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Justin Wilson: The King Of Cajun Cooking Remembered

Justin Wilson was by far the most-watched and most-beloved Southern Style TV chef in the 1970s and 80s. And he paved the way for other Southerners like Paul Prudhomme and Paula Dean, who captivated viewers in decades that followed…

Justin Wilson Homegrown - © 1984 - Justin Wilson

A true Good Ol’ Boy

Even my tough-as-nails birth-dad, Charlie, who hated to cook, made time in his day to catch Justin Wilson on TV. Wilson had him – and I daresay millions of others – from the first minute of his show. It always opened with Wilson strolling onto his kitchen set and greeting viewers…

“How y’all are?” he would start. “I’m so happy for you to see me today!”

Dad was one of many folks who loved Justin Wilson first and foremost because he was a cheerful, relatable character. The fact that he was a well-seasoned Southern Chef out to familiarize everyone, everywhere with the traditional foods and recipes of his Spanish moss-draped home country came a distant second to them. Which is not to say they didn’t love his food, too. And his trademark love of butter. Something Paula Deen perpetuated…

The King of Cajun Cooking

Wilson may have been the first TV chef to celebrate the old rather than the contemporary – the classic and authentic food of the south. And he always attributed dishes or ingredients he featured to their true birthplaces. That meant, if he was cooking Cajun, he’d pass on stories and factoids about what Cajun was and where it was from.

And even that the word ‘Cajun’ was a patois version of ‘Acadian’. Acknowledging that Cajun culture owed its roots to the 10,000 or so French-speaking folks who were ‘expelled’ by Britain from what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick between 1755 and 1764. They naturally migrated to the seat of previous French settlement in North America. Long before there was officially a Louisiana.

What he cooked

Wilson introduced me to a wide-ranging menu of Southern ingredients and dishes. Fried Okra. Hoppin’ John. Jambalaya (see photo, top of page). Gumbo. Crawfish Boil. Blackened Fish. the Po’ Boy sandwich. Dirty Rice. Red Beans and Rice. Beignets. And many more.

He also revealed the secrets of Cajun flavours and textures, explaining the mystery and magic behind Roux – the classic French fat-and-flour mixture used to thicken virtually every Cajun soup or stew. He let us all in on the intricacies of real Cajun Seasoning. And above all, baptized us with the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking, the ubiquitous flavor base of celery, green sweet pepper and onion.

Ready to go Cajun?

I recommend you start with the original, authentic recipes the form the backbone of the Cajun menu. That is, the classics that still star on Eastern Canadian menus today.

Southern Living magazine has compiled a mammoth list of 48 Cajun and Creole recipes you’ll love scrolling through.

Food & Wine offers a complementary list featuring even more southern favourites.

And be sure to visit Justin Wilson’s own webpage. He passed away back in 2001, but his family is still maintaining his site – with all its classic recipes and a healthy dose of Wilson’s homegrown wisdom.

My take

I read recently, in a number of online posts, that Justin Wilson may be in danger of being forgotten by the cooking public. Perish the thought! That’s why I decided to create this post and celebrate the culinary style he so loved. Justin Wilson would have been 110 years old this coming April 24. But his legacy lives on…

Maggie J.