In every Louisiana cook’s kitchen, green recipes

By Marie Elizabeth Oliver, Special To The Washington Post

It was always there. Woven into the fabric of almost every cooking memory, every kitchen, of my Louisiana childhood. There, along with the cast-iron pot, aluminum Magnalites and Chime-O-Matic rice cooker. Its mischievous plastic teeth underbiting the worn-out spiral binding, tattered yellow tabs frayed and curled, stamped with grease stains and reinforced with rubber bands. Four hundred fifty pages of green-inked recipes by the women whose footsteps paced the linoleum floors of the kitchens before us.

“Talk About Good!” was originally published in the summer of 1967 by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana, as a community fundraiser. Fifty years, 30 editions and about 800,000 copies later, the book’s yellow-and-white-striped cover occupies kitchen shelves across the region known as Acadiana — and far beyond its borders.

The story of a community cookbook is the story of a community. Steeped in the tradition of hospitality and blessed with an abundance of natural culinary resources — Gulf seafood, long-grain rice and sugar cane, to name a few — this map dot known as Cajun country sustains one of the richest and most popular food cultures around. You may not be able to pronounce etoufee, but you probably know you want some.

Like the swirl of flour and oil that serves as the base for so many Cajun recipes, the roots of “Talk About Good!” are remarkably simple. Women in the organization culled their family and friends’ recipe boxes and each submitted a handful of handwritten recipes, which, as the oral history goes, were never tested and throughout all 30 printings have never been edited. (Not even the infamous one – none of the league members I talked to could remember which it is – that calls for a whole cup of salt.)

Along with three other Cajun cookbooks the group publishes, “Talk About Good!” has raised upward of $1.2 million for “projects to promote the positive and healthy development of the families of the Lafayette community.” The chapter’s unrelenting focus on community service fundraising is evident, even in the way it’s choosing to mark the cookbook’s anniversary. Instead of fanfare, the Junior League of Lafayette has focused its efforts on offering an upgraded version of the book with a more durable concealed wire binding and commemorative $19.67 price tag.

“If you look back, there were thousands of community cookbooks like this published, but there are only a few that have kept on and on,” said Alison Kelly, a research specialist and culinary expert at the Library of Congress. “It’s pretty unique and confirms a lot of things we know about food traditions in Louisiana.”

According to Laurie Dodge, director of marketing and development for the Association of Junior Leagues International, recipe books as fundraisers first became popular in the early 1940s. “In the early days, in addition to raising funds for the community, it gave members an opportunity to run a business venture,” Dodge said. “Women who weren’t in the workforce could get marketing and business skills.”

"Talk About Good" Junior League of Lafayette, La., cookbook. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

“Talk About Good” Junior League of Lafayette, La., cookbook. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

The organization originally relied on grass-roots marketing to promote the book. “When people in the club would go on trips all over the world, we would say, ‘Go into stores and ask if they’re interested in selling the book,’ ” said former Junior League of Lafayette cookbook committee chairwoman Bootsie Arseneaux. “We sent it to every little place that we could get a connection to.”

Lisa Mann Breaux, an entrepreneurial-spirited former cookbook committee chairwoman, spearheaded the organization’s first mass sales deal in the early ’90s with Sam’s Club stores across the country. “We had a giant map on our wall,” recalled Breaux, who at the same time secured the book’s move to a hard cover. “We’d add a little red pin of any new store that carried the book.”

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