1935: The celebrity encounter that gave us Justin Wilson
In the 1930s, Justin Wilson was already a storyteller, but he didn’t do it for a living. Rather, the native of the Tangipahoa Parish town of Amite spun his folksy Cajun stories — using an adopted Cajun patois — for his family, his friends and those he encountered during his travels through Acadiana as a safety engineer. Then, in the early 1930s, he met the iconic American humorist Will Rogers. That encounter, according to The New York Times, would end up inspiring Wilson to embark on a second career as a humorist. “He told me always to tell ’em clean,” Wilson reportedly said of Rogers, “and always tell your audience something serious, or they’ll think you’re a complete fool.” Using that advice, Wilson over the years would write multiple cookbooks and humor books, record 27 albums of short stories and — perhaps most notably — host a number of nationally televised cooking series on PBS, all punctuated by his now-famous catchphrase: “I garontee!”
Wilson died in 2001 at age 87, but his legacy lives on, as his introduction of Cajun culture to mainstream America — and beyond — laid the groundwork for what would later be an explosion of interest in Louisiana cooking and pave the way for such celebrity chefs as Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and others.
- “Way back when I first started as a safety engineer, I took myself pretty seriously,” Wilson wrote in his first cookbook, published in 1965, in describing the genesis of his career as a humorist. “And I found I was putting my audiences to sleep. So, having lived all my life among the Cajuns of Louisiana, and having a good memory for the patois and the type of humor Cajuns go for, I started interspersing my safety talks with Cajun humor. And what do you know? My audiences stayed awake.”
- The pronunciation of Wilson’s “I garontee” catchphrase comes from the Cajun “J’vous garantis,” which means “I guarantee you.”
- Wilson learned to cook from his mother, Olivet, who was of French heritage. “She was a great improviser,” Wilson once said. ”She’d cook a dish and we’d go ‘Mama, what’s this here?’ And she’d say: ‘Children, that’s a mus-go. It mus’ go down yo’ t’roat.'”
- He learned how to tell stories from his father, Harry D. Wilson. “I introduced Will Rogers to my father, in 1935, and that was like the equivalent of a four-year education, just listening to those two,” Wilson told The Times-Picayune in 1989.
- Harry D. Wilson served two nonconsecutive terms in the Louisiana Legislature, in 1900 and again in 1908. After his second term ended in 1912, he served for 32 years as Louisiana’s Commissioner of Agriculture.
- In the early 1960s, one-time Houston Chronicle editor Jack Moler urged Justin Wilson, a friend of his, to write a cookbook. The result was the 89-page “Justin Wilson Cook Book,” published in 1965. The cost: $2.95.
- In 1971, Wilson was approached to do a cooking show for an educational TV station in Mississippi. Despite Wilson’s initial trepidation, the show caught on, leading to a number of other TV shows, including “Louisiana Cookin’,” “Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Cooking: Home Grown,” “Easy Cooking,” “Justin Wilson: At Home” and “Looking Back.” In each of them, Wilson — wearing his trademark red suspenders — whipped up classic Louisiana dishes while also spinning his Cajun stories.
- In addition to his best-selling cookbooks and TV show, Wilson reportedly did as many as 200 speaking engagements a year, even into his 80s.
- From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Wilson lived along Cane Bayou in the Lacombe area of St. Tammany Parish. “He loved his visits to the post office in Lacombe,” his friend Terry Hand told The Times-Picayune upon Wilson’s 2001 death. “He’d make the trip every day, because it would give him an opportunity to meet with local people. Sometimes he would go twice a day, just for the fun of it.”
While some people were critical of Wilson’s portrayal of Cajuns as simple-minded, linguistically-challenged rubes, there’s no debating that it afforded him a chance to spread Louisiana culture to an eager international audience. “He made a lot of people happy,” chef Paul Prudhomme told The Times-Picayune upon Wilson’s 2001 death. “The culture he was talking about was my culture. Some of the things he said in a humorous way really did happen. We appreciated it. It was good fun. What sustains cultures is when you have people in them who use them in a good way. To make people understand it and appreciate it. To make people of the culture have more pride. I think Justin did that.”