Paging through his new cookbook with chef Donald Link is like looking at a family scrapbook, one with recipes and photographs that make you want to run into the kitchen and prepare the food.
“That’s Billy Link, ” Link says, pointing to a photo of one of his cousins, posing with the chef on a tarp-covered boat. Link’s favorite photo in the book is one of him dancing with his 9-year-old daughter, Cassidy.
Debuting this month, “Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking From Donald Link’s Louisiana” (Potter, $35) is about the chef’s big family and its profound influence, what he grew up eating, why he so loves the smell of rice cooking. Boudin, bacon and beer are constant themes.
It’s about much more than his New Orleans operations: Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher. But after reading the book, it’s clear why Cochon and Cochon Butcher exist. Link’s love of pork and rice is in his DNA, he writes.
Link’s great-great-grandfather immigrated to Rayne with 40 other families from Geilenkirchen, Germany, in 1881, settling in Robert’s Cove. He is credited with being the first person to ship rice to New Orleans. The family brought recipes, still in use, for making sausage.
“Everybody, when they talk about Cajun food, they talk about the French and the zydeco music. But if you think about it, the Germans played a huge role in modern Cajun cuisine, with the rice farming, crawfish farming and sausage making, ” Link said last week.
“I’m on a mission to prove andouille is a German sausage, not French . . . The Germans brought over the sausage, and the French named it.”
Link’s grandparents lived in Sulphur. His mother’s parents were from Alabama originally, and his Granddad Adams, a Southern-style cook, was “a big influence here at Cochon, ” Link said.
His paternal grandmother “did pretty basic Cajun: smothered pork over rice, gumbo, rice dressing, anything with rice. Of course, they were rice farmers. And that Granddad was all over the place. He did everything. He was really my true inspiration for cooking, ” Link said.
“He’d go in the kitchen and make eight or nine things. He’d have a squirrel with the head on sitting on the table, everything he’d gathered over the week. Then the whole family would come over, 35 people, and he’d cook for everybody.
“I have just amazing memories of growing up in Louisiana with food.”
Link worked on the book with Paula Disbrowe, who also cowrote the very successful “Crescent City Cooking” with Link’s mentor, chef Susan Spicer. Clarkson Potter won the rights to publish the book after four or five publishers accepted their book proposal.
“We didn’t want to do a beautiful coffee-table food-shot cookbook, ” Link said. “For one, I don’t necessarily think that’s a good characterization of Louisiana food. It’s not necessarily a pretty, overstyled cuisine. It’s more that you’re outside sweating, cooking crawfish, drinking beer, dancing a little bit, going to festivals.
“That’s how I grew up, going to food festivals, hanging out under the carport, fishing on Big Lake and shrimping with my dad. That’s more what I wanted to convey. It’s not a restaurant cookbook.”
He fought to get to work with Chris Granger, the Times-Picayune photographer whose freelance work includes Spicer’s cookbook. Granger, who grew up in Lake Charles, traveled extensively with Link to the festivals, the sausage-making sessions, the crawfish boils and the family camp, where they made etouffee on the big covered patio while it was raining.
“This is J.W., ” Link said, pointing to a photo of cousin J.W. Zaunbrecher. He turned the page. “And this is one of J.W.’s pigs he trapped. Chris got in the cage with him” to take the photo.
The beady eyes of the feral pig stare out at the reader. Flip to the next page and there’s a close-up of homemade bacon.
“Writing this got me a lot more involved in that area and way of life, ” Link said. “I’ve always known about it, but I’ve never really hung out with them until I started writing the book: making sausage with them, going to crawfish boils, going dancing at Bubba Frey’s, ” his cousin who owns the Mowata General Store.
“It’s been an amazing experience to connect with somebody like that. He’s got this little store. He raises guinea hens, has turtles in a bucket outside. He has a little garden. He just kind of does what he wants. My dad will talk about that. These people just live in their own world out there. I find it incredibly fascinating.”