Autumn begins, which means gumbo-season begins, even in California, where the locals mistake gumbo for stew or worse, soup, as my Cajun husband and I share the tradition and allure of this hearty main course.
Although I enjoy making gumbo as a solitary ritual, over the years I watch and learn from others. During my childhood, Great Aunt Lois in Biloxi, Mississippi grew the okra and trapped the crabs on the Tchoutacabouffa River behind our family home. And recently in Baton Rouge, Chef Paul Prudhomme created during a cooking demonstration a roux as thick as modeling clay.
In California, where we spend several months each year, I plan our Louisiana dinner parties weeks ahead, ordering the andouille sausage, boudin, and cracklin from Poche’s Market in Breaux Bridge. The day before the meal I reserve freshly shucked oysters from the Monterey Wharf.
Following a morning of chopping vegetables and preparing the meats, I scrub the counter, my seat for the next forty minutes or so. My non-traditional, non-southern roux-prep is as follows:
-grab a book (currently, and for the next several months, War and Peace) from my bedside
-make a powder-room run
-pull a chilled glass from the freezer and mix a mimosa
-place the telephone within reach
-arrange boxes of chicken broth, opened and ready to pour, by the stove
-turn up the music (usually Neil Diamond)
-and, on this particularly beautiful California day, open the windows
If I miss anything it’s ambidexterity, as I juggle stirring, note-taking, and tired arm muscles (note to self: more upper body yoga). My hands have the roux-wounds to prove this failing: small round blisters on my fingers and a two-inch burn on my forearm, matching the rim of the black iron pot.
For inspiration, I push aside the showy Tolstoy and read instead from my favorite cookbook, Marcelle Bienvenu’s Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?:
“Purists slurp the oysters straight out of the shell with no adornments. Others prefer them doused in a sauce that is custom-made by each consumer. In a small paper cup, ketchup, hot sauce, a splash of olive oil, and a hefty dab of horseradish is stirred around and used for dipping the ice-cold oysters. Some people make a big “to do” about squeezing lemon juice over their oysters, and crackers, more often than a cocktail fork, are the vehicles by which the oysters get from tray to mouth. Cold beer* is the accepted liquid accompaniment.”
(*....or anything bubbly, I think to myself)
As the gumbo simmers, I make the potato salad, combining the results of yesterday’s chopping into Frank Davis’s perfected 'Naturally N'Awlins assemblage.
“It’s not just for backyard barbecues,” I explain to our dinner guests.
“I watched the Cajuns of my childhood assimilate into the American culture,” says George Rodrigue, “unable to remain isolated in the modern world. I show this graphically by blending the Acadians’ clothing with the trees and ground. Tante ‘Gite holds her famous gumbo in her lap, but her dress is part of the earth, and the gumbo is a part of her.”
There is something about gumbo, its smells, its rich flavor, its weather and season-related properties, that instills a sense of home, heritage, and spicy conversation into what might otherwise be an ordinary and predictable day.
Wendy Rodrigue (Dolores Pepper)