A Creole Cookbook Strikes Gold with Gumbo

updated 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Fund-raising cookbooks are all too often veritable plum puddings of pedestriana, offering such to-die-from dishes as Muffy's Tuna Casserole and Buffy's Spaghetti Italienne. The whole idea is to make money to help support some worthy cause. So imagine the surprise when New York Times food writer Bryan Miller gushed last year, "If there were community cookbook Academy Awards, the Oscar for best performance would go hands down to River Road Recipes."

Less surprised than proud was the Baton Rouge Junior League, which has been publishing the culinary best-seller since 1959. Proudest of all were Emily Robinson, 60, and Martha "Monkey" Bowlus, 62, two producers of the book who put together the collection of Louisiana Creole recipes that had already become as locally famous as jambalaya. The book project got under way when League members became "so darned tired of dancing in follies and putting on fashion shows to make money," recalls Amy Ruth Slowey, who helped edit the cookbook. In that spirit, the women decided to reveal their culinary secrets, which combine the French influence of their forebears with local "Cajun" ingredients from the bayous of southwestern Louisiana—crayfish, shrimp, okra and seasonings such as filé (powdered sassafras leaf) and chicory. That fertile source yielded 622 recipes, including several classics—Crayfish Étouffée, Mammy's Lemon Chess Pie, Garlic Cheese Grits and beignets (French Market doughnuts). The recipes were triple-tested over 18 months before River Road was first published in 1959.

"Our businessmen advisers thought the cookbook was a ladies' pipe dream," recalls Robinson, but Monkey Bowlus sensed a hungry market and persuaded her colleagues to place a first order with a local printer for 10,000 copies. It took the first printing less than a week to sell out, and with the 56 other printings that have followed it, total sales now number close to one million. B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, nationwide book-selling chains, order River Road by the thousands, and it now appears in such august emporia as Marshall Field and Neiman-Marcus. Even the Smithsonian Institution and Disneyland's souvenir shops carry it. A sequel, the 537-entry River Road Recipes II: A Second Helping, has sold nearly 300,000 copies since it was published in 1976.

So far the League has grossed nearly $1.7 million from River Road Recipes I and II, of which it has donated nearly $1.3 million to a shelter for battered women, a children's museum, various outdoor symphonies and the Special Olympics, among other causes.

The senior Junior Leaguers years ago passed the promotion work for River Road Recipes to the next generation, including Monkey's daughter Ann, 29, who enlisted the LSU business school to conduct market tests and plan a home computer program of all 1,159 River Road recipes. However, none of the authentic formulations will be changed. "There's good cooking everywhere," allows Emily Robinson, "but Louisiana's is definitely No. 1."

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