LSU Press publishes a cookbook of recipes inspired by John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
Avid fans of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning farce A Confederacy of Dunces will have another volume to add to their library this month when LSU Press publishes a cookbook inspired by the novel. Compiled by Baton Rouge food columnist and author Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook offers up almost 200 recipes related to Ignatius Reilly and his culinary cohorts.
While most of us remember Lucky Dogs as the food of choice in Confederacy and most closely associate Ignatius Reilly with “the distinct odors of hot dog, mustard, and lubricant,” Nobles proves the book is filled with food references, many of them important to the history of New Orleans and the parody Toole so artfully created.
“Any time any kind of food was mentioned, I created a dish out of it,”Nobles says. There are Bananas Foster Sundaes inspired by the mention of a banana tree, hog jowls from Elizabeth’s in the Bywater thanks to Night of Joy’s Lana Lee and a whole chapter of bowling alley and movie theater foods in homage to Fazzio’s and the Prytania, local haunts frequented by characters in the book.
Nobles says the cookbook is intended for a national audience of fans who might not realize many of the locations in Confederacy are or were real-life places in New Orleans. She opens the book with an introduction to the characters, followed by “A Dunces Glossary” of people, places and obscure references — pyloric valve – yes, we all have one!
To find her recipes, Nobles researched old cookbooks, Times Picayune newspapers and interviewed people who lived in the city during the early 1960s and even knew Toole. “If you recall, Irene Reilly made potato salad for her little cocktail party in the book,” she says. For a dish as close as possible to what Ignatius’s mother would have served, she talked to Maureen Detweiler, whose own recipe is more than 50 years old.
Detweiler also gave her the recipe for Oysters Dunbar, the house favorite appetizer at Dunbar’s, a beloved St. Charles Avenue restaurant that closed in the 1980s. “They talk about oysters a lot in the book,” says Nobles, crediting Santa Battaglia as the best cook known for her Sicilian-influenced seafood dishes. In fact, Santa gets her own chapter with recipes for Bayou Jambalaya from Bon Ton Cafe, Garlicky Crab, Crawfish and Shrimp-Stuffed Eggplants and Braciole (chops or cuts of meat).
It’s sweets that are Ignatius’s favorite food though — from glazed jelly doughnuts to chocolate chip cookies and cream puffs — and Noble dug deep to find out about the real-life “German’s” on Magazine Street, the bakery where Irene purchases her son’s favorite treats.
“I gained 10 pounds tasting all the sweets,” she says. “I also had to do a little research, because nobody knew what the Germans really was, what it was based on, and several people had guessed a few things and they were all wrong. I finally lucked on a guy who actually knew Toole and told me they used to hang out at a bakery named Schwabe’s on Magazine Street. It was close to Constantinople where Ignatius Reilly lived. I went to the city directory and sure enough there was a Schwabe’s, and they advertised that they made cakes and pies and all that.”
What would Ignatius think of New Orleans’ culinary scene today? Noble says he would be shocked by all the Cajun food, a delicacy Toole had to drive across the basin to Lafayette to indulge in after his year spent teaching at Southwestern Louisiana University.
She she had a hard time pinning down the author’s own favorite foods — other than roast beef poboys and the gumbo and jambalaya he tasted in Acadiana. Toole’s own mother was known for her stuffed tomatoes and banana bread, and Toole sold tamales in college (his inspiration for Paradise Vendors), but otherwise he seemed to prefer a drink at Napoleon House or The Roosevelt over a fancy meal.
As for Noble’s own food memories of Confederacy, she says she remembered the wine cakes Mrs. Reilly brings home and also knew she had to come up with a weiner recipe from scratch. And after re-reading the book three times for research, her favorite food scene is about macaroons. “He [Ignatius] says, ‘I think that I shall have a macaroon too. I have always found coconut to be good ruffage.’ That is just hysterical,” she says.
Although Noble (pictured with the D.H. Holmes status of Ignatius) and her husband moved from their house in the Uptown neighborhood (just a block behind the house on Audubon where Toole lived with his parents) after Hurricane Katrina and now reside in the “whirlpool of despair” that is Baton Rouge, they go back to the city almost every weekend. As any author would be, she’s hoping for runaway success with the Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook — but also hopes readers around the world will understand why Ignatius never wants to leave New Orleans.