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The Wright Recipe

When it comes to dishes that were popular in the mid-20th century, it’s safe to say that most didn’t quite have the staying power to carry them through the ages. Crack open any community cookbook compiled in the 1950s or ’60s, and you’ll find some pretty oddball creations that were considered fairly normal at the time. “Mystery Salad” from the Junior League of Lafayette’s Talk About Good!, for instance, is a combination of raspberry gelatin, stewed tomatoes and hot sauce dolloped with a sour cream, sugar and horseradish mixture. A few pages later, we’re introduced to the “Carrot Ring,” which bakes eggs, mashed carrots and grated cheese in a bundt pan, then serves it up with creamed English peas in the center like a volcano. (Jiggly dishes were really a thing.)

Even the restaurant favorites of the era never found their way back into popular taste despite the rise of interest in mid-century aesthetics a few years ago, thanks to a little show called Mad Men. Everyone might’ve been sipping Stinger cocktails next to their well-stocked bar carts and furiously searching for Eames chairs, but the likes of Chicken Kiev and Veal Cordon Bleu never reached revival-level status on menus.

And even if some of us (myself included) have eaten a few of these headscratcher dips and casseroles from the past at our grandmothers’ tables, it takes a truly special and inviting dish created in this particular era to not just survive — but thrive — as the decades have passed on. For many families across the Gulf South, there’s no better example of a deeply beloved, mid-century community cookbook favorite than Spinach Madeleine.

In many ways, Spinach Madeleine shares a lot of fundamental similarities with other creations of the day. Thanks to the post-World War II rise of “high-tech” shelf-stable and processed foods, flash freezing and then-novel kitchen gadgets, a whole lot of experimentation was going on in kitchens across America.

“By the early 1960s, shelf-stable foods lined the colorful aisles of supermarkets. Widespread refrigeration was still only a few decades old, and there were plenty of home cooks who remembered the necessity of shopping daily for meat, vegetables, and dairy products in the 1920s and ’30s,” writes Sarah Archer in her 2019 book, The Midcentury Kitchen. “The food technology developed during World War II changed the way Americans ate, and how they planned and shopped for food. In her 2015 book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat, Anastacia Marx de Salcedo sums it up this way: ‘In the universe of processed food, World War II was the Big Bang.’”

Spinach Madeleine is, without a doubt, a shining star from that bang. A combination of spinach (frozen, then drained — with liquid reserved), sautéed onion and Kraft Jalapeño Cheese Roll (which was, at the time, newfangled) all creamed up with butter, flour, evaporated milk and spices, Spinach Madeleine was created by St. Francisville, Louisiana-native Madeline Wright in 1956. Gooey and ever versatile, the dish can be served warm as a sort of extravagant dip or topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked off in casserole form if you’re taking it to a friend’s house. (Either way, you’re going to end up eating many, many helpings.) And while the story goes that its creation was something of an accident, its immediate popularity — and wide-ranging influence — is the stuff of kitchen lore.

“I didn’t know what I was doing really,” Wright explained to The Advocate in 2017. “I had bought this (Kraft) jalapeño cheese roll at the grocery store and put it in the freezer…I was in a two-table bridge club and it was my time to host. I was trying to figure out what to serve my friends. My mother-in-law had a really good creamed spinach recipe, and I decided to fix that. On a whim, I put the jalapeño cheese into the creamed spinach. I was so surprised the girls were so amazed by the dish. They really liked it.”

Just like that, old methods met new ingredients, and a legacy was born.

Then, in 1959, Spinach Madeleine was approved for inclusion in the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s River Road Recipes (after being properly tested by the cookbook committee, naturally), where it was given a little bit of extra-French flair when the creator’s name, Madeline, became “Madeleine” in the recipe’s name. (Why a recipe that prominently features jalapeños needed a Parisian touch is a mid-century mystery we may never fully unlock.)

Almost overnight, Spinach Madeleine went from the local bridge club to just about everywhere in the region, as the spicy, cheesy creation quickly became a much-talked-about (and eaten) standout dish from the book, helping propel sales of River Road’s first edition to over 1.4 million copies since its original release date in September 1959.

And while it is assuredly a dish defined by its mid-century roots in many ways (frozen spinach! cheese log!), the meteoric rise in popularity of Spinach Madeleine and its staying power has shown that there’s something deeper than just its delicious, comfort food appeal.

Spinach Madeleine’s preparation is straightforward enough that even young kids can help in the cooking process, and plenty of families have spent the holidays in the kitchen introducing their next generation to the dish. It freezes easily and can be double — or triple! — batched without a second thought, meaning that feeding a bigger-than-anticipated Thanksgiving crowd comes easy. And it’s a dish that feels, well, personal: There’s a local woman behind the recipe who shared it with the world so that your family could share it together. It’s a heartfelt meal that turns the simple into the extraordinary. (Plus, it’s a great way to get youngsters to eat vegetables.)

The beloved spinach creation is so entwined in Louisiana food culture that not even the discontinuation of a key ingredients in 1999 — Kraft’s Jalapeño Cheese Roll — could stop the recipe’s omnipresence at potlucks and celebratory dinners. Instead (after calling the Kraft helpline to lodge their complaints, of course) people just got creative with re-creating the flavor and texture of the beloved roll in other ways, tweaking different balances of heat and meltiness to try to reach the perfect formula. By 2000 — sensing that a low-grade panic had gripped Spinach Madeleine devotees — the folks behind River Road Recipes released an “officially” updated recipe that replaced the jalapeño cheese roll with regular Kraft Velveeta cheese and a couple of tablespoons of chopped jalapeños, allowing those less interested in recipe tinkering to have a go-to preparation method.

Today, cooking Spinach Madeleine in novel, outside-the-box styles reflects how, as much as the dish is a staple in its classic form, like any good piece of culture, it’s also keeping up with the times. There are vegan versions that use coconut cream and nutritional yeast for thickening, and iterations that now err on the side of pepper jack for the cheese component. Even fine dining chefs have gotten in on the act, with John Folse suggesting that, for extra holiday festivity, chopped red bell peppers could be added in with the sautéed onions.

And whether you’re eating it the traditional way or trying a new approach, there’s something uniquely fulfilling about understanding where a dish originated and how it’s impacted lives for over 70 years. Ms. Wright passed away just a few short months ago, and I’d like to think that the best way to honor her memory — and the memory of everyone who gives a little piece of themselves through sharing recipes — would be by whipping up a Spinach Madeleine this year.