On October 12, 2015, LSU Press released my latest book, A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: the food of Ignatius Reilly’s New Orleans. With over 200 recipes, the book memorializes the foods, both the nutritious and the wickedly unwholesome, that are important to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s characters, and it introduces new classics that spin off from what the characters ate. Aside from recipes and a little food history, I also take you on a tour of Ignatius’s favorite haunts. So get ready to learn about the D. H. Holmes Department Store, the Prytania Theater and Bourbon Street’s bars. You’ll also be introduced to Lucky Dogs, the real-life template for Paradise Vendors. Then there are quick detours to the city that scarred Ignatius for life, Baton Rouge, as well as Lafayette, the southwest Louisiana city in the heart of Cajun country, which left a lasting impression on Toole.
I signed on for this book when LSU Press Acquisitions Editor Alisa Plant asked if I knew anyone who might want to tackle the project. I’ve always been a fan of A Confederacy of Dunces, and in no small part because of the novel’s rich use of food. So, without missing a beat, I volunteered for the job. And after a year of writing and experimenting in the kitchen, I not only came up with recipes for the expected macaroons and cheese dip, but also for dishes that would have been popular in Ignatius’s New Orleans. Many are for delicacies I serve at my house today. A good portion are also drawn from my experience as a cookbook author and food columnist for the Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate, and from years studying New Orleans food as a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group. Too, some recipes were inspired by New Orleans cookbooks from the sixties. And a smattering come from restaurant chefs and from generous friends who live in and around the city, and whose names appear along with their recipes.
Another influence on this cookbook has been my lifetime of cooking gumbo, okra, jambalaya, crawfish, crabs, oysters, strong coffee and pralines. This love of stirring in pots started in my hometown of Iota, Louisiana, where I grew up on a rice and crawfish farm, and it followed me to New Orleans, where my husband and I owned a house in the Uptown neighborhood on Broadway Street, just a block behind the house on Audubon Street where John Kennedy Toole had lived with his parents. Then Hurricane Katrina forced us to move to Baton Rouge, and my main residence remains in the city Ignatius lambasts as a “whirlpool of despair.” But I do keep one foot in New Orleans.
And as I step out of my apartment in the French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, the “old square,” and I stroll down Bourbon Street, St. Peter, Chartres and Royal, I rarely pass up a restaurant with an outdoor display menu. There, on the same streets where Ignatius once lumbered, I find delicacies such as crab cloaked in creamy ravigote sauce, P & J oysters, Chicken Pontalba, Café Brulot and inventive dishes with okra. And it always strikes me that, as with this spoof’s quirky characters, much of the food New Orleans takes for granted would seem foreign anywhere else. But such is Creole still, in people as well as cuisine, born and residing in America, yet flaunting whispers of an alien, exotic and unforgotten past. So after reading these pages, hopefully you’ll understand why Ignatius never wants to leave New Orleans, why the food the characters cook and eat are a parody in itself, and why A Confederacy of Dunces could not have been set in any other city.