New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson is in for a special treat.
He will be among the dozen or so guests sharing a meal with famed author Ernest J. Gaines and his wife, Dianne , at their Pointe Coupee Parish home on Jan. 20, the day before Johnson is honored as the winner of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s ninth annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
What makes the luncheon extra special is that all of the food will be prepared by Dianne Gaines, described by friends as “a delight” and “a good cook.”
While Dianne Gaines hasn’t yet settled on what she’ll serve, salmon, poached oranges and a low-fat pumpkin flan might be on her the menu, she’s thinking.
She also always includes a vegetable dish, such as Quinoa, Kale, Cranberry, Walnut and Butternut Squash Salad for those who don’t want to eat meat.
Why take on so much work?
“They like to come here rather than go to a restaurant,” she says. “It’s a warmer atmosphere than going to a restaurant, and it’s special, so we will continue as long as we can.”
The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence honors “an emerging writer.” The book, Dianne Gaines explains, has to be new that year but doesn’t have to be a first book. Besides this year’s recipient, who now calls Berkeley, California, home, luncheon guests will include “the five judges and a couple of people from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation who work on the literary project.”
The project is “partly to encourage writing and reading,” Ernest Gaines says.
“I don’t think you can write well unless you read a lot,” his wife adds. “If you read a lot, writing becomes natural. I love to read. I’ve been reading since I was a little girl. I would hide under the bed so no one would disturb me.”
It was reading that brought the Gaineses together. They married in 1993 after meeting at a book festival in Miami, where Dianne Gaines and her four children from an earlier marriage were living. Her son, Stephen Smith, had recommended she read Ernest Gaines’ books. She purchased his “A Gathering of Old Men” at the festival for her son.
Some of her favorite things to read are recipes, which she enjoys in cookbooks, newspapers and magazines. “I also get them from friends.”
Two of her favorite cookbooks are “New Orleans Creole Recipes,” published in 1932, and “From Woodstoves to Microwaves: Cooking with Entergy,” a publication benefitting United Way in New Orleans.
“I learned to cook from ‘Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.’ I started cooking when I got married at 21. I taught myself with cookbooks,” she says. “I baked as a teenager. It was the only thing they let me do.”
A New Orleans native, Dianne Gaines attended Xavier University and then moved to Miami to teach high school English. She later graduated from law school and became an assistant county attorney in Dade County.
“I like to try different things from different cultures,” she says. “I’m always clipping and trying new things.”
While living in Miami, she learned to cook Cuban dishes such as black beans and chicken and yellow rice.
“We always had plantains in New Orleans, so I was used to them,” she says. “My mother bought them and cooked them.”
While she doesn’t create recipes, she does adapt them. For example, she adds Craisins, pecans and coconut to oatmeal cookies, a favorite of her husband.
He also likes her tea cakes, which he remembers his aunt making.
“Ernest likes them thin,” Dianne Gaines says. “Marcia Gaudet, of Lafayette, gave me the recipe I use.”
Cookies aside, the couple likes to eat healthy. They get a weekly box of vegetables grown by a neighbor.
“Everything in season. … I don’t usually fry much unless I’m doing it for others, like my grandchildren,” she says, as she drops batter for calas — fritters made from cooked rice and once popular in New Orleans — into hot oil simmering in a large, more-than-100-year-old, cast-iron pot she inherited from an aunt.
“The batter should be thicker,” she says. “They would hold together better. Calas should be round. They are made with leftover rice, which you have to cook until it is really mushy.”
She made calas on Dec. 6 for her granddaughter’s 13th birthday. “She and her friends said they liked them better than beignets.”
Dianne Gaines loves oysters. A favorite New Orleans dish is oyster patties, which her mother, Anita Prevost Saulney, used to make every holiday.
“My dad, René Saulney, would get oysters in the sack at Christmas and open them himself,” she recalls. “He would give me as many as I wanted.”
Whenever a recipe calls for walnuts, she substitutes pecans because the couple grows them. They also have orange trees, and she likes to prepare poached orange slices with Cointreau, an orange liqueur.
“I use raw sugar from Alma Plantation,” which isn’t far from the Gaineses’ home on False River near Oscar. She grows the mint used to decorate the orange slices. “I like the dish because of its simplicity, and it is healthy,” she says.
“My cooking is changing,” she says. “I never used to cook salmon. I don’t use any meat in greens and beans. I use seasonings, but no meat because it adds salt and fat to the dish. I use olive oil more. … We never used to have cilantro, and now I use a bunch of grains. I experiment.”
Neither she nor her husband care for extremely spicy food. “Where’s the subtly?” she asks.