Saturday, October 06, 2012

best bit about gumbo. ever.

To give you an idea why this story of gumbo holds so much meaning for me, here is a list of names of my southerm friends and kinfolk:

*Arceneaux (ar-sen-oh)     *Cormier (cor-mee-hay)    *Babineaux (bab-in-oh)
*Hebert (Hay-Bear minus the "H")  *Prejean (pray-zhawh)   *Richard (ree-shard)
*Broussard (broo-sard)  *DuPuy (dew-Pwee)   *LeBlanc (luh-blonh)
*Sonnier (Son-ee-yay)    *Theriot (teh-ree-oh)

Which is to say, I come from a long line of cajun gumbolatiers. And I was privileged to learn by the side of a few of them.

So a few weeks ago, as I sat in my doctor's office waiting for my annual poking, prodding, squeezing and flattening and read an article in the Smithsonian, Toward a Unified Theory of Gumbo, written by By Lolis Eric Elie, a man from south Louisiana, you could say I was in hog cracklin' heaven.* Feel free to read the online version, Best.gumbo.ever.

These nearly thirty years of living in Texas I have tasted many bowls of gumbo, enjoyed with great pleasure many bowls of gumbo, that tasted little of what I grew up knowing as gumbo. No bell pepper, no celery, no parsley and only the minimum of onion. Tasted like a wonderful chicken soup with a roux base. But not the rich, colorful, spicy gumbo of my childhood.

So when I read the following words I felt a flood of cajun recognition,

My mother’s gumbo is made with okra, shrimp, crabs and several kinds of sausage (the onions, garlic, bell pepper, celery, parsley, green onions and bay leaf go without saying).

It goes without saying. Can I have a witness?

And even more vindicated goodness was to come:

My elders acknowledged the existence of two types of gumbo: okra and filé. Filé, the ground sassafras leaves that the Choctaw contributed to the state’s cuisine, thickened and flavored gumbo. By the time I came along, okra could be bought frozen year-round. So if you really wanted to make an okra gumbo in the dead of winter, you could. But in my parents’ day, filé gumbo was wintertime gumbo, made when okra was out of season.

Vindicated because I have heard world-traveled, food-savants (some from Cajun territory, even) decry, Some people even add okra! Isn't that crazy? Plainly unaware of the origin of the word gumbo.  Mr. Elie tells us Kingombo is the word for okra in West Africa.

This fact may explain why I've been served a plate of Texas gumbo that contained nothing but okra.

Huh? I sat eating, scratching my head. Figuratively. I was at the table, afterall.

I recall, many years ago, promising an Austin friend that I would bring dinner, a pot of gumbo, to feed a crowd at a football watching party. When I arrived with my large pot and rice cooker in tow I was confused and a little hurt to see that he had laid out an array of barbeque chicken, pork chops and sausage. And potato salad. Enough to feed a small army.

He later admitted, sheepishly, that he thought it was strange when I offered to feed everyone from a huge pot of cooked okra. This from a native Texan!

He also admitted that he loved my gumbo. As did everyone else given the trays of leftover barbeque.

So a big thank you to Mr. Elie for trying to set the world straight. And to his momma, Mrs. Elie, for cooking her son such a fabulous looking gumbo. That crab and shrimp looks to.die.for, just like the gumbo my uncle used to cook up on his backyard gas cooker.

But the biggest thank you I reserve for Mr. Elie, for allowing me to feel safe in the knowledge that the gumbo I serve is, too, the best.gumbo.ever.

*If you have never tasted cracklins, the Cajun version of chitlins, a sort of a cross between pork rinds and deep-fried, thick slab bacon, don't do so at four o'clock in the afternoon, on an empty stomach after you have spent all morning and afternoon eating absolutely nothing, that is to say, drinking high octane Community Coffee and inhaling second hand, chain smoked cigarettes because your cajun hosts are too thrilled to have you as a visitor to even think to offer you any food until you are so plum stupid as to mention you've never tasted cracklin. You might just try some and swear you'll never eat cracklin' again.

Twenty years later? I've kept my word.



Rachel Cotterill said...

Living in the UK, I'd heard the word gumbo but never had a clue what it entailed. Shame it doesn't sound very veggie! I love okra :-)

Susan said...

I have never had gumbo - isn't that sad?

shrink on the couch said...

Well ... uh... yes. It is sad. Come to Austin do we can fix that.