"When I die, I want my headstone to read, 'Here lies the body of the famous Spinach Madeleine,'" proclaims 87-year-old Madeline Nevell Reymond Wright with a chuckle.
Wright is the creator of one the most popular recipes found in the Junior League of Baton Rouge's blockbuster cookbook, "River Road Recipes I: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine," published in 1959. Forty years later, Spinach Madeleine was named as one of the Century’s Best Recipes in a Houston Chronicle article.
Along with celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, the league is also celebrating the 80th printing of the original "River Road Recipes," which with its companion volumes "River Road Recipes II — A Second Helping," "River Road Recipes III — A Healthy Collection" and "River Road Recipes IV — Warm Welcomes," remains one of the top-selling community cookbook series in the nation with more than 19 million copies in print. While the later cookbooks thousands of wonderful recipes, none can claim the fame of the original and, in particular, the recipe for Spinach Madeleine.
It was a recipe Wright stumbled upon quite by accident.
"I didn't know what I was doing really," she says. "I had bought this (Kraft) jalapeño cheese roll at the grocery store and put it in the freezer. I took Spanish in high school, so I thought I knew how to pronounce jalapeño.
"Anyway, I was in a two-table bridge club and it was my time to host," she continues. "I was trying to figure out what to serve my friends. My mother-in-law had a really good creamed spinach recipe, and I decided to fix that. On a whim, I put the jalapeño cheese into the creamed spinach. I was so surprised the girls were so amazed by the dish. They really liked it."
A few weeks later, Wright served her spiced-up creamed spinach at a supper club she and her late husband, William Reymond, belonged to and, again, it was huge hit. "Even the men liked it," she recalls.
When the Junior League decided to publish the cookbook as a fundraiser for its various service projects, Wright and her fellow members where asked to contribute recipes for consideration. One of the several she submitted was Spinach Madeleine, the name she gave her culinary creation.
"When the cookbook came out, there was an immediate response to it," says Wright. "The committee had to taste and test every recipe to be sure everything was correct. They all loved it, and it was selected to be included."
Not too long after "River Road Recipes" was released, Wright was at an event hosted by the Junior League of New Orleans.
"A group of people were talking about the recipe, and one of them pointed out that I was the one who submitted it. I also got pointed out at a football game," says Wright, who soon became known as "Spinach Madeleine." "I was so surprised that I'd gained this fame. It was totally unknown to me at the time."
"I was 6 at that time," says daughter Rosalie Reymond, who lives with her mom in St. Francisville. "Spinach Madeleine has been present my whole life. I just have fun with it. I tell people I'm Spinach Madeleine's daughter."
Notice that the dish isn't spelled exactly like Wright spells her first name. The River Road Recipes committee, co-chaired by Martha "Monkey" Bowlus and Mary Frances MacCurdy, used the French spelling to give the recipe some caché. Other committee members included Sara Barrow, Jean Collier, Sara Downing, Elizabeth Geheber, Nettie Kean, Carolyn Landry, Dorris McCall, Nona McInnis, Jane Middleton, Katherine Miller, Camille Ragio, Anne Reitzell, Emily Robinson, June Scheffy, Eloise Selig, Betty Seigel, Carolyn Simpson, Amy Slowey, Mary Jane Smith, Evelyn Wilsford and Barbara Womack. League member Ann Arbor came up with cookbook's name.
Over the years, hundreds of newspapers, magazines and websites have reprinted the recipe for Spinach Madeleine. It became a must-have item on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner menus. Nationally known chefs like John Folse and John Besh tweaked it for their own versions.
"I wish I had a nickel for every time it was served or the recipe was reprinted in the newspaper," says Wright with a laugh.
No one was laughing, though, when Kraft quit making its jalapeño cheese roll — the key ingredient to the dish. A wave of panic consumed cooks as the holidays approached.
"I had many, many telephone calls asking me what to do," says Wright. "A lot of people wanted me to call Kraft and complain. I think I did once but they'd made up their mind and wouldn't change it."
Fortunately, the Junior League's River Road Recipes committee developed a new version of the classic recipe in 2000. It features Kraft's Velveeta cheese and two tablespoons of chopped jalapeño peppers in place of the now-discontinued cheese roll. The new version of Spinach Madeleine appears in the 80th reprint.