1900: The Picayune Creole Cook Book is published — and an heirloom is born
It was the end of the 19th century, and many venerable Creole cooks — hard-working women and (in some cases) men who had relied on word of mouth to relay their treasured recipes — were dying. To preserve this priceless culinary legacy, The Daily Picayune in 1900 published “The Picayune Creole Cook Book,” which became not only an indispensable kitchen reference but also an heirloom, passed on, with annotations and spatters, from one generation to the next.
The voluminous cookbook, which went through 17 editions in the 20th century, has become a classic. It’s not just for well-to-do devotees of haute cuisine who aren’t intimidated by complex recipes, either. From the beginning, the book has included tips on preparing economical meals that are tasty and healthful, as well as guides for novice chefs.
- The now-rare first edition sold for 25 cents ($7.30 in 2017 money). The latest edition, published in 1987, carried a $14.95 price tag (about $32 today).
- The cookbook’s first edition carried no byline, but culinary historian Rien Fertel said his research has led him to conclude the author was Marie Louise Points, a writer for The Picayune and other publications.
- Eliza Jane Nicholson, The Picayune’s publisher and the first woman publisher of a major metropolitan daily, died in 1896, four years before the cookbook’s debut. But Fertel believes she deserves credit for starting a trend that led to publication of the cookbook: She made the newspaper attractive to women readers, Fertel said, by starting society coverage and “Household Hints,” a kitchen column that contained recipes, some of which, he suspects, wound up in the original cookbook.
- Although breakfast is supposed to be the meal to get one’s engine going, the breakfast menus in the cookbook’s early editions seem guaranteed to send anyone back to bed for a nap. For instance, a breakfast menu for Monday calls for sliced oranges; grits with milk or cream; fried croakers; broiled spring chicken; potato croquettes; radishes; watercress; batter cakes with butter and syrup; and café au lait.
- During Prohibition (1920 to 1933), recipes containing liquors and wines were eliminated from the cookbook’s sixth and seventh editions, and a chapter called “Domestic Wines, Cordials, Drinks” was replaced with a section devoted to “Iced Fruit Drinks.”
- The “Iced Fruit Drinks” chapter was removed in the eighth edition, published in 1936, and the “Domestic Wines, Cordials, Drinks” section was reinstated. In case anyone might miss that point, the edition was renamed “The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book.”
In the 117 years since its publication, The Picayune Creole Book has become a mainstay in New Orleans kitchens and a touchstone for culinary researchers, regardless of where they live. Judy Walker, The Times-Picayune’s former food editor, said she realized after Hurricane Katrina how much people have come to depend on the cookbook after getting call after call from readers who were distraught because their copies had been destroyed in the flood. The book, by the way, is still widely available.
John Pope, contributing writer
Sources: Staff research, The Times-Picayune archive