A man who made his fortune from his twin talents for cooking and comedy, Justin Wilson rose to fame with his humorous stories of life in Louisiana's Cajun country, as well as demonstrating how to cook the hearty dishes associated with Cajun culture. Wilson was born in Roseland, Louisiana on April 24, 1914. His father, Harry D. Wilson, was Louisiana's Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry from 1916 to 1948, and was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. Justin's mother, Olivette Mintern Toadvin, was a pianist and composer who was also an expert cook, from whom Justin learned his way around a kitchen. Olivette was also of Cajun heritage, unlike her husband who was Welsh, and Justin would often refer to himself as a "half-bleed Cajun."
Justin originally pursued a career as a safety engineer, and when he spoke to audiences about safety procedures, he discovered many listeners found him too dry. Having frequently traveled through Bayou country, Wilson began telling humorous anecdotes about Cajuns and their lifestyle to put himself and his audiences at ease. In time, Wilson was attracting larger audiences for his comedy than for his safety lectures, and he became a successful humorist in the South and Southwest with his exaggerated Cajun accent and familiar catch phrase, "I Gawr-on-tee!" While some criticized Wilson for his sometimes unflattering portrait of Cajun life -- author Trent Angers wrote of Wilson, "To hear him you'd think all Cajuns are barely literate and not very bright" -- others cited him as helping to spread the word about Cajun food and heritage when they were little known outside the South.
In 1960, Wilson released his first comedy album, The Humorous World of Justin Wilson, which was issued by Ember Records and promptly reissued in 1961 by Tower Records, a subsidiary of Capitol Records. Between 1961 and 1985, Wilson would release 28 comedy albums, including ten for Tower, and another ten for the Louisiana-based label Paula Records. Wilson also received nationwide exposure with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Squares, and Late Night with David Letterman.
In 1965, Wilson published his first cookbook, fittingly titled The Justin Wilson Cook Book, and he would publish six more cookbooks between 1979 and 1998. Wilson first took his epicurean skills to the airwaves in 1971, with a cooking show commissioned by Mississippi Educational Television in which he told jokes while demonstrating how to prepare Cajun specialties. Wilson gained a new audience in the 1980s when another series, Louisiana Cookin', began airing nationwide on PBS. In the '90s, his shows from the '70s gained a new life when they were rebroadcast coast to coast under the title Justin Wilson: Looking Back, sometimes with new segments offering healthier options for some ingredients. On September 5, 2001, Wilson died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the age of 87. ~ Mark Deming