Last week, on my 225 Magazine food blog, Spatula Diaries, I posted about Spinach Madeleine, the iconic spicy spinach side dish that helped make the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s River Road Recipes one of the best selling community cookbooks of all time. The dish has a great story arc. It was invented on the spot, became wildly popular and was thrown into confusion when one of its key ingredients, Kraft’s jalapeño cheese log, was discontinued.
In 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing its creator, Madeline Wright. Here’s that story, which ran in 225 in 2011.
Kitchen Whimsy Leads to Beloved Region Dish
By Maggie Heyn Richardson
In 1956, St. Francisville native Madeline Wright was mulling over what to prepare for a bridge luncheon for friends when she spotted a six-ounce roll of Kraft jalapeño cheese in her refrigerator. She had picked up the new product from the supermarket a few days earlier with no plan for its use. Now she thought it might enhance creamed spinach. Despite her lack of cooking experience, she proceeded to toss together what seemed right: chopped spinach, diced onion, butter, flour, vegetable liquor, Pet evaporated milk, a few shakes of celery salt and garlic salt, chunks of the jalapeno cheese roll and Worcestershire sauce. Wright stirred the concoction until it was thick and creamy, placed it in a casserole and topped it with breadcrumbs. She plated it on good china and served it to her friends.
It was creamy, salty and spiked with unexpected spiciness. Her friend’s rave reviews inspired her to keep serving the dish for dinner parties and family events. Two years later, the Junior League of Baton Rouge asked its members to submit recipes for its first planned cookbook and Wright handed over instructions for her go-to spicy creamed spinach.
She named it Spinach Madeleine, using the French spelling of her first name for extra flourish.
River Road Recipes was published in 1959 and quickly became a regional hit. Its success led to three subsequent volumes, which together form the best-selling community cookbook series in the nation. Generations of readers have discovered and cooked Wright’s recipe and it has long been a standard item on local holiday tables. Spinach Madeleine became so popular regionally that when Kraft Foods discontinued its jalapeno cheese roll in 1999, fans of the dish showered the company with complaints. Kraft maintained its decision, forcing local cooks to turn to other jalapeño cheeses, or to Velveeta cheese and chopped jalapeños, to complete the recipe.
Today, Wright still marvels at the unexpected attention earned by her sudden bout of kitchen spontaneity.
“It’s really sort of funny and a little bit embarrassing, but it’s nice to be known for something,” says Wright, 82.
Cooking had not been one of Wright’s favorite activities. When many of her peers were learning to cook, she was earning dual bachelor’s degrees from LSU in psychology and sociology. As she approached her marriage to William Reymond shortly after graduation, her mother had a suggestion.
“She told me I ought to take a home economics class to learn how to cook,” Wright says. “My mother-in-law was also a well-known cook and hostess so I had a lot of standards to measure up to.”
Wright and her first husband and children eventually moved to Houston. She later created a company that leased plants to corporate offices.
She returned home to St. Francisville years later, and in 1992, opened a bed and breakfast on family property called the Green Springs Inn. She closed it in 2005 to spend more time with family.
As for her famed dish, Wright says she has made it occasionally over the years, but not as often as its fans might think.
“Our B&B guests expected me to serve it for breakfast,” she says. “I’d do it only periodically. Usually, we’d do a typical southern breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits biscuits and fresh fruit.”
Wright also laments the loss of the cornerstone ingredient, the jalapeño cheese log.
“It’s been a pain in the neck ever since. Now the dish has an entirely different texture,” she says. “I’ve tried various things, but I find Velveeta too soupy. None of it is really satisfactory.”
Wright says she never benefitted financially from the recipe, and she says she still marvels at the enthusiasm with which people have embraced it.
“It was just a set of circumstances that fell together,” she says. “It’s been a lot of fun, and nobody is more surprised about it as I am.”
This story ran in Baton Rouge’s city publication, 225 Magazine, in 2011.