Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cookbook Thursday: Q and A with Cynthia Nobles, author of 'A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook'

When John Kennedy Tool wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces” in the 1960s, most people ate at home or visited restaurants for special occasions. They weren’t the “foodies” people are today, nor was there The Food Network shows on TV.
Still, the novel published in 1980 contains references to food, including its main character, eccentric Ignatius J. Railey, pushing a Lucky Dogs chart through the French Quarter and enjoying “an occasional cheese dip.”
            Cookbook author Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, a native of Iota and a food columnist for the Advocate of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana, has perused the Pulitzer Price-winning novel and explores the food, history and culture of New Orleans in “A Confederacy of Dunces’ Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans,” published by LSU Press. Nobles combines quotes from the book, recipes gleaned from a host of resources as well as her own hand and background information that brings to life many of the book’s elements.
            There’s the history of chicory in New Orleans’ coffee, the city’s German bakeries, old Creole dishes — even recipes to complement the chapter on Baton Rouge, what Ignatius calls the “whirlpool of despair.” The capital city aside, Nobles takes readers on a culinary and historical tour of New Orleans, following in Ignatius’ footsteps. There’s D.H. Holmes department store, the Prytania Theater and the bars of Bourbon Street — many of which are accented by wonderful old photos.
            It’s a fun book on so many levels, but will be especially delightful for the Ignatius lover.
Nobles will sign copies of her book from noon to 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at E’s Kitchen of Lafayette.
The following is a Q and A with the author and a sample recipe:

Q: How did you go about writing the book? Had you been a fan of the novel? Did you see a cookbook out of Ignatius’ rantings?
A: Alisa Plant, former acquisitions editor at LSU Press, asked if I knew anyone who might be interested in writing a cookbook based on the novel “Confederacy of Dunces” and I immediately said I'd take the job. I read John Kennedy Toole's novel years ago and remember drooling whenever I read about Santa Battaglia cooking daube, shrimp and oysters, and Ignatius gorging on wine cakes, macaroons, and doughnuts. Like most other “Dunces” fans, I laughed out loud at Ignatius' antics, but I also looked forward to learning what the characters would eat next.
To write the cookbook, I first re-read the novel and made notes of every single food mentioned. I then included recipes in my cookbook for virtually every one of those foods, including from-scratch wieners and buns, and homemade pork and beans (Sergeant Mancuso sees a pork and bean advertisement patching Mrs. Reilly's broken car window). 
I also downloaded the novel on my iPad, did a search on all the foods, and included the complete quotes referring to those foods in my cookbook. I think mine is one of the few comedy cookbooks out there.
Most of the 200 recipes are mine, but a few are from chefs and long-time New Orleans cooks. Dr. Robert Cangelosi, who grew up in the French Quarter, gave me his old family recipe for stuffed pasta, and food expert Maureen Detweiler gave me her recipe for potato salad that she's been making for over 50 years. Maureen also gave me the original Oysters Dunbar recipe.
In the chapter on John Kennedy Toole, I write about Toole's tenure teaching at ULL. For that chapter I include recipes from two Lafayette cooks — my cousin Kathy Comeaux's crawfish étouffée, and former restauranteur Ruby Sharlow was kind enough to give me her recipe for her famous chicken and sausage gumbo.
Many recipes also relate to chapter titles. For example, I include a chapter on the German bakery, which was based on an actual bakery named Schwabe's. In this chapter there's recipes for iconic New Orleans pastries, such as Russian Cake, Italian Cream Cake, Doberge Cake, and jelly-filled doughnuts. Honestly, I gained ten pounds writing that chapter.
I use narrative to start each chapter and in them explain the story behind the story. Walgreen's, for example, was the actual site of a 60s civil rights sit-in. Bourbon street strippers were doing their acts with props (like Darlene), and, yes, there really was a Fazzio's Bowling Alley, and yes, we all have a pyloric valve!

Q: How does the novel use New Orleans as a culinary destination? Or does it? 
A: Toole definitely uses New Orleans as a culinary destination. Where else can you find daube, cafe au lait, and spaghetti and shrimp?  And envisioning Santa Battaglia's mama selling seafood at the Lautenschlaeger Market and Santa herself cracking open oysters on the banquette tells everyone that New Orleans is definitely a top spot for seafood. Yes, Toole was satirizing New Orleans food, but he also created a giant culinary advertisement.

Q: The book takes place in the 1960s. How have things food-wise changed since then?
A: On the whole, the 60s was the height of the use of convenience foods, and most homemakers, like Ignatius' mother, Mrs. Reilly, were turning to canned and frozen goods. Things have certainly changed, thanks to the farm-to-table movement and a greater focus on nutrition.
Regarding restaurants, back then, hardly anyone went out to eat. Most of the clientele at upscale restaurants were tourists or the wealthy. Unlike today, back then, the average family ate strictly at home. This is reflected in the fact that, aside from Ignatius selling weenies from a cart, Toole does not have any of his characters eat in a restaurant. If the novel was written today, I doubt this scenario would be the same.

Q: What’s your favorite recipe?
A: My favorite recipe is Wine Cakes. There's something addictive about a cute little pound cake soaked in alcohol and topped with whipped cream and a cherry.

Q: What’s your favorite food story from the novel?
A: Darlene, Ignatius, and Mrs. Reilly are sitting at the Night of Joy strip club, and they have a long, hilarious conversation about food. Darlene likes Spanish rice from a can (yuck), and Ignatius says that his mother "doesn't cook, she burns." He also calls canned food a "perversion," and suspects that it is "ultimately very damaging to the soul." That's sort of ironic coming from a guy whose favorite foods are doughnuts and cake. 

Q: And since you’re from Iota, what’s your favorite dish from Acadiana?
A: My mom, Clarice, makes the best seafood gumbo EVER (and everyone who's ever eaten it agrees).

Tried-and-True Oyster Dressing
Recipe by Mrs. Octavia Marie Sansovich, from “A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook”
            Oyster dressing (stuffing) is typically served in South Louisiana during the holidays. For generations, this tra­ditional recipe has been served by the Sansovich fam­ily, who are originally from Hvar, Croatia, and who were oyster purveyors in New Orleans from the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. During that time, New Orleans processors sent wagons to purchase oysters from the luggers and two-masted schooners that docked at the Old Basin Canal. Another oyster landing site was at Bayou St. John. Yet another, the “Picayune Pier,” also known as “Lugger Bay,” sat at the foot of Dumaine Street.
1 pint oysters
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large onion, chopped
1/3 cup chopped green onions
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 of a 15-inch loaf day-old French bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground thyme
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup buttered bread crumbs
            Directions: Preheat oven to 350°F. Drain oysters, reserving liquid. Wash oysters, cut each in half, and return to oyster liq­uid. Set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, and sauté onion, green onion, celery, and garlic. Drain oysters again, reserving liquid. When vegetables are tender, add oysters, bread, parsley, remaining 1 table­spoon butter, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and thyme. Heat through thoroughly, then remove from heat.  Slowly combine egg with oyster mixture. Add enough re­served oyster liquid to moisten slightly. (Be careful—too much liquid makes the dressing gummy.) Spoon dressing into a 4-quart casserole dish, and top with bread crumbs. Bake, uncovered, until deep golden brown, about 1 hour. Serve warm.