Side Dish: “The Delta Queen Cookbook”

Happenstance played a major role in Cynthia LeJeune Nobles taking on the project of writing about the world’s last authentic overnight wooden steamboat in “The Delta Queen Cookbook: The History and Recipes of the Legendary Steamboat” (LSU Press, $29.95, hardcover, ebook available).

About seven years ago Ray Berg with American Foodways Press approached Susan Tucker, head of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group in New Orleans, to ask if she could recommend someone to write a book about the Delta Queen’s food.

“She recommended me,” said Nobles, a member of the writers group and a columnist for The Advocate’s Food section.

Berg told Nobles to go hunt down chefs and get recipes. “As I did this, I realized the history of the boat is as or more interesting than the food served through the years. It sailed for 82 years and (its food service) is a great snapshot of what people ate from 1929 through 2008,” she said.

“I did about a year of research and a year of writing and polishing, and then waited and waited for it to be published. It was ready to go to press, but the publisher couldn’t get financing so I got out of the contract,” Nobles said. She had to find another publisher and again chance came into play. The Baton Rouge Herb Society, of which Nobles is a member, asked her to represent the “National Herb Society Cookbook” at the LSU Press’ annual book sale where she met acquisitions editor Alisa Plant. “She later contacted me about my book, and LSU Press picked it up,” Nobles said.

What was she most surprised to learn about the Delta Queen? Probably that the stern-wheel steamboat is named for the Delta Route, the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in California, not the Mississippi River delta. “For the first 10 years of the boat’s life it was a luxury liner in California, along with its twin, the Delta King,” she said. “They sailed between Sacramento and San Francisco during Prohibition.”

The U.S. Navy conscribed the boat during World War II to house wounded sailors and transport troops in the San Francisco Bay area.

“So a different set of food was served,” she said. “It went from luxury foods to Navy cookbook menus.”

After the war, the Greene family of Cincinnati bought it and had it towed through the Panama Canal. Although Greene Line Steamers operated the boat for more than 50 years, the Delta Queen was “advertised heavily as having fine Southern cuisine, and its cooks were mostly from New Orleans and Memphis,” Nobles said. “It had a lot of New Orleans dishes on the menu.”

When the Greene family sold the boat, the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. moved its home office to New Orleans. Today the historic steamboat is permanently moored as a boutique hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Nobles said she is indebted to Terry G. Newkirk, who was a chef on the steamboat in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“He collected all the recipes that had been written down through the time he was there and tried to standardize them,” she said. “I had to downsize all the recipes for home use. The recipes were for serving more than 100 people. I even had to do that with the Navy cookbook. Those recipes were for 100. It was hard to do, very hard.”

She said she also got tremendous help from Dale Flick of Cincinnati and Capt. Clarke C. ”Doc” Hawley, of New Orleans, the Delta Queen’s captain for more than 40 years. Hawley wrote the book’s foreword.

When looking through the book’s acknowledgments, I was surprised to note I am included for my loan of a few plates and bowls for photographs.

“The Delta Queen Cookbook” features more than 125 recipes from caviar mousse and fried chicken to crawfish en croûte and Kahlúa butter sauce, along with full-color photographs of many of the dishes, and lots of historical photographs from museums and former passengers.

Each of its 14 chapters begins with information about steamboats and the Delta Queen’s history and ends with authentic Delta Queen recipes.

With Nobles’ book, history lovers, steamboat fans, and home cooks are able to cruise along with the beloved boat from California through the lean times of the Depression and World War II, to the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi river.

Cheramie Sonnier is The Advocate’s Food editor. Her email address is
Advocate-tested recipe

Southern Chicken Pot Pie

Serves 4. Recipe from Delta Queen archives is in “The Delta Queen Cookbook: The History and Recipes of the Legendary Steamboat” by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

1 carrot, diced (1/2-inch pieces)

1 rib celery, diced (1/2-inch pieces)

1/2 cup diced yellow onion (1/2-inch pieces)

1/4 cup frozen green peas

2 tbls. vegetable oil

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into bite-size chunks

21/2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup diced potatoes

1⁄3 cup heavy cream

1 tbl. sherry

Salt and pepper

1 (10x15-inch) puff pastry sheet, thawed if frozen

Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tbl. water)

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

1. In a heavy saucepan, sauté carrot, celery, onion and peas in vegetable oil until onion is translucent. Add chicken and cook 2 minutes. Add stock and simmer 15 minutes. Add potatoes and cook until tender. Add cream and cook until mixture thickens slightly. Stir in sherry, salt and pepper.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spoon chicken mixture into 4 ovenproof soup plates or ramekins (5- or 6-ounce size). Prepare pie tops by cutting circles of pastry 1/4 inch smaller than plates or ramekins. Top chicken mixture with pastry rounds. Brush pastry with egg wash and prick with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes. Garnish with parsley when serving.