This month we celebrate the 80th reprint of the cookbook that started it all: River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine! With over 1.4 million copies sold since the original edition was printed in September 1959, River Road Recipes I is the oldest community cookbook still in print in the United States.
An early promotional cover for River Road Recipes I. Copyright retained by East Baton Rouge Parish Library.
Reflecting on the success of the River Road Recipes collection over the last 57 years, it’s hard to believe that the cookbook that is considered a staple in many kitchens not just in Louisiana, but throughout the country, almost never came to be. When the idea for a cookbook was first proposed by the original Junior League of Baton Rouge cookbook committee in 1957, the League’s financial advisors (incidentally, a group of men) strongly advised against it. “It was another generation, the men thought we couldn’t do anything,” Emily Robinson, chair of the the original cookbook committee, recalled in an interview with Country Roads Magazine in 2011. Despite the opposition, “we continued to collect, edit, and select the best recipes during taste-testing parties. We presented the layout of the cookbook to the board for permission to present it to the membership to adopt it as a money-making project. It still gives me a fright when I think how close we came to being voted down,” she said. Years later, after witnessing the enduring success of River Road Recipes I, one of the financial advisors finally admitted to Robinson, “We gave you bad advice.” “We showed you, didn’t we?” she quipped back.
Testing the recipe for crabmeat casserole for River Road Recipes I. From left to right, Mrs. Lenton Sartain, Mrs. John Ferguson, and Mrs. John Gordon. Copyright retained by East Baton Rouge Parish Library.
The reasons for the phenomenal success of River Road Recipes I are numerous, starting with the careful planning and meticulous editing of the first edition by the original cookbook committee. “They were checked three times—every recipe that was in there. We didn’t hurry. It took us a year and a half to do the cookbook,” Robinson recalled.
Equally important to the book’s success was the determination that Junior League members had in promoting the cookbook. “When the book came out,” said Martha (Monkey) Bowlus, 1960 cookbook chairman, “every member was given ten copies to sell. Then they came back for another ten. When people wrote us that they couldn’t find file’ for the gumbo in their local stores, we mailed them a little pack of it. For years no member dared to go out of town, whether to New Orleans, New York, or Paris, without a copy of RRR in their suitcase. I have shown it to people in bookshops, department stores; supermarkets, and airplanes, and I still don’t travel without it.”
A promotion for a cinema event held at City Club of Baton Rouge on January 20, 1960, where selections from the newly published River Road Recipes I were served. Copyright retained by East Baton Rouge Parish Library.
Some members were even downright cunning in their marketing methods! For example, Ann Arbour, who not only named the cookbook in 1959, was responsible, along with her sisters and her mother, for ensuring the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans sold the books in its gift shop. “[They would take] turns inquiring about a copy of River Road Recipes cookbook throughout their weekend stay. The clerk finally said, ‘This is about the sixth request I’ve had in only two days for that book. Can you tell me how I can purchase some?’” recalled Junior League member Julie Carville Jones in a speech given to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication in 2010.
Of course, no amount of editing or marketing could have made River Road Recipes I successful if it were not for the integrity of the recipes it contained — recipes that, in their own way, truly embody the spirit of the people of south Louisiana. “Not only are the recipes easy to follow and make, they’re just downright good,” said Janice Couvillion, a past chairman of the marketing committee for the River Road Recipes collection. “Everything we do in the South Louisiana is based on food. People can’t stand to see you not eating. Whether its a funeral or a football party, people will have food. I have pretty much traveled around the world, and I haven’t eaten better food than what we have here. People love to eat, and it shows in their cooking.”
Members of the 1969 River Road Recipes Cookbook Committee. From left to right, Barbara Bearden, Shirley Watson and Judy Powers. Copyright retained by East Baton Rouge Parish Library.
In 1972, Junior League members began work on River Road Recipes II: A Second Helping with the hope of sustaining sales for the day that sales of River Road Recipes I began to drop off. Much to their surprise, however, that day never materialized. River Road Recipes I continues to outsell River Road Recipes II: A Second Helping, River Road Recipes III: A Healthy Collection, which debuted in 1994, and River Road Recipes IV: Warm Welcomes, published in 2004.
The debut of River Road Recipes II: A Second Helping in 1972. From left to right, Mrs. Robert F. Arbour (President), Mrs. Edwin Edwards, Mrs. James Alexander (Cookbook Chair). Copyright retained by East Baton Rouge Parish Library.
The River Road Recipes cookbook collection has done far more than simply bring a national spotlight to the many culinary delights unique to south Louisiana, however. Together, sales of the River Road Recipes collection has earned well over $5,000,000 to fund projects sponsored or supported by Junior League in the Baton Rouge community. From providing diapers for needy infants, to putting smiles on the faces of sick children at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital and providing resources for families dealing with autism diagnoses, the positive impact this cookbook collection has had on our community cannot be overstated. You can learn more about the Junior League’s 2016-2017 community projects that are supported by our cookbook sales on the Junior League of Baton Rouge website and here on our blog!
This week, we invite you to celebrate with us by cooking up any one of our classic recipes found in River Road Recipes I. From the bottom of our hearts and the hearts of everyone in the Baton Rouge community, thank you for having us over for dinner the last 57 years. We cannot wait to see what the future for the River Road Recipes holds!