A culinary icon with an exuberant personality who freely shared his love of Louisiana Cajun and Creole cooking internationally; an intrepid explorer of new cuisine and cooking techniques. That was chef Paul Prudhomme.
When Prudhomme died in October 2015, he left behind a collection of more than 600 cookbooks amassed from all over the world during his career.
Before Christmas, his widow Lori Prudhomme donated his entire personal collection to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s (SoFAB) John and Bonnie Boyd Hospitality and Culinary Library in Central City. Pruhomme said the donation was in the spirit of her late husband’s desire to continue helping the food industry.
Liz Williams, president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation – the umbrella organization under which SoFAB operates – said the collection is a diverse one, reflecting Prudhomme’s broad curiosity about food. Everything from foreign cookbooks to authentic Cajun cookbooks to Jewish cookbooks, to his own cookbooks translated into Braille and a large-print version for Lighthouse for the Blind can be found. Examples include Alice Water’s “Chez Panisse”; “Redneck Heaven” by Bethany Bultman; travel books, books on cigars, cocktails, wine and even the biochemistry tome “The Maillard Reaction in Foods and Nutrition.”
“He just decides he wants this corn book, so he buys Beth Fussell’s “The Story of Corn,” Williams said. “His curiosity was fathomless.”
She said when volunteers went to his home to retrieve the collection, the aroma of herbs wafted in the 24 boxes. It took several trips to get all the books to the library.
Before he died, Prudhomme – recognizing the museum’s important focus to preserve culinary history as well as being personal friends with the Boyds – had given the library autographed copies of all nine of his cookbooks.
Williams said Prudhomme’s collection is invaluable on many levels.
“I think it’s important because it certainly is a part of Louisiana culinary history and it’s preserved here, and it’s also important because Paul Prudhomme was internationally important, so it means we are preserving a part of American culinary history … not just New Orleans culinary history,” Williams said.
Spend hours reading
SoFAB’s John and Bonnie Boyd Hospitality and Culinary Library officially opened in 2013 but was collecting cookbooks through donations even before SoFAB first opened in Riverwalk in 2008. So, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, SoFAB became a community resource – for New Orleanians who had lost their recipes to flood waters – by partnering with the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), lending several thousand cookbooks to fill the library shelves. The cookbooks were named the “SoFAB Collection” at NOPL.
The library’s collection has grown since then – to approximately 17,000 volumes with the ability to expand to 40,000 once it fully occupies its current home at 1609 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. – and works with NOPL to catalog them.
“The books are ours, but they (NOPL) are able to give their patrons access to the collection,” Williams said. Scholars and others do research during open hours of Monday through Friday, 11 a.m-5 p.m. NOPL is the only library to have a stand-alone culinary branch, she said.
Prudhomme’s collection sits on one wall of shelves at the reference-only library. (One can read as many cookbooks as desired onsite, but cannot check any out.)
“We’re very fortunate to have Chef Paul’s books,” Williams said, adding how others such as southern chefs Louis Osteen and Norman Van Aken, both James Beard Foundation winners, have entrusted SoFAB with their works as well.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have people believe in us and who are willing to leave this legacy with us.”
Williams talks about the library as a repository that preserves periods of time by keeping cookbooks that show how people cooked in a certain era in a certain place.
“We don’t weed out books (like cookbooks from ladies’ auxiliary groups),” she said. “We just grow and grow and so it means we are a place that, at some point, has books that aren’t in the Library of Congress. … Sometimes, we might be the only public place that a book can be found.”
Prudhomme, a Catholic
Prudhomme was named Gene Autry Prudhomme at birth, but when he was baptized at St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, a saint’s name was needed, and he was christened Paul Eugene Prudhomme. Lori Prudhomme said the Prudhomme family donated the land for St. Landry Church.
Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children. His mother Hazel Reed Prudhomme was his biggest cooking influence, Prudhomme said. Since his family was sharecroppers, he watched his mother use whatever ingredients were in season.
When Prudhomme took a chance in 1979 and opened K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street, he used only fresh ingredients. That’s why, to this day, there are no freezers at K-Paul’s. Prudhomme became widely successful at the restaurant and popularized Louisiana cooking in cookbooks and four PBS cooking series.
Christine Bordelon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.