We all have that dish. That one dish that for us makes the holiday complete. The dish that is so good it gets served at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For me that dish is Spinach Madeleine, which is kind of crazy because I don’t really like spicy foods and Spinach Madeleine features jalapeno cheese. Or at least it did. But I digress.
I had Spinach Madeleine for the first time in Mississippi in my 20s when I was dating my now-husband and visited his mother for the holidays. With the first bite, I was in culinary heaven. My husband was used to the zesty spinach dish because his mom had been making it ever since she got married. She’d been served Spinach Madeleine at a friend’s house and duly impressed, purchased the cookbook with the recipe – the famous River Road Recipes published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge in the 1950s, now in its 80th printing.
Out of a well-known cookbook, Spinach Madeleine is its most celebrated recipe. Because of this, the Junior League of Baton Rouge published a history of the dish in 2016.
The site notes that Spinach Madeleine was named as one of the century’s best recipes in an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle in December 1999, a fact I find totally unsurprising. To eat it is to love it.
It’s funny that the recipe’s creator, Madeline Nevell Reymond, made Spinach Madeleine for the first time by accident. The Junior League of Baton Rouge reports Reymond was an inexperienced cook when she decided to use up a jalapeno cheese roll that she had in her refrigerator by adding it to a spinach dish she was preparing for a ladies’ luncheon.
“The result was a dish that became one of the most popular special-occasion vegetable dishes in Louisiana,” the Junior League said. “This is evidenced every year by the empty freezers in the grocery stores at Christmas time after all the frozen spinach packages have been snatched up.”
My husband and I met Madeline some years back at a bed and breakfast she then owned in St. Francisville, Louisiana. We were super fans and we may have frightened her a bit with our enthusiasm for the dish, but she was a good sport about it.
As she told blogger Maggie Heyn Richardson in 2011, “It’s really sort of funny and a little bit embarrassing, but it’s nice to be known for something.”
The saga of the dish took a turn for the worse when Kraft Foods decided to discontinue making the jalapeno cheese roll, which is an integral part of the recipe. I wonder if the Kraft customer service people were prepared for the hundreds of upset cooks who phoned in to voice their displeasure. The brouhaha did not dissuade the head honchos at Kraft who discontinued the product anyway.
Madeline told us she also wrote to Kraft to reinstate it, to no avail.
The River Road Recipes committee developed a new version of Spinach Madeleine in 2000, and a lighter version of the recipe appears in River Road Recipes III: A Healthy Collection. But everybody had their tweaks.
My husband, who makes the dish for our family each year, uses regular Velveeta cheese plus jalapeno Tabasco sauce. By the way, the fact I don’t cook it also makes the dish a favorite for me.
I also love that Madeline wasn’t someone who loved to cook. As Richardson tells it, Madeline was too busy earning dual bachelor’s degrees from LSU in psychology and sociology to spend much time in the kitchen. It was only as she was getting married that she heeded her mother-in-law’s advice and took a home economics class to learn her way around the kitchen.
And yet, the dish she made with a last-minute substitution will be the one I’ll be (hopefully) eating for the next 20 holidays and beyond.
Never had it? Google Spinach Madeleine and find the spice tweak that works for you. You can thank me later.