Beginnings. The decision to attend university in New Orleans was neither hard nor time consuming. Two steps into New Orleans International Airport (renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2001), during a trip my senior year of high school to visit Tulane University, and I was hooked. Black and white large-scale photographs covered the walls leading from the gate to baggage claim, depicting the history of jazz in New Orleans. Further ahead, color advertisements for cabaret clubs in the French Quarter attempted to out-flash and out-flesh each other for my attention. I knew that I had found a home for the better part of the next four years. It was August 1995, I was 17 years young, and ready for an adventure. I walked out of the airport to hail a cab, and being from up north, experienced heat and humidity for the first time. My glasses fogged over, I was wondering why there wasn’t a person at the gate in New York advising me against jeans. My father, a screenwriter, has written that the word “sultry” was coined in New Orleans. I got into one of the 400 or so cabs owned by a company called United and told the thin, black face beneath the Saints cap, “Tulane University.”
After a few minutes of silent driving, punctured every few moments by a raunchy, masculine female dispatcher’s voice from the small black radio hooked onto the dashboard, we came to a red light and the driver, turning to me full-on, looked me straight in the eyes and said,
“My name’s Kermit, you from up north, huh? Say, you know why ain’t nobody live in the cemeteries in New Orleans? I’ll bet they don’t teach you that up in school, huh?”
“No, I guess not,” I replied.
“’Cause they all dead, man, they all dead. Ha! I got you, huh?”
I looked out the window at a passing car with New York plates and said,
“Looks like you did, Kermit. You got me good.”
The rest of the trip was silent and uneventful except for the dilapidated billboard hanging off the short road that leads onto the interstate with a crude clock painted on a grayish-blue background. The hour and minute hands, which seemed just about to come crashing down, were leisurely running backwards. In the center of the clock, in block, bold letters was written:
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF BLUES
I was thrown into this foreign world that was so opposed to the sharp, concrete, vertical New York City upbringing of my youth. In New Orleans when a shop goes out of business, a hand-written sign is placed on the front door reading: CLOSED, and remains there, decaying slowly in the tropical heat. New Orleans is a place where the severity of processed time does not cut deeply. The passage of the year is marked by holidays, festivals and major sporting events. Seasons are dictated by the availability of local delicacies. Summer is shrimp season; fall and winter, oysters; spring, crawfish.
I wanted to jump right into this new culture and within a few weeks of the commencement of classes, I found myself at a local bookstore thumbing through the history section, glancing over the War of 1812 and the Louisiana Purchase. I was getting enough of that line at school and was about to leave when my eyes moved over to a shiny book covered in shrink wrap called Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Cook a Good Roux? by Marcelle Bienvenue. In my self-imposed quest to immerse myself in the local culture, this tome seemed to pose three important questions. I immediately gave up on the first two questions (my mother had never even been to Louisiana and I am not Catholic), so I concentrated on the third part of the riddle. What was a “roux”? I was sure that with some serious study and diligent work I could make one and thus, make my entrance into Louisiana culture, but more about that later.
Gumbo – I had heard the word plenty of times in my life, but never actually tasted one until my freshman year of college in Tulane’s dining facility, Bruff Commons. Friday is the Catholic day of Lent, so the dining hall served primarily seafood dishes. Every Friday at Bruff we lined up for fried catfish and seafood gumbo, served to us by Ms. Grace, the matron of the mess hall who always wore a pin that read: GOD IS GOOD, ALWAYS. One day, she had about nine dollars worth of singles pinned onto her blouse. When I asked her why, she told me that it was her birthday, introducing me to another one of New Orleans’ small traditions. Ms. Grace would whistle what I guessed were spirituals as she spooned the gumbo into our bowls, being sure to give us at least one half of a crab that had been simmered to tenderness in the spicy stew. I knew that I was being introduced to a Louisiana staple, but I was also aware that the gumbo came from some powdered, pre-made mix manufactured in bulk by the catering service for Tulane.
So far, I had read about gumbo, tasted an industrial version at the dining hall, but hadn’t encountered the real thing. One lazy Saturday I was sitting around with a buddy of mine, flipping through the channels on the television (looking at the television, as some folk down there say) when I stopped at the benevolent face of Chef Paul Proudhomme beaming into my living room from one of New Orleans’ public broadcasting television stations.
“And, now,” he said. “I’m gonna show you how to make a real gumbo, just like my momma used to make out on the Bayou.”
We both were both hooked, our eyes glued to the television. I think that I even took notes. Chef Proudhomme made a chicken gumbo from scratch, telling stories about his childhood as he prepared the dish. He talked about the crawfish that they used to harvest in their backyard and the old hen that took hours in the gumbo pot to get tender. My friend and I just sucked in the magic without talking. When the show was over – an uninterrupted hour of gumbo instruction — we looked at each other and started trying to figure out whose car we were going to borrow so that we could go to the market and buy up what we needed for our own batch. We decided on Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, which came out well. This seminal gumbo, and the numerous batches that I have made since, make up my field experiences and are the basis for the following description of gumbo cookery.
Mise en Place. The first step to producing gumbo, as in any other dish, is to do your prep work. The term used in the culinary word for this initial step is: Mise en place. Mise en place (pronounced: meese-on-plass) is a French term that basically translates as “put in place.” When you mise en place your ingredients, you have everything cut, measured and ready to go so that you can concentrate on cooking once you get your heat going. Most of the day’s work in any restaurant is dedicated to getting all of the necessary ingredients together for service. If you are responsible for french fries there is no time to peel and chop potatoes when you are in the heat of service and orders are coming out of the printer at lighting speed. Everything is mise en placed well beforehand so that service consists only of steps that have to wait for an order to actually come in. This is a standard, and vital, technique in any professional kitchen and should be employed when cooking at home, as well. I have found that getting everything together beforehand saves time and stress, as well as making the final clean-up much easier.
The Trinity. The first items that should be mised out, as my instructor at culinary school used to say, are the vegetables that will be used as a flavor base for the gumbo. The classic French combination of vegetables for this task is called mirepoix, which is an untranslatable term for chopped onion, celery and carrot in a 2:1:1 ratio. Mirepoix is used as the basis for a myriad of dishes in the classical French repertoire including soups, stews, roasts, sauces and stocks. When vegetables are used in this fashion they are considered spices and are labeled aromatics. Louisiana was a French colony before being acquired by the U.S. ,which is reflected in the food, language and religion of southern Louisiana. Louisiana is the only state that is not divided into counties, but instead uses the term “parish.” When I asked a New Orleanian why that was, he told me that the rest of the U.S. just isn’t lucky enough to be Catholic.
Green bell peppers, which were more easily grown in Louisiana, replace carrots to form the Louisiana version of mirepoix. Bell peppers are a Capsicum related to all chile peppers and are a member of the sweet pepper group because they do not impart any heat. They derive their name from their bell-like appearance. Celery is a member of the parsley family native to the Mediterranean, but used all over the world. Yellow onions, which make up ¾ of world onion production, should be used in gumbo. Onions are a member of the genus Allium, which also includes leeks, chives, garlic and shallots. The onion itself is the underground structure that stores energy and nutrients for the leaves and flowers of the plant that grow above ground.
The onion, green bell pepper and celery make up the Cajun or Holy Trinity, and are used in gumbo, etouffees, jambalaya and many other dishes. The word Cajun comes from the Acadians, who were French colonists living in 18th century Nova Scotia before being expelled by the British. Many of these refugees found a home in the swampy lands of southern Louisiana where their religion and language was tolerated. The Acadians brought their repertoire of French culinary techniques and adapted them to the new environment in which they settled, creating such unique preparations such as the Trinity. Chop up two cups of onion, one cup of bell pepper and one cup of celery into a ¼ inch dice and reserve. I also like to chop up a bunch of green onion at his point and add the white bottoms to the Trinity.
Garlic. I have always loved garlic and use it almost as often as I do salt and pepper. Try wrapping peeled garlic cloves in aluminum foil with some olive oil, salt and pepper and letting the bundle roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes. The garlic is ready when it is easily smashed and can be spread on to bread. Garlic is the bulb of a flower in the lily family (see discussion of Allium above), which is used a flavoring agent in most cuisines in the world that I can think of. The use of garlic in gumbo is straight forward and traditional. Peel and chop half a head of garlic and add it to your aromatics.
Cajun Seasoning. We have all seen celebrity chefs hawking their Cajun seasonings, but, like a good chili powder, nothing beats a homemade blend for freshness and the ability to cater to your own tastes (as well as saving a little cash by not paying for your share of the marketing of the commercial blend). Cajun seasoning is a mix of dried, ground spices locally available in Southern Louisiana. The most famous of these is cayenne, which is a moderately spicy red chile related to common bell peppers. This, in its fresh form, is what gives Louisiana hot sauces their bite. It is probably a good idea to appease the Cajun Cooking Gods by splashing a good dash of a Louisiana hot sauce on your tongue before starting to make a pot of gumbo (well – it clearly a bad idea, but seems an appropriate libation). Although ground, dried cayenne is a signature element of a good Cajun spice blend, the dominant ingredient is usually paprika, which gives the blend its characteristic red color and smoky flavor. Likely the Spanish introduced paprika to Louisiana when it was under the Spanish crown. The rest of the spices are an earthy mix of herbs and dried aromatics. I have to give a shout out to Chuck Taggart, whose Cajun seasoning recipe I use off his excellent website www.gumbopages.com.
Charcuterie. Charcuterie is the French term for processed meat products such as sausages, pâtés, terrines, etc. All of these processes were initially employed to preserve fresh meat that could not be consumed at the time of slaughter and remain in the culinary repertoire as delicacies. Although the French are famous for their charcuterie, it was the German immigrant to southern Louisiana who introduced the methods of smoking and sausage production that are so critical to the region’s cuisine, especially because of the region’s former lack of easy access to beef cattle and the increased perishable nature of fresh meats in the hot, humid climate of the Bayous. Smoked sausage plays an integral role in gumbo; andouille being the type made and used in southern Louisiana. Andouille is made from pork shoulder and fat, garlic, dried spices (notably cayenne) and stuffed into beef casing before being smoked until it is very dark. There is also a version of andouille made in France which is produced from the inner goodies of a pig that you won’t find in the meat section of your local big box supermarket. It is possible to find andouille at groceries outside of Louisiana, but I have found most brands that are not made in Louisiana to be inferior to plain old kielbasa. Any smoked sausage will do though. I like to slice the sausage on a steep angle to yield long wafers of meat. I brown the sausage before hand and add it to my mise en place. This technique will develop more flavor and assist in not letting the sausage disintegrate into the stew, because it toughens up when pre-cooked. Browning the sausage also gives the meat the distinctive curl that I have seen in some gumbos.
I had always used packaged, supermarket bought kielbasa as a substitute until I got curious one day and searched the internet for a mail order source and came across Jacob’s Andouille in LaPlace, Louisiana. If you are looking for the authentic flavor of andouille, this is the place to order from. They have no minimum for delivery and ship fairly quickly. Jacob’s website has all the information on their products and how to order. (see Appendix for their website along with other resources) I also order tasso ham from Jacob’s, a smoked pork shoulder product that is heavily seasoned. The tasso ham is mise en placed by dicing it into ¼ inch cubes and trying not to eat all of it before it gets into your gumbo. I always order a little bit extra so that I can make myself an omelet the morning that I cook gumbo with tasso, onions, bell peppers and some cheddar cheese.
The Okra/Filè Debate. Once you start getting into gumbo and you begin talking to people and reading recipes, you’ll be struck by the filè (pronounced “fee-lay”)/okra argument. It is only fair to let you know that I consider gumbo an okra stew (the word “gumbo” comes from the Bantu word for okra), seasoned with seafood and/or meat, but I will give filè its fair space. Filè powder is ground sassafras twigs and leaves (the roots flavor old-fashioned root beer) which contain a sticky substance that acts as a thickening agent, as well as imparting a woodsy sort of flavor to the stew. This technique for a thickening agent was picked up from the Choctow Native American tribe indigenous to southern Louisiana, adding another layer of culture to the gumbo pot. I have only used filè when I could not find okra, but some people prefer it, so it is worth trying. The trick to filè is to add it at the very end of cooking, just before serving. If you are not going to eat the whole pot of gumbo in one sitting, hit each serving dish with the powder as the filè does not react well to refrigeration and reheating. I have been told that you should never let a gumbo that has filè added to it come back to the boil because it will thicken too much and become an inedible, sticky mess.
Okra is a star-shaped pod that was brought over to America from Africa with slaves destined to Louisiana sugar and cotton fields and is traditionally fried in the southern states. Cajun-Creole cuisine also features okra smothered with shrimp in a tomato sauce. Okra is used in India, where is called bhindi, in a tomato-based curry. Okra contains a mucilaginous substance in the interior of the pod that acts a natural thickener to any liquid into which it is introduced. This property and the earthy flavor that it imparts are the two reasons for including it into the gumbo pot. The long, slow simmer of the gumbo releases the okra flavor slowly and disintegrates most of the pods into the stew. I have experimented sevaral times, I find frozen, sliced gumbo to work just as well as the fresh stuff. I think the long stew negates any difference. If want to go fresh, look for green, unblemished pods that are slightly tender to the touch. Bruised, hard okra has an unpleasant woody flavor and becomes fibrous, as well as losing much of its thickening ability. The pods should be no more than two inches long, a sign that the okra was picked before they became over-ripe and tough. Slice them into 1/2 inch circles, and set aside.
Stewing Liquid - Water v. Stock. There are two methods for producing a cooking liquid for your gumbo. One involves hours of preparation, one is produced by opening your kitchen sink faucet. I am a big believer in making stocks from scratch. Culinary school taught me that, if nothing else, but when it comes to gumbo, I go with the advice that I got in a convenience store in rural Louisiana.
“ALWAYS use cold water, ALWAYS. That’s the only way to do it,” the lady behind the counter told me as I paid for the gas. My thinking is this: the gumbo stews for so long with the seafood and/or meat, that it basically creates a stock right there in the pot. I have, however, read many recipes that call for stock, so I tried it out one Christmas. I made a stock using browned chicken bones, mirepoix, garlic, peppercorns and fresh herbs (see recipe below) the day before Christmas, and used it in place of water. I was not able to notice an appreciable difference in the flavor, although the color of the stock helped the gumbo to achieve a darker color than if I had just used water. I have also made batches with water that I used too little Trinity in and realized that a stock would’ve helped mask the deficiency. My personal opinion is still to go with water, but the stock option still intrigues me. One day I will make two gumbos at the same time, one with water and one with stock for the ultimate test.
I have never been great at measuring things in cups and quarts for recipes. I usually don’t mise out the water, I just add as much as I need to cover everything in the pot once everything is in. I give exact amounts in the recipes below, but after a batch or two, trust your own judgment. You don’t want to use so much water that the end product is watered down and not richly flavored, but you want to use enough that you can feed a bunch of people. As is most aspects of cooking, you’re searching for that elusive perfect amount, not too much, not too little. My advice to you is not to sweat it, your gumbo will be good and well appreciated by anybody that you share it with. Experience will dictate how you like your gumbo to taste; what kind of consistency you want; how dark you want to get your roux, etc. Relax and enjoy the fact that no two batches will come out exactly the same.
A note on the water/stock option. It is important that if you use water is cold and that if you use stock is it hot. I will explain why in the section on roux production, it is enough to now know to have your cold water in a convenient jug or pitcher (it’s alright if it comes to room temperature) or your stock on a low boil in a pot separate than the one that you will use to make the gumbo on your stove top, depending upon which option you go with.
Prepping Seafood. I did not attempt a seafood gumbo until one day during my junior year of college when a couple of friends and I decided that we were going to go crabbing just east of New Orleans. We got into a ‘82 Ford Bronco, bought some calamari for bait, and headed out to find a spot. We ended up tosses out a crab trap we had picked up somewhere under a bridge and catching nothing but a sense of failure. Driving around the area, we spotted a man casting his line into a slow, meandering body of water in the pebble-covered shore of a Bayou just off of the road that we were traversing. We parked the Bronco, and headed down to the bank to see what the situation was. The man was fishing with his small sons who were buzzing around their daddy, soaking in the spring sun and humid air, watching with respect their father’s large, black hands maneuver the fishing rod. The father, who paid us no mind as his sons came over to play with our minnows, was using sparkplugs and keys in the place of traditional weights.
“Daddy, daddy, those aren’t the car keys, are they?” one boy yelled as the line whizzed out into the shallow bayou.
“Daddy, can we take home some of these minnows-fish for pets for mamma?” his brother asked.
The father kept all of his attention on his line. After a few minutes, he violently pulled in a catfish, about six inches longs which he deemed too small to eat, but used as bait.
I don’t remember much about the two guys who showed up by the water next, except that they brought a huge, ripe watermelon which they shared with us and the kids, and that one of them looked strangely like a young Jimmy Buffet. They saw were were struggling to get any crabs, and told how we could get some. So, we tossed our crab trap to the side, and got to work on the new plan. I grabbed a large, weathered rock from near the shore and my buddy tied some rope snugly around it. We tied a piece of squid on the other end, brought the rock to the edge of the water, and tossed the bait into the water. After a few minutes, the rope tightened up and I walked to the rope and slowly began pulling it in, careful not to tug too hard and dislodge the crab from its lunch. Once the crab was lured out of the water, I was told to grab it from behind, pinching it with my thumb and middle two fingers to avoid the flailing claws of the blue crab. The crab began to slip from my hand and I instinctively grabbed for it with my free hand. I successfully kept the crab from getting away, but ended up with my hand caught in its claw for a moment before getting it to fall into our bucket. We caught a dozen crabs with this primitive, yet effective, method, giving half away to our mentors.
Living from a bayou these days and having the free time I had in college, I get my seafood from a local market. My game plan for the batch some here was to get two pounds of the cheapest shrimp possible that will be pitched in at the beginning of the stew, and a pound of nice sized shrimps to be poached in the nearly finished gumbo minutes before serving. The smaller shrimp will disintegrate, adding texture, thickness and flavor to the stew. Some bay scallops (the smaller guys), although not traditional, I think are a nice addition. Raw, shucked oysters are a definite plus. For crabs, get some hard-shelled blue crabs. This are usually sold live. Cleaning crab is something best left to your local seafood shop. You can certainly do it at home, and I have (best to take off the claws so you don’t get pinched, then basically cut out the guts with kitchen shears), but I try to avoid it.
Prepping Chicken. If you are going to try a chicken gumbo, the prep is much simpler than the preceding steps for seafood. All that I do is rinse the chicken and remove as much fat as I can. You will want to use dark meat chicken which has more flavor and becomes more tender as it slowly stews. Any combination of legs and thighs will do. Most recipes that I have read introduce the step of browning the chicken in the same hot oil that will used to produce the roux. This browning procedure is a classic French technique to get increased flavor from the skin of the chicken. I do not use this technique in gumbo cookery, although I do employ it almost every other time that I cook with poultry. I find that I like to simmer the gumbo for such a long period of time that most of the meat from the chicken falls off of the bone and that the skin looses any crunchiness that was achieved during the browning procedure. I save myself the step of browning the chicken and fishing out the soggy skin in the finished gumbo, but that is just my personal style. Every pot of gumbo is different and everybody has a different method. If you want to try the browning technique cook the chicken pieces over high heat until all sides have a dark golden color to them. At this point, you can remove the pieces from the pan, turn down the heat and begin the roux making process discussed below. When using this initial browning procedure, don’t let black flakes in your roux scare you into thinking that you have burnt it. These specks are probably just particles left over from the browning process.
Sweating the Aromatics. The key here, again, is preparation. You will want to pre-cook as much as you can, and have everything else ready to go. We are looking for efficiency and minimal chance for error. I used to cook the Trinity into the roux, but the fear of breaking the roux (see “The Roux” below for more detail) lead me to try cooking the Trinity on its own, and then adding to roux briefly before slowly streaming in the water. This is now my preferred method. Bring some oil up to medium hot, and cook the Trinity, stirring occasionally, until the vegetable have exuded some moisture and are tender. This process is termed sweating in the culinary lexicon. Sweating the aromatics will take about ten minutes. Then throw in the garlic and Cajun seasoning and cook until aromatic, about one minute.
The Roux. After you’ve done the relatively easy step of sweating the aromatics, the real challenge of gumbo cookery begins: the roux, the French word for “red”. Roux (pronounced “rue”) is a thickening agent derived from French technique using equal amounts of flour and a cooking fat. Butter is traditionally used in France, but vegetable oil or animal fat can be used as well. As in most cooking techniques, and especially with gumbo, there are many different opinions as to the proper method to make a roux. I have found that heating vegetable oil over a moderate heat until it is hot, but not smoking, turning the heat down as low as you can get it and then adding the flour in small batches until you get the right consistency works the best for me. The roux will initially be the color of dry, light sand and should have the consistency of pancake batter. It is important to have a whisk or wooden spoon in hand before you begin the long process of creating a roux.
The roux will serve three functions: it will slightly thicken the finished stew; add a rich, dark color; and give a slight nutty flavor to the finished dish. The roux will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour-and-a-half of constant stirring to achieve the depth of color that is wanted. I use the following terms, in order of darkening, when describing my roux: light sand; caramel; milk chocolate; dark chocolate; pecan shells; stout; ruddy. Once I get the roux to the ruddy state, I start thinking about how much further I can push it. I call this stage “ruddy” because the brown roux starts to take on shades of a dark, complex red hue. Each roux that I make, I challenge myself to get it just a bit darker, and I haven’t burned one yet. The darker the roux that you achieve, the more color it will add to your gumbo and the more nutty flavor you will get out of it. An interesting side note is that the longer you cook your roux, the less thickening power it possesses. However, it is not necessary that you cook the roux anywhere past a light brown stage. A Creole-style roux is much lighter and is utilized in many restaurants throughout New Orleans. It is only my bias for the dark, Cajun roux that leads me to stand in front of the stove with a wooden spoon in one hand and a dark stout in the other to compare the color of my roux with for up to an hour-and-a-half, but I have always had a competitive personality.
My preferred method to produce a roux is to have the Neville Brothers playing on the stereo and good beer brewed by a small, regional producer (or better yet, a home-brew) close at hand. It is nice to cook gumbo with somebody else with whom you can share the chore of stirring the roux, but there is something satisfying about doing it on your own. The low heat and steady stirring will keep the roux from burning. Watch out that you do not get the roux onto your skin. Roux becomes literally scalding hot as the flour cooks in the fat. I have hit the side of the pan that I was stirring the roux in more than once and got some of this “Cajun Napalm” on my skin. It sticks and burns, leaves a scar for a couple weeks and is to be avoided if you are not into pain. But, there is something deeply satisfying about showing off scars acquired in the battle to make a good roux, so don’t feel failure if you nick yourself. Instead, let the pain that comes with experience and love’s labor run its course.
The key here, if you are going for the Cajun-style dark roux, is to get the roux as dark as you can, but not to push it so far that you burn it. Once a roux is burned it is gone and the process needs to be started over again. A ruined roux will have a burnt smell and flecks of blackened flour. One of my chefs at culinary school told me that cooking is all about heat management and technique. Well, roux production gives you a chance to practice both. If you stop stirring the roux for a few seconds, there should be enough heat that small bubbles will be visible, but not enough that some of the flour will stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. It take some experience to get the exact level of heat and all stovetops differ, so start off on a very low heat and increase it slowly as you become more comfortable.
I have found that cooking the roux in a cast iron skillet gives me better control over my heat and keeps me from burning myself because I do not bump the sides of the pot and it is easier to see what I am doing. I also must admit that I like the aesthetic value of having my roux cook in an old fashioned cooking device. Still, it is probably much easier to make the roux in the pot you will cook your gumbo in.
Building Ingredients. The sweated Trinity and garlic should be placed right next to the cooking roux. Add them now to the roux, continuing to stir the mixture. The coldness and water of the vegetables will arrest the cooking of the roux and eliminate any chance of burning your hard earned entry into Louisiana cookery. The pitching of the aromatics in the roux is one of my favorite points in making gumbo for two reasons. First, you are finally done with your roux and do not have to worry about burning it. This is gratifying in a way that you will only understand after successfully completing your first roux; an intensely personal satisfaction. Second, the smell. The roux is so hot that the aromatics instantly give off this amazing cloud of aroma that permeates through the kitchen and into every corner of wherever you are cooking. If you are cooking for guests, this is when their palates will begin to start watering. At this point, you will have created by hand what industrial manufacturers produce in bulk and sells in a powder form to use as a base for gumbo.
There is a technique to know anytime that you are incorporating a liquid into a roux that is important. A hot roux should have cold water added to it, otherwise the flour will not mix with the water and will separate out, leaving a layer of starch on the top of your gumbo that is unappealing to the eye and leaving the remaining liquid in the pot with no color from the roux that you worked so hard to get dark. If you are using stock, it is important that the stock is boiling and the roux is cool relative to the stock. Let the roux cool down for a few minutes off of the heat after the aromatics are properly sweated and then ladle the hot stock in it slowly, stirring each ladleful in until it incorporates with the roux before adding more stock. Either way, be sure to add the liquid in small batches and make sure that it incorporates before adding more. Once you get about four inches of the water in the gumbo pot, you can go ahead and add the remainder of your ingredients (reserving the green onion tops, half of the parsley and any seafood that you will be poaching). That’s right, just dump it in, nothing fancy about this step. Bring this mixture to the boil and lower to a simmer. There should be some activity in the form of light bubbling in a few places on the surface of the gumbo. If you want to know why it the called a “simmer”, put your ear over your pot and have a listen. The principle behind simmer is that liquids naturally convect, or transfer heat, in a circular motion. The low heat of simmer assures that the convection is slow and steady, gently coaxing the flavors in your gumbo together to form the complex flavors that emerge at the end. This is the reason that your gumbo will simmer for so long.
The Long, Slow Simmer. Now that we’ve got the gumbo simmering away, I can use this time to tell some stories and relate some of the things that I love about New Orleans. If you anxious to continue reading about the remaining techniques that you will need to complete your first batch of gumbo, skip ahead to the section entitled “Twenty Minutes to Go”.
One of the first things that I learned about in New Orleans was that if it’s lunchtime and you’re hungry, grab a po-boy. I first tried one of these New Orleans staples at a small sandwich shop called Domilise’s, which is now always my first stop when I get down to the Big Easy. I found this gem on one of my many forays out into the local food scene with a college friend of mine. His cousin, a native to New Orleans, knew of our interest in the local food culture and told us,
“If you want a po-boy, go to Domilise’s.”
A po-boy is the equivalent of a hero, sub, grinder or hoagie, depending on what part of the country you are from. The story of the naming of this New Orleans-style sandwich goes like this: An entrepreneurial lady used to sell cheap, handmade sandwiches from a cart near the dockyards to workers on their lunch break, calling out,
“Hey, po-boy, you wanna a sandwich? They’re only a nickel, one silver nickel even a po-boy like you can afford.”
Domilise’s is easy to miss. It looks much like the other small houses that line Annunciation St, a few blocks towards the river from St. Charles. It is only noticeable because of its 1950’s-style sign that hangs at above the door, angled out so that it is visible from the street, of the corner establishment. Inside, the walls are covered with Uptown memorabilia: articles from Peyton Manning’s (now quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts) from his days in high school; photographs of Air Force planes signed by local pilots; little league teams the shop sponsors; and various autographed 8×10s of local news anchors that all radiate outwards from the menu that takes up the majority of the wall featuring their selection of po-boys.
I always go for the oyster po-boy, fresh oysters dipped in batter and then flash fried so that the outside is crisp and the oysters are barely warmed through. Ask for it fully dressed and it will come with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickles. I recommend a healthy dose of hot sauce, my favorite is Crystal. The key to a good sandwich is the bread and the French bread in New Orleans is particularly good: flaky on the outside with a moist interior.
There is a bar that runs the length of Domilise’s which is sort of an impromptu museum of the history of beer drinking in New Orleans. Empty bottles of now defunct breweries line the shelves behind the bar along with old promotional calendars and only MGD Is served. Last time that I was there, beers were $1.10 and served in glass goblets that are stored in a freezer, giving off small slabs of ice as the beer is poured into them. Now would be a good time to give your gumbo a stir making sure to scrap down on the sides and bottom of your pot.
One lazy afternoon, my college buddy and I heard about Alexis’ Fried Chicken and we knew that we had to check it out. The establishment is on Claiborne Avenue, the pourer cousin of venerable St. Charles Avenue. This route offers a quicker way to get downtown, especially if you are headed to the Superdome. Alexis’ is a tiny, one room establishment with enough space for maybe ten people to wait for the only dish served up: Fried Chicken and biscuits. The walls are plastered with snapshot photographs of Alexis’ clientele. Lost somewhere in the midst of this jigsaw collage is a picture with the proprietor, taken in the shop, with Mr. T. in all of his bejeweled glamour. We figured that we were in the right place and relished the greasy, tender chicken and warm, buttery biscuits in the parking lot next door. The drive to Alexis’ had some interesting sights highlighted by a liquor store named, “Hit-‘n-Run” and a pawn shop offering SHOTGUNS – 30% OFF. But nothing compared to the larger than life billboard that used to tower over Claiborne that read:
THOU SHALL NOT KILL
This was written in purple, block letters with no explanation as to who put it up or why they had decided to underline the word “not.”
New Orleans is filled with cultural pearls and oddities like and Domilise’s and Claiborne Avenue, but my favorite NOLA institution of all is known throughout the world by people who love good food and good music. Jazz Fest, more properly called The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, is what my school year revolved around at Tulane. I would consider whether or not a class that I was contemplating taking had a final that fell on one of the seven days that the Fest was in session, opting not to enroll if the test fell on the same day that one of my favorite musicians was performing. People congregate from all over the world at the New Orleans race track, called the Fairgrounds, during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May to listen to the many bands and eat from the numerous booths that offer regional delicacies. There is music everywhere, but it is worth the price of admission to get a chance to eat at the food booths alone that are lined up in between the several stages. Here is one of my journal entries after a long day of festing:
Today I ate a Cochon de Lait Po’ Boy; Pheasant, Quayle and Andouille Sausage Gumbo; Soft Shell Crab Po’ Boy; Jambalaya; Smothered Chicken (dark meat) and Cornbread; Seafood Gumbo; Garlicky Oysters over Fried Eggplant with Shrimp and Crabmeat Stuffing and Homemade Red Beans and Rice.
Cochon de lait is the French term for a suckling pig and describes the method of cooking a pig over a hardwood fire. Whole pigs (the head and all) are gutted and tied up in wire fencing to roast over an open fire until the meat is falling off the bone. The last cochon de lait po-boy that I ate was preceded by a fifteen minute wait in line that passed by very quickly because I was still able to hear the Allman Brothers Band live from the main stage 150 meters behind me. The po-boy was served on crunchy French bread with mayo and pickles I doused it with Louisiana hot sauce and enjoyed the succulent sandwich as I walked on to check out another stage.
I was about to go into the Jazz Tent to catch a breather from the sun and sit down to listen to Chick Corea when I spotted an out-of-the-way food booth hidden behind some stands selling knick-knacks and trinkets. The sign above the food stand read : THE GUMBO MAN. I ordered the seafood gumbo, sat down on the ground and tasted the best gumbo that I have ever had. Thick, smoky and filled with seafood. I brought a spoonful of what I thought was a misplaced piece of chicken breast to my mouth and bit into the largest, most flavorful oyster that I have tasted. It must have been added sometime between my ordering and receiving the dish because it just barely warmed through and tasted as fresh as I’ve ever had with just a hint a natural saltiness to it. I let out a untranslatable sort of primordial moan-yelp as the oyster slid down my throat, and thought briefly of dropping out of school to apprentice with the Gumbo Man.
The music is just as impressive as the food at the Fairgrounds. Here is a very short list of some of the musicians who have played at Jazz Fest over the years: Duke Ellington, Woody Allen, BB King, Bukka White, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Albert King, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Bland, Fats Domino, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Al Green, Miles Davis. This doesn’t include the local New Orleans outfits, small bands from the Bayou, groups from all over the world, and people just jamming on their own, sometimes with nothing but empty beer cans and plastic forks for instruments. There are also many arts and crafts on sale, cooking demonstrations, as well as history and cultural exhibits. Plenty of people bring their kids and I’ve seen more than one elderly couple holding hands and sharing a po-boy on their way to see a Dixieland band play.
There are also brass bands that march around the Fairgrounds, playing as loud and raucous as they can, that attract what is called a “second-line”. This is a group of people who line up and follow the band, dancing and singing, sometimes making more noise than any of the band members. The second-line was initially a tradition at New Orleans jazz funerals in which sad, slow music would be played as the coffin was taken to the cemetery and happy, festive music was played on the way back to wherever the New Orleans-style wake was being held. There are a lot of brass bands in New Orleans today who play in clubs all around the city. Look for the Rebirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for two of my favorites who both tour all around the world, but check out any one that you hear about if you are down in New Orleans for taste of a New Orleans standard.
The best ways to find out information about shows in New Orleans are to pick up a free copy of Offbeat magazine which has club listings, reviews and stories about aspects of New Orleans’ culture and to listen to WWOZ 90.7, self-billed as New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Station. It is also possible to pick up live broadcasts of WWOZ on-line to get a window into the NOLA music scene.
The first real taste of New Orleans tradition that I got was not found through the media, but was completely serendipitous. During the Spring Term of my freshman year, I had a friend come down to visit me from up north over her spring break from college. She had an assignment due in her photography class which had to have a unifying theme, so she chose New Orleans. I decided to take the bus that runs through one of the poorer sections of the city as opposed to the famous street car that chugs along St. Charles Avenue both because it was much quicker and offered a perspective different from the immaculate homes that line St. Charles.
Our bus came to a stand-still with no explanation in an area of town with housing projects and independent mini-markets. My friend and I waited patiently for about ten minutes before asking the bus driver what was going on. He told us that he couldn’t move because the Indian Parade was coming, and he was waiting to hear if he should put the bus out of service or not. We decided to get out of the bus to check out the upcoming parade, but not before a guy tugged on my shoulder and asked me,
“See that bright haze killing our eyes through the window?”
I gingerly nodded my head as I squinted at the sun shining through the windowshield.
“That means the devil’s happy ‘cuz he just evicted his wife.”
Once we got outside we saw a few dozen people standing around on the sides of the street: little kids running around their parents; people absently gripping 22-ounce cans of beer; old men with feathers in their caps. We asked around and were told that the Mardi Gras Indian parade was coming through, but couldn’t get much more information. After a fifteen or so minutes of hanging around we saw some movement down the road. Men dressed in wild, feathered costumes were marching down the street carrying spears and masts with decorations. The men were dancing down the street, some singing, some chanting, with a small band behind them, marching to the beat that was being kept by tambourines. The costumes turned out to be homemade and covered in sequins, beads and rhinestones that sparkled dazzlingly in the New Orleans sun. My friend picked up her camera and realized that she had a new theme for her photography project. I later learned that the Mardi Gras Indians were “tribes” that were set up by black New Orleanians in response to the all-white krewes (social clubs) that marched together in Mardi Gras parades. The Mardi Indian tribes took their names from Native American tribes from southern Louisiana and battled each other each Mardi Gras in bloody matches in abandoned sections of town. Nowadays, the fighting has been civilized into ritualistic battles and no blood is shed. Instead, the Indian groups march through the streets playing music, singing and dancing, mostly showing off to the small crowds that come out to see them. When two tribes meet, an elaborate display is put on by the two Chiefs complete with “Indian” language and a lot of posturing. There are also tribes that play together in clubs that play throughout the city the whole year round.
Twenty Minutes to Go. Once you feel you are about twenty away from serving time, you can pitch in any reserved seafood. This is allow the seafood to cook and add flavor, without seriously overcooking it.
Chow Time. Once the stew has simmered for sevaral hours and thickened up and reduced some, you are ready to hit the gumbo with some fresh, chopped parsley, and check for salt and pepper. Gumbo is best served by placing a small ladleful for rice rice in the bottom of wide-mouthed bowl, and then ladling the gumbo right over top. Some Louisiana hot sauce and good, crusty french bread.
The Morning After. Gumbo is even better the next day. Coming home from work and putting some cold, gelatinous gumbo on the stovetop is a wonderful experience. All the pleasure of a home-cooked stew with the work and cost behind you. I have found that the flavors marry and form a more uniform, yet complex, flavor after sitting in the fridge overnight and I sometimes make a pot the day before I invite over guests, just heating it up to serve. Even better is freezing a couple of portion, and taking them out on a cold, winter night. Nothing like homemade gumbo with zero work.
My last bit of culture that I want to share with you I picked up on a road trip to Grand Isle, also known as the Cajun Bahamas, because it contains the closet thing to a beach in Louisiana. After getting off of I-10 we headed on to a two lane road that leads to the Gulf runs parallel to Bayou Lafourche (pronounced la-foosh – don’t ask where the “R” went). There are shrimp boats all along the bayou and small stalls that the boats dock to in the morning and sells some of their catch right from the boat. They were wearing mesh baseball caps, full moustaches and work boots. Suddenly, seemingly at the same instant, we all looked at each other and realized what a gem we had accidentally stumbled upon. These guys were speaking Cajun, the real deal, probably just talking shop, but it was better than any cultural studies class that Tulane could ever throw my way. I was slowly letting the culture seep into my consciousness. This was the reason that I had traveled so far from home for college.
I hope that you got more out of this than the nuts and bolts of gumbo cookery and some Louisiana culture, but also an inclination to go out in your local area and sample some local tradition. We live in a society of increasing commercialization and homogenization in which is can be difficult to find homegrown, time-honored products. I am neither a Luddite nor an advocate of anti-globalization, but I do think it is important to go out and sample your region’s delicacies and to search out for products from around the world which are made in traditional ways. Go out and pick some apples; buy an aged barley wine; tour a local vineyard; or find an old family recipe and try in your kitchen. Whatever you do, take the time to enjoy it and relish in what your environment has to offer.
Post Script. I didn’t include a formal recipe here, because I feel recipes are basically guides, and the more experienced you get, the less you follow them as law, and the more you use them as guides for hints, tricks and suggestions. Search around and read a bunch of recipes, and use this piece as an overall guide. I have cooked gumbos with no seafood using quail, pheasant, rabbit, smoked chicken and smoked turkey leg. For seafood, I have thrown in clams, mussels, calamari and scraps of fish fillets I bought at dirt-cheap prices in Chinatown.