hours. It can be divided into quarters, wrapped individually and frozen for up to 6 months. Leftover filling can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
Adapted from a recipe by Mrs. Carmen Montegut in "Talk About Good!" by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana. (Favorite Recipes Press, 1969 edition).
For the crust
4 cups sifted flour, plus more for rolling
2 teaspoons salt
4 heaping tablespoons vegetable shortening, plus more as needed
1 1/3 cups cold water, or more as needed
For the filling
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup flour
2 cloves garlic
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 bunches scallions, chopped (white and light-green parts, reserve and chop dark-green parts)
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice
1 cup diced celery
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Ground cayenne pepper
3 cups water, or more as needed
3 pounds cooked, frozen/defrosted crawfish tails
2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with just enough water to form a creamy consistency (slurry; optional)
1 bunch parsley, chopped
For the crust: Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut in the 4 tablespoons of shortening. Gradually add the water to form a dough that holds together.
Flour a work surface. Roll out the dough there into a large rectangle. Coat lightly with shortening, then sift a light dusting of flour over the shortening. Fold in the sides, one and then the other so that they touch each other at the center. Grease the new surfaces lightly with shortening and dust with sifted flour. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Roll out, fold, grease and dust with sifted flour two more times, with 30-minute rests in between each one. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions; wrap and freeze half of them. You'll need two portions of dough for this pie.
Roll out 1 portion of dough to an 11-inch round, on the flour-dusted surface, then gently transfer it to a 9-inch pie plate and fit it in all the way around, crimping the edge decoratively. The crust can be wrapped and refrigerated until ready to use (up to 1 day in advance). Wrap and refrigerate the remaining portion of dough.
For the filling: Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Stir in the flour; cook long enough for it to lightly brown (this is a roux).
Add the garlic, onion, chopped scallions, green bell pepper, celery and tomato sauce. Season well with salt, black pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Cover and cook for about 1 hour, stirring frequently to keep the vegetables from sticking.
Add the water and cook, uncovered, for several hours. If the mixture thickens too much, add more water; the mixture should be creamy and thick. Stir in the crawfish tails; cook for 5 minutes, or just until tails are tender.
If mixture becomes thin, you can thicken it by stirring in the cornstarch slurry, if using, and cooking for a few extra minutes. Add the chopped, dark-green scallion tops and the parsley. Taste and season with more salt and/or black pepper, as needed. Let cool for a bit. Reserve half the filling for another use.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a fork to dock several holes in the bottom pie dough crust. Flour the work surface again, as needed, and roll out the other portion of dough to an 11-inch round.
Pour the remaining filling into bottom crust. Cover with the rolled-out top crust, crimping the edges to seal in a decorative fashion. Cut slits in the top crust. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake (middle rack) for about 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 300 degrees; bake for 15 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using half the dough and half the filling'): 440 calories, 22 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 160 mg cholesterol, 550 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
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These old-fashioned biscuits get their name because they bake in melted butter, creating a golden brown bottom crust.
Adapted from a recipe in "Talk About Good!" by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana. (Favorite Recipes Press, 1969 edition).
5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups sifted flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup whole milk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the butter in 9-by-13-inch baking dish; let it melt in the oven, then remove from the oven.
Meanwhile, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl, then add the milk. Stir slowly with a fork until the dough just clings together.
Generously flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there, and dust lightly with flour on both sides. Gently knead about 10 times, then roll out to an 8-by-12-inch rectangle that's about 1/2 inch thick.
Cut the dough in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 16 equal strips.
Working with one strip at a time, use both hands to pick it up and dip it into the melted butter in the pan, coating both sides. Arrange all the strips close together in the pan as you go. Bake (middle rack) for 20 to 22 minutes, until golden brown.
VARIATIONS (4): Add 1/2 cup grated sharp American cheese to the dry ingredients. Add half a clove's worth of finely minced garlic to the butter before it melts in the oven. Sprinkle sweet paprika, celery seed or garlic salt over the butter dips before baking. Add 1/2 cup minced chives or parsley to flour mixture.
Nutrition | Per piece: 50 calories, 1 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 115 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
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8 servings (about 8 cups)
This side dish shows up on a lot of Thanksgiving tables in New Orleans. Use the freshest corn you can find, and don't skimp on the bacon fat.
Adapted from a recipe by Mrs. P.J. Blanchet Jr. in "Talk About Good!" by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana. (Favorite Recipes Press, 1969 edition).
8 ears corn, shucked
1/2 cup rendered bacon fat
1/2 medium white onion, chopped
1/4 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup peeled, chopped tomato (see NOTE)
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Use a sharp chef's knife to cut off the corn kernels inside a large mixing bowl, then use the blunt side of the blade to scrape each cleaned cob, letting their milky liquid drip into the bowl as well. (Reserve the cobs for making broth, if desired.)
Heat the bacon fat in a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Once it's sizzling, pour into heatproof measuring cup.
Add the corn and its liquid, the onion, bell pepper, tomato and sugar to the skillet. Season generously with salt and pepper, stirring to incorporate. Pour the hot bacon fat over the corn mixture; reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Taste and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed. Serve warm.
NOTE: To peel the tomatoes, use a knife to score a wide, shallow "X" on the bottom of each one. Place in a pot of boiling water for about a minute, or just until you see the peels starting to pull back at the cuts. Transfer to a colander. When cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skins.
Nutrition | Per serving: 230 calories, 4 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
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This is a classic Creole dish made with the squash native to Louisiana also known as chayote or vegetable pear. The ones you choose should have smooth, pale-green skin.
MAKE AHEAD: The mirlitons can be boiled, cooled and refrigerated a day in advance. The mirliton halves can be stuffed and refrigerated for a day before they are baked; the baked stuffed mirliton halves can be refrigerated for 2 days in advance. Reheat, covered, in a 300-degree oven until warmed through.
Adapted from a recipe by Mrs. La Vonne Owens in "Talk About Good!" by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana. (Favorite Recipes Press, 1969 edition).
3 mirlitons (chayote squash; see headnote)
3 slices bread, crusts removed
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons plain panko or fresh plain bread crumbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Dash ground cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cooked shrimp
Place the mirlitons in a pot and cover with water by an inch or two. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 45 minutes or so, until tender all the way through. Drain and cool. Cut them in half horizontally, discarding the seeds and scraping out and reserving much of the pulp. Be careful not to dig too vigorously, or you'll poke holes in the mirliton halves.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking dish with parchment paper, or grease with cooking oil spray.
Tear the bread into small pieces and place them in medium bowl. Add just enough water to moisten and let sit for a few minutes, then squeeze out any excess moisture.
Heat the bacon fat in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once the fat is sizzling, add the bread pieces, onion and cooked mirliton flesh, stirring to incorporate. Cook and mash to form the base of the stuffing mixture, keeping things moving in the pan to avoid scorching. Transfer to a mixing bowl to cool.
While the mixture's cooling, melt the butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Stir in the bread crumbs and toast for a few minutes, until golden brown, stirring to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat.
Add the egg, cayenne pepper and generous amounts of salt and pepper to the cooled filling mixture in the bowl, then add the parsley and shrimp, stirring to incorporate.
Use the filling to stuff all 6 mirliton halves evenly, mounding the mixture as needed. Arrange the halves in the baking dish. Top each mound of filling with the buttered bread crumbs. Bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes; the halves and filling will look set.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition | Per serving: 200 calories, 8 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar