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Publisher’s letter: Picking sides

Ashley Sexton Gordon. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Tis the season to pull out the beloved, tattered cookbooks of yesteryear, dust off the Pyrex dishes and concoct a 13-ingredient, freezer-friendly casserole dish that will make your host heave a sigh of relief that she’s simply in charge of the Turducken. Green bean casserole topped with French fried onions, anyone? Yes, please.

“Just make a side” is the mantra to guests all over this great nation when asked what to bring to the table. If your host is laid back, she will steer you toward a certain food group: “Bring a veggie. We’ve got starches covered.” If your host is not laid back, she will forward you her great Aunt Irma’s recipe for coconut-bourbon sweet potatoes and tell you step-by-step how to make them. This is when you pour a bit of bourbon for yourself. Happy holidays.

So when mulling through my cabinet of recipe books recently to find the supreme side dish, I came across a bright orange binder labeled Betty Crocker’s Cookbook: a pass down from my mother who bought this early in her marriage to learn the proper way to slice up a standing rib roast. And while there are many informative diagrams, recipes and table setting advice, there are plenty more things in ole Betty’s book to be alarmed about.

First things first: Did you realize that Betty Crocker wasn’t a real woman? And no, I’m not questioning how she identified as a human. I mean—wait for it, wait for it—Betty Crocker was never alive. This fictional character was concocted by the Washburn-Crosby Company, predecessor of General Mills, in 1921 to be used in advertising campaigns for food and recipes. Mind blown. The company presented Betty Crocker on daytime radio’s first cooking show, and according to Fortune magazine in April 1945, Betty Crocker was the second best-known woman in America, following first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

But she wasn’t even real.

After I recovered from this ultimate deception (I don’t even know who to look up to anymore), things—as they always do—started falling into place. For example, on page 299 of this 1969 cookbook, there is a recipe for Hot Dog Casserole. It involves instant mashed potatoes, sweet pickle relish, mayo, mustard and frankfurters. After spooning the mashed potato mixture into a casserole dish, the hot dogs are sliced, then inserted upright around the edges. The description: Hot mashed potato salad and franks—looks like a mock crown roast.

There is not a real woman alive who would serve a mock crown roast using hot dogs to people she loved. Not one.

Flipping through the index, I found 12 additional recipes involving hot dogs alone. Another unusual favorite on page 377 is the Tangy Tomato Aspic: a lemon-flavored gelatin mold including tomato sauce, canned asparagus and artichoke hearts, with the hole in its middle bulging with mayonnaise and sour cream. More bourbon, please.

Thankfully, my holiday go-to recipes all involve real, authentic women from the Baton Rouge area with south Louisiana specialties beloved by generations. That’s right. I’m talking about the Junior League’s River Road Recipes cookbooks. Specifically, I’m a big fan (as are many of you) of Mrs. William G. Reymond’s now iconic Spinach Madeleine, which graces page 63 of the original cookbook, first published in 1959. It just tastes like the holidays to me. Christmas would not be complete without this bubbling casserole topped with buttered breadcrumbs. And when Kraft Foods discontinued the jalapeño cheese log—a staple of the dish—in the late ’90s, I fell to my knees in despair, damp dishrag in hand, like every real home chef in the city. The Junior League officially modified the recipe to include Velveeta cheese and minced jalapeño pepper, but many have created their own substitutes.

“It’s been a pain in the neck ever since. Now the dish has an entirely different texture,” Madeline Reymond Wright told Maggie Heyn Richardson, inRegister and 225 contributor, in 2011. “I’ve tried various things, but I find Velveeta too soupy. None of it is really satisfactory.”

But this dish is more than satisfactory to the legions that ladle it on to porcelain plates come the holidays. It’s a staple side dish made even more savory with the knowledge that Madeline’s name was changed to Madeleine for the cookbook to give this dish extra pizzazz. As if it needed a kick.

Serve Spinach Madeleine alongside cornbread dressing, cranberry relish and pecan pie. Just note that if you swap out the Turducken for a sizzling standing rib roast, make sure it’s not actually a mock crown roast involving sliced frankfurters. The loss of the jalapeño cheese log will be the least of your worries.