“A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook:
Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans”
by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Louisiana State University Press 2015, Pgs. 219
John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous success, “A Confederacy Of Dunces,” manages to beautifully capture a time and place with great love, yet continue to speak to people generations later. There are few books that hold such a continual sway in the American imagination.
Like many people, I was given a copy of “Dunces” during a trip to New Orleans. The book follows the antics of Ignatius J. Riley, an obese pretentious man, who suffers arrested development and still lives with his mother in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Ignatius, his mother and the cast of characters eat their way through New Orleans’ restaurants, stores and foods, all emblematic of the city (at one point Ignatius even works as a hot-dog vendor). Given The Crescent City’s culinary fame, a book celebrating its food in “Dunces” is the perfect addition to the cultural conversation. Cynthia LeJeune Nobles has written a book that accomplishes the task on multiple levels.
Yes, all the actual food mentioned in “Dunces” is in her cookbook, complete with simple, easy-to-follow, tested recipes and mouth-watering photography. But the book is so much more.
Part of it is anthropology, as it delves into the city’s cultural history and complex world of subcultures. Part of it is architectural history with wonderful photography and information about long-lasting and sometimes now-forgotten buildings, businesses and iconic New Orleans landmarks that fill “Dunces.”
She includes the story behind the D.H. Holmes Clock and the details surrounding its theft and reappearance; the history of the Pennyland Arcade; and also a discussion of the progression of Bourbon Street and the world of which the Night of Joy nightclub was emblematic. In addition she introduces readers to the history of Dixie 45 beer and Dr. Nut Soda, both defunct brands produced in New Orleans.
Page after page of the book is sprinkled with quotes from “Dunces,” and many are surrounded by culinary history of the area, like the world of pickled meat—a form of preserved pork to which I, personally, was oblivious.
She pays homage to the famous restaurants of the city—Café du Monde among them—while shining a light on lesser-known ones and the special world of the neighborhood grocery market. She even managed to get an interview with the manager of Lucky Dogs, the hot dog carts that Ignatius’ cart was based upon.
At its core, this is a really good cookbook. It has probably the best recipe for French bread I’ve ever tried (and of course an interesting history of bread baking in New Orleans and evolution of the Po’ Boy). The chapter on oysters alone is worth the purchase.
Nobles has achieved perfection, in my opinion, with her book. It is everything “Dunces” fans want it to be: It captures the same love of the city that the book does, and the recipes are numerous and incredible. It will make any reader fall in love with New Orleans, “A Confederacy of Dunces” and the good living of the city all over again.
• • • •
by Shelby Stephenson
Red Dashboard, 2014, pgs. 164
“Shub’s Cooking” by North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson is, much like the author, a surprising and unassuming book. The collection of poems begins at A with “Apple” and continues through 66 pieces to “Vegetables.” Along the way, the pieces slowly combine Stephenson’s memories with his mother’s recipes for cooking. Slowly, not only does a portrait of family life emerge but a record of their foodways. His mother, like many women, might have had an outline for making a casserole, but she certainly wasn’t contained by that.
There are, by my count, at least four poems addressing barbeque directly. Stephenson’s brother owned a barbeque restaurant, and of course the importance of barbeque and pig pickin’s to a community and mark life events in the South cannot be understated.
Stephenson is a fascinating poet! He utilizes form to reinforce his theme while bringing in unexpected elements—like the recipes that become part and parcel of the poems. We do not just meet him and his parents in his young life but also his wife when the first courting and his future in-laws make appearances.
Through all the pieces, a rhythm of spoken history, of transferring through songs runs. As readers turn the pages, they will hear his voice almost singing, as it tells the story of family life on a farm, in eastern North Carolina during the 20th century. His lyric use of sensory imagery makes the mouth water, word after word, and even recoil with earthy realities of farm life: chicken-neck wringing, hog slaughtering and squirrel shooting. Through it all, the steady, patient love kneaded into bread, pie, and casserole and spooned out is palpable across generations.
“Shub’s Cooking” is innovative; the work is beautiful. It is no surprise Stephenson has yet again found a new way of showing us the beauty of the world we take for granted.