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The cookbook connoisseur

More than 500 cookbooks cram the shelves of Marcelle Bienvenu’s home office. Some she collected while researching South Louisiana cuisine for Time-Life Books. Dozens of others were mailed to her by publishers after she began co-authoring New York Times best-sellers with Emeril Lagasse. She also inherited a good chunk of her collection from her mother, who had accumulated various cookbooks from local church groups and the Junior League.

With hundreds of resources at hand and with her family’s culinary traditions as inspiration, Bienvenu never runs out of recipe ideas. The St. Martinville native was seemingly born with the ingredients to become a cookbook author and food columnist.

“Where I really learned how to cook was at my dad’s elbow with a castiron pot over a wood-fire stove,” says Bienvenu, a Chef John Folse Culinary Institute instructor. “There was no knob for medium heat; you learned to move the pot halfway off the fire.”

Her father’s family owned and published the Teche News, leading Bienvenu to pursue a feature-writing job with The Times-Picayune. In the 1970s, she shifted her focus to culinary research.

“I really became intrigued by the differences in what people in New Orleans ate and the food that our family ate in the country,” says Bienvenu, who still writes a weekly column, “Creole Cooking,” for the Picayune.

After working in public relations and catering for restaurants such as Commander’s Palace and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Bienvenu delved into her family’s cooking style and published her first cookbook, Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux? in 1991. Since then, she’s authored several more of her own, in addition to co-authoring mainstream titles.

“I learned quickly to write and talk like Emeril,” says Bienvenu, who worked with the famous chef in his home kitchen, perfecting recipes for four of his cookbooks. “The man can cook, but he can’t measure to save his life!”

Cookbook writing can be a time-consuming art with lots of failed recipe attempts and plenty of dirty dishes. But it certainly has its perks. For Abita Beer, Cooking Louisiana True, crates of different Abita beers were delivered to her home for recipe testing. For Cooking Up a Storm, Bienvenu helped Times-Picayune readers find recipes they had lost in Hurricane Katrina. And for True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps, she spent research hours watching every episode of HBO’s True Blood. But her favorite recipes are still those rural Cajun ones she preserved from her family. “I tell my students, you better ask your grandmaw today for her recipes, and follow her around the kitchen writing down what she does.”

— Written by Sarah Baudoin, 2013 mass communication graduate, and Stephanie Detillier Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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