Ignatius J. Reilly would not seem to inspire a cookbook. The overweight, overeducated 30-year-old fights against the modern world, opines about food and gorges on jelly doughnuts, wine cakes, candy and hot dogs.
But Alisa Plant at LSU Press could see the potential in John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
And so could Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, who jumped at Plant’s offer to author “A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook: Recipes from Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans.”
Toole’s iconic book takes place in 1960s New Orleans and centers around Reilly, who buys his hot dogs from Paradise Vendors, which is based on New Orleans’ famous Lucky Dogs, the fleet of rolling hot dogs which has sold its products in the New Orleans French Quarter since 1947.
And, yes, she’s actually made wieners — Paradise Pork and Beef Wieners — from scratch and includes that recipe along with one for homemade buns.
“I love to read novels that talk about food all the time,” and that fits ‘A Confederacy of Dunces,’” says Nobles, who weaves historical narrative with the recipes in the book, which is illustrated with black-and-white photographs from historic collections and color photos of completed dishes.
Since Ignatius is a glutton who favors sweets and café au lait and lives with a mother who doesn’t like to cook, Nobles had to find inspiration for her cookbook’s almost 200 recipes from any reference to New Orleans food.
With the book on her iPad, she says she scoured the text for words like daube.
“I made a list of all foods mentioned in the book for possible things I could write a recipe for. The first food mentioned in the book is potato chips — Ignatius had potato chip crumbs around his mouth — so my cookbook’s first recipe is Crunchy Potato Chips,” Nobles says. “They are surprisingly easy to make and simply delicious. The secret is to soak the slices in ice water for a few hours, dry well and flash fry.”
“Mama Irene Reilly talks about ‘bread in the ice box,’ so I developed a recipe for real New Orleans-style French bread,” says Nobles, who also has authored “The Delta Queen Cookbook” and is series editor for The Southern Table at LSU Press. She began working on the “Confederacy” cookbook in late 2013 and finished a year later. Editing and layout took another six months.
Recipes were prompted by many of the book’s characters, such as Mrs. Reilly’s friend, Santa Battaglia, who has “strong Italian blood” and is “a very good cook who makes the statement that the only time she’s happy is when she’s cooking,” Nobles says. “She makes daube, spaghetti and stuffed eggplant with too much garlic.”
Santa’s garlic and eggplant comment inspired Nobles’ favorite recipe — Garlicky Crab, Crawfish and Shrimp-Stuffed Eggplant.
The African-American janitor at the French Quarter strip club Night of Joy, Burma Jones, “aspires to have a barbecue pit, so I did a chapter with a few barbecue recipes,” Nobles says.
Toole’s book opens with Ignatius waiting for his mother “under the clock” outside D.H. Holmes Department Store, and Nobles opens her cookbook with a chapter on the longtime Canal Street landmark. The store “was locally owned and catered to New Orleans tastes,” including with its food, Nobles writes.
“The store had fabulous food in its restaurant and bakery,” Nobles says, adding that although she didn’t get the store’s actual recipes, there are some based on what everyone remembers — “the chicken salad, orange pecan muffins, heavenly hash candy, fried chicken.”
Baton Rouge, the “whirlpool of despair” that traumatizes Ignatius on his only venture out of his home city, also rates a chapter.
Nobles explains that although Baton Rouge and New Orleans were both settled by the French at the same time, they “grew culturally in different directions.” She also notes that, unlike Ignatius, “most Baton Rouge residents don’t think twice about leaving behind their relative tranquility and driving an hour to their sister city, New Orleans.”
The Baton Rouge chapter features such recipes as Airline Motors Turtle Soup, Rustic Cajun Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, Beausoleil’s Sweetbreads with Beurre Blanc and Capers, Sensation Salad and Classic Spinach Madeleine.
Nobles, who grew up in Iota on a rice and crawfish farm, later lived in New Orleans, where she and husband Howard owned an Uptown home. They now live in Baton Rouge, but maintain an apartment in New Orleans’ Central Business District.
Nobles developed most of her cookbook’s recipes, but some are from restaurants and some from local home cooks, she says.
The cookbook, Nobles writes, is “meant to memorialize the foods, both the nutritious and the wickedly unwholesome, that are important” to the characters in Toole’s book, “as well as to introduce new classics that spin off from what the characters ate.”
Editor’s note: Cheramie Sonnier was among those who edited the cookbook, and she says reading quotes from the novel, which are scattered throughout, kept her entertained.