STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's have a meal or two inspired by the novel "A Confederacy Of Dunces." It's a story set in New Orleans in the 1960s.
CYNTHIA LEJEUNE NOBLES: It's kind of a rambling novel. There's really no plot to it.
INSKEEP: Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate and a big fan of the book.
NOBLES: It's about Ignatius J. Reilly. He's an over-educated 30-year-old who still lives with his mother in a tiny little house. And he goes around ranting against the modern world. He also likes to eat.
INSKEEP: He eats a lot as he walks the streets of New Orleans selling hotdogs from a pushcart. John Kennedy Toole wrote this novel as a young man, although he did not live to see it in print.
NOBLES: He had a very hard time finding a publisher. He did have someone interested in New York, but that sort of fell through, so in 1969, he finally committed suicide.
INSKEEP: Eleven years later, largely through the persistence of his mother, the novel was finally published - and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Besides Ignatius J. Reilly, the book features odd characters, like an exotic dancer who eats wine cakes and canned Spanish rice. In fact, food defines the characters throughout the book. And that's what spurred Nobles to write "A Confederacy Of Dunces Cookbook." She explores New Orleans and many of the foods in the novel, like those wine cakes.
NOBLES: That's an old pastry that goes back to the 1800s. It's sort of like a little pound cake soaked in alcohol and topped with a cherry. It's delicious. He talks about daube. Daube is a tough roast.
INSKEEP: You're already hinting here at the cultural significance of the food because you mentioned wine cakes, for example. What is the cultural backdrop for wine cakes? Where do they come from?
NOBLES: Wine cakes were invented by the French back in the 1800s, and it was sort of a holiday dish. And you would take a stale piece of cake, and you would soak it in wine. And you would serve it topped with whipped cream and a cherry. And I came up with a recipe that's pretty easy to make at home.
INSKEEP: So the wine cake - and then you mentioned the beef dish. What did you call it again?
NOBLES: Daube - D, A, U, B, E.
INSKEEP: And there's a French version and an Italian version. What's the difference?
NOBLES: The French version is stuffed with bacon. And it's baked for many, many hours because it's a tough piece of meat. The Italian version is stuffed with garlic. And it's plopped inside a big pot of what we call red gravy down here, but it's a red marinara sauce. And cooks for hours and hours too, until it falls apart.
INSKEEP: I am interested that you've twice now referred to less-than-ideal ingredients that become a delicious dish. The stale bread becomes the wine cake, the tough meat becomes daube. Is this a tendency in New Orleans cooking?
NOBLES: It certainly is. There were some wealthy people here in the 1800s, but the majority of the population certainly was not, especially since we had such a huge immigrant population. So there were lots of people not too wealthy here, and they learned how to make do with what they had.
INSKEEP: So you've got this kind of high-end food, but this is really about comfort food. I see soft white rolls here, for example, and New Orleans French bread.
NOBLES: It is. And another make-do cake I put in the cookbook is called Russian cake. And that's very unique to New Orleans. And what that is is scraps of donuts and pie and cake. And it's all mushed together with alcohol and a sugar sauce. And then you frost it with a frosting on the top, and it's called Russian cake.
INSKEEP: And why is it called Russian cake?
NOBLES: A baker was going to - he needed to make a dessert for a Russian ambassador who visited New Orleans in the early 1900s. And he didn't have the ingredients. So he just threw everything together with his alcohol, and he came up with Russian cake.
INSKEEP: That sounds like a story that old-time newspaper people used to say was too good to check.
NOBLES: That's right.
INSKEEP: Did you feel obliged to read and reread and read again this novel as you were putting together this cookbook that's inspired by it?
NOBLES: I did. I understand what Toole was trying to do. He was trying to tell the world what New Orleans was at the time, and what kind of people lived here and how they are so different from other places. And New Orleans really is a different city in a very good way.
INSKEEP: Louisiana food columnist Cynthia Lejeune Nobles, author of "A Confederacy Of Dunces Cookbook." And if you don't mind, Linda, would you just pick up this next story? I want to go off and get something to eat.
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