Read this cookbook: “The Fonville Winans Cookbook: Recipes and Photographs from a Louisiana Artist” By Melinda Risch Winans & Cynthia LeJeune Nobles (LSU Press, $39.95)
By Wendell Brock
Fonville Winans (1911-1992) was a Baton Rouge photographer who spent the early part of his career shooting Cajun life on a pair of tiny barrier islands off the Louisiana coast.
His Depression-era images ‑‑ crusty old oystermen sprawled on mounds of discarded oyster shells, anglers posing with enviable catches of redfish ‑‑ are to the Bayou State what Eudora Welty’s powerful and empathetic photographs of the same period are to Mississippi: Beautiful and iconic.
As it turns out, the loquacious, fun-loving Winans was a dedicated home cook, bourbon lover, and storyteller who loved to entertain guests at his home and in his studio.
Now his recipes for jambalaya, scalloped oysters, pickled okra and tamales have been collected in a wonderful volume from the Louisiana State University Press, co-authored by daughter-in-law Melinda Risch Winans and cookbook writer Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.
Smartly illustrated with Winans’ indelible images, the book doubles as both a highly readable biography of this singular man (he was also a pilot, inventor and father of three) and a collection of his delicious, sometimes loopy-sounding recipes (Oyster Spaghetti, Boiled Crabs in an Ice Chest, High Society Rice).
For anyone interested in Southern food and culture, this tale of experimentation, in the dark room and the kitchen, is an irresistible gumbo. I was as mesmerized by this account of Winans’ outsize personality and wit as his notes on chile con carne and drop biscuits for two.
Winans was forever tinkering with recipes and tried to save money by foraging: thistle, pokeweed, chanterelles. (He was hospitalized twice for eating poisonous mushroom, and one time while laid up with a broken leg, he perfected his flan.)
If you never bother with his Crawfish Claw “Coquina” Stew or Melinda’s Sauerbraten with Gingersnap Gravy, you’ll be absorbed by the memories of this incandescent and charismatic figure.
Winans’ fame as a photographer came late in life and has grown since his death. His Stuffed Cucumbers and Hot Fruit Casserole may not endure the test of time, but his luminous images of oyster eaters and island shacks will.
Like the man himself, this cookbook is fine company: a tribute to his bonhomie, boundless energy, and zest for life. That Fonville Williams also loved grapes coated with cream cheese and garlic makes him seem all the more delightful.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).