The only cooking show I ever cared a fig about was something I knew as The Cookin’ Cajun, a local New Orleans show (I think) that was broadcast nationally during the cable tv explosion that started in the early 1980s. I say “I think” to all of this, because I have had the goddamnedest time tracking this down and I know I’m not crazy. Justin Wilson’s wiki page scarcely mentions his television work, as does Justinwilson.com. To hear them tell it, Wilson was just a local Louisiana humorist. I finally found reference to the show in his obits in The New York Times and USA Today, so I know I’m not crackers. IMDB mentions a show called Lousiana Cookin’. That must be the same one, broadcast under another name when it was syndicated. Sources are saying it was a PBS show although I don’t recall watching it on PBS.
At any rate, Justin Wilson (1914-2001, the host, whose birthday it is today) has to have been the most entertaining character ever to host a cooking show. Sure, there’s Julia Child, but Wilson was actively a comedian, who wove jokes, malapropisms, and stories throughout his entire presentation. It was as full of interesting language and human behavior as it was tips on how to make delicious food. That’s a real culture show, baby! Wilson talked in a Cajun patois, and seemed to say EVERYTHING in some way I wanted to repeat. His catchphrases were “Hoo, boy!” and “I gaurontee”. But I also loved how he pronounced “sauternes wine” (“so-toin wahn”). And “way up no’th there in Shrevepo’t”. And how he mixed up his verb tenses. An enthusiasm for this show was a rare bonding experience for me and my dad; it was impossible not to get a kick out of this apparently rural Southern character.
I say apparently because — of course — he wasn’t an actual Cajun. I never gave it much deep thought, but I always assumed that there was some element of genuineness in what Wilson did, he did it so thoroughly, with so much detail, and apparent love. But he wasn’t a real Cajun. His mother was Louisiana French, which is how he came by his knowledge of both French and cooking. But Louisiana history is complicated. The Cajuns were a specific French American population who had emigrated from Canada and lived mostly in rural areas. Furthermore, Wilson was only half-French, hence his Anglo last name. His father was an important Louisiana politician. So while many people, including (especially) many Louisianans dearly loved Wilson’s impersonations of a Cajun, some Cajuns were offended.
But Hoo Boy, I guarontee, that was a good act. It turns out he had started out as a safety engineer, part of whose job involved giving safety lectures. He began to liven these up with his impersonations. Which evolved into comedy records. Which evolved into a local tv show. Which eventually went national. We used to marvel “Who the hell is this guy? Where did he come from?” There was no explanation.
But I tell you this: it is too bad that he was too late for vaudeville, because he would have been a hit. And according to his obit, he was influenced by a major vaudevillian Will Rogers, whom he met in the 1930s (that’s plausible; Wilson’s dad was in Depression era politics). According to Wilson, Rogers told him, “Always tell ’em clean, and always tell your audience something serious or they’ll think you’re a complete fool”.
To find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc