Maureen Reed Detweiler, a lifelong New Orleans resident, describes herself as a culinary history buff. She’s passionate about good food, especially true Crescent City dishes.
So much so, that in 1991 she began the “Save Our French Bread” campaign after becoming concerned that “real” New Orleans French bread made by local bakeries would be wiped out by supermarkets baking their own bread from often frozen dough bread. Detweiler sent a letter to friends pleading to “help save our French bread by spreading the word” in hopes consumer pressure would prevent the demise of the traditional French bread.
A charter member of the Culinary History Consortium of Tulane University’s Newcomb College, Detweiler says she’s “always been a cook from the time I was 11.”
Her maternal grandmother, Catherine Dixon Simoneaux, grew up in New Orleans and passed on to her the city’s Creole dishes, while her parental grandmother, Una Ardoin Reed, grew up on a farm in Evangeline Parish and taught her the Acadian dishes of Southwest Louisiana.
As a child, Detweiler says she cooked “chili, red beans, pot food — the things I liked. Mom didn’t like to cook and loved for me to go into the kitchen. Cooking was the highlight of my day.”
She and her husband, William Detweiler, who celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary on Nov. 22, often entertain in their uptown New Orleans home.
“We can seat 10 people,” she says. “For larger groups, I do a buffet.”
Detweiler, one of five founders of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, planned to host the festival board’s holiday party.
“I’ll cook everything for that. It’ll be a full bar and buffet dinner. The menu will have to be something that’s ready when everyone’s here. I like everything to be ready an hour before the first guest arrives because I want to be a guest at my own party,” she says, adding that she doesn’t want guests in her kitchen.
“I only need one burner on the stove,” she says. “I don’t cook more than one thing at a time.”
She has two refrigerators and an upright freezer for storing her prepared dishes.
“I’d be in a tizzy if I had to worry” about last-minute cooking, she says.
In time for Christmas 2014, Detweiler created a family cookbook, “Milk Punch on Sunday,” for her four children — “all good cooks,” she says — and her six grandchildren plus other family members and friends. In the book’s dedication to her husband, she notes, “For over 50 years, we have cooked many wonderful dishes together. We cherished the traditional dishes of our heritage and experimented with new ones.”
A graduate of St. Mary’s Dominican High School and Loyola University, Detweiler has been active in politics throughout her life and served as chairman in several campaigns. She also has served as Special Projects and Events Coordinator for the city of New Orleans for 12 years, deputy director of the city’s Department of Sanitation for two years and as Conservator for the New Orleans Notarial Archives Research Center for seven years.
In 1992, she was the first woman ever elected to the Board of Directors of the Institute of Politics of Loyola University and the first woman to serve as its president from 2001 to 2008.
She also helped found the New Orleans Old Garden Rose Society and is the corresponding secretary for the Board of Directors of the Heritage Rose Foundation. She’s also been involved in numerous other civic organizations, including serving as a founding board member of the French Quarter Festival.
And she finds time to sew, an activity she’s also enjoyed since she was a child. She’s made ball gowns and all the draperies in her house and is teaching her 11-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, to sew.
In her cookbook, Detweiler wrote, “One word can describe the dishes I have cooked during my lifetime — variety. When I enjoy a dish in a restaurant or in someone’s home, or if I read about a dish in a cookbook that interests me, I am eager to try to cook it in my own kitchen. Sometimes it requires research in my huge collection of cookbooks to find a similar dish. The research and re-creation of the dish bring me great joy and satisfaction.”
She says while she has made desserts and baked goods over the years, her main interest is savory dishes.
Her last meal? A good pork roast cooked with sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips and sliced onions, along with “that gravy on rice.”