Spatula Diaries: The backstory behind Baton Rouge’s classic dish Spinach Madeleine

When I first moved to Baton Rouge years ago for grad school at LSU, I knew almost no one in town. A friend of mine in Florida, where I was living at the time, hooked me up with a friend of hers here named Becca, and I reached out as soon as I got to town. Becca was a married mom of two in her 40s and an avid cook, and I was a 20-something single foodie with no friends. It was a perfect match. She spent a lot of time educating me about Louisiana food, including a dish she made routinely called Spinach Madeleine. I loved it instantly.

Over the years as regional food writer, I’ve covered lots of different angles associated with Spinach Madeleine, including the wild success of the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s community cookbook series, River Road Recipes. Spinach Madeleine is found in the first volume, and a lighter version of the dish is included in the third.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing recipe creator Madeline Reynaud Wright in 2011 for 225. No one was as surprised as she was at the recipe’s reception, she said. She’d made the dish at the last minute for a bridge luncheon in 1956, tossing in random ingredients from her fridge and pantry when she didn’t have time to go to the store. The recipe is such a great window into a 1950s American kitchen. There’s a quick blonde roux made with butter, flour, evaporated milk and vegetable liquor (reserved from cooking the spinach), a little chopped onion, cooked frozen spinach, a 6-ounce jalapeño cheese log and seasonings that include celery salt, garlic salt, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper.

Wright’s lunch guests loved it, and as a Junior League member, she included it a few years later in the inaugural cookbook, tweaking the spelling of her name from Madeline to Madeleine for added effect. The side dish is considered one of the cookbook’s bedrock recipes and is one of the reasons why it has outsold other community cookbooks of its kind nationwide.

When Kraft foods discontinued the jalapeño cheese log in the late ’90s, fans of the dish went nuts and wrote the company. Kraft didn’t budge, but they do include a jalapeño cheese log recipe on their website today. The Junior League of Baton Rouge officially modified the Spinach Madeleine recipe to include 4 ounces of Velveeta and 2 ounces of minced jalapeño pepper. Wright told me she wasn’t a fan of having to use Velveeta because it changed the texture of the dish.

Personally, I like to throw in a 5.2-ounce wheel of Boursin, a super creamy cheese that melts great. Purists may be groaning, but don’t knock it ‘til you try it. And honestly, celery salt is what makes this recipe the classic that it is, not the cheese. Leave celery salt out, and you’ll notice.

If you’re not already a devotee of Spinach Madeleine, give it a try this holiday season. And if you are, enjoy returning to it. It just might be Baton Rouge’s most important nostalgia dish.

Maggie Heyn Richardson is a regular 225 contributor. Reach her at hungryforlouisiana.com.