A couple of weeks ago I posted my pretty enthusiastic reaction to the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook. I’m well aware that I’m a small fish screaming into the abyss of a very big Internet sea, so I was boggled when author Cynthia LeJune Nobles got in touch, offering to send me a copy of the book. Once I got over the immediate suspicion that I was having some kind of hallucination, I was so thrilled by such a generous offer, and when the postman handed me that padded envelope postmarked Baton Rouge today I may have deafened him with my undignified squealing.
Having been a huge fan of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces novel for years, having only recently returned from my first ever visit to New Orleans, and being very familiar with the kind of presence food has in both book and city, I was already head-over-heels by the mere concept of a cookbook companion for A Confederacy of Dunces. I had such high hopes for Nobles’ cookbook, and it exceeds them all. From the cleverly designed front cover right down to the meticulous indexes (I love a well done index, don’t judge me), A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilley’s New Orleans is an absolute treasure.
The book is so much more than a standard cookbook – a mix of new and classic Louisiana recipes, exposition on characters and locations that appeared in or inspired the novel, and extensive research on the cultural and culinary landscapes of 1960s New Orleans, with quotes from the novel scattered throughout. It’s nice to finally appreciate the significance of places like the Prytania Theatre, Fazzio’s Bowling Alley, and the Woolworth’s store where Burma Jones is accused of stealing cashews – which had been the actual site of a September 1960 civil rights sit in.
Burma Jones’ mentioning pickle meat, accompanied by a “what the hell is pickle meat anyway?” write-up.
The nearly 200 recipes in the book come from a range of sources. Some of the recipes are for the many, many foods directly referenced in the book – wine cakes, macaroons, stuffed eggplants, pralines, red beans and rice, “potatis” salad”. Others are based on Nobles’ close reading and creative interpretation of the original text, such as Toole’s description of Ignatius in his green hunting cap “looking like the tip of a promising watermelon” lending itself to Nobles’ recipe for “A Promising Watermelon Salad” (p. 41). Still other recipes find their origin in the broader milieu of the novel – recipes central to New Orleans life (twelfth night cake, turtle soup), recipes belonging to places central to the book (like those remembered from the long-gone D.H. Holmes department store), and recipes based on food trends and habits of the 1960s.
The recipes are split across 15 chapters, with each chapter written around a theme inspired by the novel – the D.H Holmes department store, the Louisiana seafood industry, the Lucky Dog hotdog company, even a chapter of recipes for John Kennedy Toole himself. I particularly like that in addition to the thematic introductions at the start of each chapter, almost all of the recipes come with their own mini-introduction. These give more specific details about characters, plot points, Louisiana locales, and general food history, adding a lovely depth to the general chapter information. You’re left in no doubt about how each recipe fits in with the A Confederacy of Dunces world, proving exactly how well each considered each recipe’s inclusion in the book is.
Much to my personal delight, there’s 10 – 10! – oyster recipes, and a recipe for pickled okra. I never forgave myself for running out of luggage space and having to leave those jars of pickled okra unpurchased in that French Market pickle shop, but now I’ve comforted myself by making my own.
Bet I’ll end up eating the whole bottle in one sitting.
The book is fantastically researched, absolutely brimming with detail from start to finish. It doesn’t seem right to call it a labour of love though; the love is evident – love of food, love of New Orleans, love of A Confederacy of Dunces – but there isn’t even a hint of the laborious about it. Each aspect of the book is strong – the recipes are independently interesting and delicious sounding, it’s a great resource for mid-20th Century New Orleans history, and it makes a wonderful contribution to A Confederacy of Dunces scholarship.
You can get an idea of what kinds of recipes and informational tidbits you’ll find in the book on Noble’s pinterest page – but the full book is well, well worth having in your collection.
A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans, by Cynthia LeJune Nobles, is available from LSU Press or amazon.com.