Ask anyone to make a list of renaissance men of the 20th century in New Orleans, and media legend Frank Davis would undoubtedly be near the top of the list. A four-decade fixture on both radio and television for WWL, Frank not only served as a wellspring of, and reflection for, neighborhood culture in the Crescent City on the small screen and airwaves, but worked to redefine how audiences approach recipe development and familiar ingredients in their own kitchen, providing the sort of authentic, familial approach to home cooking in his broadcasts that had yet to be seen locally with his “Naturally N’Awlins!” warmth and innate storytelling abilities.
Oh, and did I mention he was also an avid outdoorsman, tremendous writer, cookbook author, one-time X-ray technician, spice-making entrepreneur? And that, after his passing in 2013, he was honored for his foundational place in South Louisiana history when the I-10 Twin Span Bridge that links Orleans Parish and St. Tammany Parish was officially renamed the Frank Davis “Naturally N’Awlins” Memorial Bridge?
Like I said, a true renaissance man.
No matter the medium, whenever Frank Davis shared a recipe, it was like he was chatting with you about it over a cup of coffee, not bringing the idea down from a culinary ivory tower. And no other time of year better reflected his desire to share classic-but-creative, memory-making recipes than around the holidays, or as they’re better known among, ahem, Frank-ophiles: Franksgiving and Naturally Noel.
“Frank Davis was the icon at WWL but, every Tuesday morning starting in the 1980s, he would be in the kitchen cooking. At certain times of the year, he would do special themes, like Franksgiving during Thanksgiving and Naturally Noel — a take on his ‘Naturally N’Awlins’ catchphrase — during Christmas,” remembers Dominic Massa, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer for WYES-TV and author of the 2008 book, New Orleans Television. “During Franksgiving, he would also print up recipe booklets, and people would be excited to get those to have the special recipes for the holiday. He would put together a whole menu for his Franksgiving feast, so it would be the side dishes, a special way to do the turkey, dessert…and whatever else he came up with.”
Massa recalls that the term “Franksgiving” — what he calls a “perfect name” for Frank’s spin on the Thanksgiving holiday — was created by the promotions team at WWL, who also dreamed up other now-venerable messaging concepts like the “Spirit of Louisiana” to promote the state’s rich musical heritage and “Bless You Boys” for, of course, the New Orleans Saints.
“Frank was such a fixture, and he oozed New Orleans and South Louisiana. Because he grew up here and knew the food culture and what people would like, I think it really resonated with what people would want on their Thanksgiving table,” Massa says, noting that Davis even had a small role in helping popularize the turducken. “Even as a broadcaster, he had a tone of voice where you can hear him in the recipes when you read them.”
No matter how many viewers considered Frank their next of kin during Franksgiving and Naturally Noel, Frank’s wife, Mary Clare, recalls that Frank always found a way to put their tight-knit family first. “Frank just loved every minute of it. As busy as he was, we’d go grocery shopping and plan the menu, and he would pick out what to fix. I don’t know how he got all these wonderful ideas about Thanksgiving, but he did. They used to make little booklets and put them in the grocery stores, and everybody was so excited about all the Franksgiving recipes.”
For the Davis family, the holidays also meant having everyone join in the festivities, both on-screen and off. “The grandkids always loved to watch the cooking shows with Frank during the holidays. In fact, my granddaughter, Elise, used to join him a lot of times and go on the set and help prepare the holiday dishes,” remembers Mary Clare, who herself served as Frank’s on-screen assistant for many years. “They were all so interested in what their grandfather did. It was just a wonderful time during Thanksgiving and Christmas for everyone to gather and see those things that he enjoyed doing so much and that his family enjoyed watching him do.”
“The recipes he made are simple, but he didn’t make it sound simple. He made it sound like it was the most interesting thing — and they would tease him about that,” laughs Massa. “It might be just cranberry sauce, but he would make it into something really exciting and different, and something that you may have taken for granted that he then elevated in a different way. It also made it fun: I think that was another big part of what he did. He made it interesting, and that’s why he was so successful at it for so many years.”
Frank’s passion for and expert knowledge of the South Louisiana outdoors — and fishing in particular — also factored heavily into his recipe development, and positioned him as one of the first front-and-center advocates for accessible, thoughtful wild-caught cooking instruction on broadcast television — not just in Louisiana, but nationally. Long before farm-to-table or “locally sourced” seafood could be found on every fine dining menu across the city, Frank Davis was showing exactly how freshly caught fish could not only be prepared successfully but taken directly from Gulf-to-plate.
“He was so full of knowledge about the seafood industry and seafood in Louisiana, but in fact, he covered quite a bit of area,” Mary Clare recalls. “It wasn’t just Louisiana. It was all about different kinds of the fish from different places and how to fix them.”
“The first time I saw Frank he was in a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries uniform…[and] during that time, Frank learned about cooking fish and game as only a person devoted to preserving our bayous and wildlife, and to appreciating the abundance of what we have to eat in Louisiana on a year-round basis, can do,” wrote the late, great Chef Paul Prudhomme in the foreword to Davis’s 1983 book, The Frank Davis Seafood Notebook. “I consider Frank a number-one authority on cooking and eating the fresh fish and game of Louisiana.”
“The first time Frank came to our Village East Store in Houma was to make an appearance for a Crisco promotion, but I remember what he liked about that particular store visit was that it’s right there on the way down to Cocodrie — to the CoCo Marina — coming from New Orleans,” recalls Tim Acosta, longtime Advertising & Marketing Director for Rouses. “I just remember him saying that he felt familiar with the store location, because I guess he was going down there to fish, and that he didn’t mind coming down because it put him that much closer to the Gulf of Mexico! Everybody loved Frank Davis, I tell you. He was authentic. He was like everybody’s favorite uncle and always had stories to tell. Not a chef, or nothing like that, but just always down to earth.”
“Frank was pretty self-taught. He didn’t come from a cooking school or a restaurant background. But he made things fun and relatable, and I think that was a secret to Frank’s success,” Massa says. “As we know, Thanksgiving can also be a stressful time, but he didn’t make putting together the perfect menu stressful. He made it fun. He made it interesting and creative. Also, the recipes were just so Louisiana, with the ingredients he used, the presentation and the style of the dishes.”
There’s a gregariousness and wink-and-a-nod affection to Davis’s recipe instruction that makes you feel as if you’re joining in on a thrilling kitchen adventure with Frank, the fearless leader, there to guide you every step of the way. With a penchant for parentheticals that feel like exuberant, just-remembered tips (About the salt — check your oysters to see if they are naturally salty before adding the prescribed amount. You may have to reduce the salt if nature has provided!) and no shortage of exclamation points in his recipes, Frank married together an earnest affection for cooking New Orleans classics with an engaging flair that helped to inspire cooking confidence for more than one generation of fans.
“Let’s face it…the most popular dressing in grand old New Orleans — especially around holiday season — is oyster dressing. And when you spice it up with just the right touch of real Cajun andouille, it’s hard to beat!” Frank writes in a 1995 Franksgiving recipe for his oyster-andouille dressing. “But most folks unfamiliar with it think it’s too hard to make. Not true, cher! All you do is follow this recipe to the letter, and you got yourself a winner!”
Everything from cauliflower chowder, butternut squash casserole, herb-roasted chicken and rotini pan pie to deep-fried turkey and a crème de menthe and maraschino cherry “yule wreath pie” could grace a Franksgiving menu (surprises always abounded), and the anticipation of each year’s menu drop, constructed in Frank’s signature style, kept viewers waiting with bated breath.
“During the holidays, he would plan all of the menus, and everything would be so new and fresh. He always made a great impression, and we had so much fun cooking together,” says Mary Clare. “I was so proud of him. I was a lucky lady.”