I never heard of gumbo or even okra for that matter before visiting New Orleans back in the early 90’s. I was there with a friend and while he attended conferences, I met a fun-loving woman from Connecticut whose husband was attending the same conferences. Although I forget her last name, I will forever be indebted to Cheryl because she had done her research, and in my rental car and with her directions (this was before we had the GPS, mind you) we traversed New Orleans and the surrounding countryside touring mansions, plantations, swamps, and graveyards, all the while scarfing down native dishes and alcoholic beverages. Amid all that flurry of fun and food and fast friendship, I had a taste of gumbo, and I liked it. However, back in Pennsylvania raising Jared and Manda, attending night classes, working as an executive assistant – a time in life where meatloaf, tacos, enchiladas, and pizza were our mainstays, I promptly forgot any impact that the dish made upon my taste buds.
Then in the late 90’s, I met the man of my dreams, got married, and together we cultivated and celebrated a shared passion for good food. James did not mind my initial disasters in the kitchen; he encouraged me to take a devil-may-care approach and have fun with it. Giving me that kind of leeway eventually led to an absolute passion for cooking.
Fast forward to the year 2001. We were living in Shanghai and friends with a self-professed Cajun who was vastly impressed with the fact that I was growing okra in pots on our patio there at W-9 Tomson Golf Villa. Why was I growing okra? Because fried okra was one of James’s favorite dishes and I set out to grow our own. It makes me happy to grow things, and the weather – hot, sunny, a bit on the humid side – was perfect for growing just about anything we wanted.
Licking his chops over my okra, Bubba said he would teach me how to make gumbo. Now James and I were already belting out our favorite Jimmy Buffet song called I Will Play for Gumbo; our favorite line being – it’s a little like religion and a lot like sex, you should never know when you’re going to get it next. But all I recollected about the legendary dish was a vague memory of something rich and savory in a bowl from some obscure roadside diner in or around New Orleans with Cheryl from Connecticut.
Since I am game for trying anything new, I went on several shopping trips to the Metro, Carrefour, and the Chinese market and purchased the many ingredients from the list that Bubba gave me. Crab, shrimp, chicken, Andouille sausage, celery, onions, green peppers, garlic, cayenne, thyme, paprika, flour, butter – I still have that list scribbled on a back of an envelope. Anybody living in Shanghai in 2001 will appreciate my efforts to find Andouille sausage! We sent out word that there was going to be gumbo at W-9, and that Saturday morning Bubba shows up with his cigarettes and a bottle of rum, and we set to work.
First there was the roux. I did not know a thing about roux. An indeterminate amount of butter and flour went into the big super-size pot over medium heat. Then there was a good two hours of near constant stirring. We took turns until it was the color of a penny. Meanwhile we gave each other cigarette breaks. I have never been a big smoker, but that day in the spirit of camaraderie, I smoked Bubba’s cigarettes on our back porch, flicking my ash in a little jar lid, and we made each other rum and cokes to drink. Such a deal, as Bubba was fond of saying.
While one of us stirred the roux, the other one chopped the onions, celery, peppers, parsley, and garlic. The roux finally took on the deep inviting color of copper and filled W-9 with a most wonderful nutty, caramel aroma. We added the chopped veggies and let them spatter in the hot, bubbling mass of butter and flour meld. It sizzled and popped and there were a few hot spots on my arm, but no worries because our gumbo was finally coming together. We had a big pile of sausage and chicken to throw in the pot along with the seasonings – paprika, salt and pepper, a bit of cumin, a bay leaf.
I was trying to take notes as we went, but finally gave up and just went with the flow. During the last ten minutes we added the fresh shrimp, crab legs, and okra. At the very end we threw in chopped fresh parsley and a generous sprinkle of file powder. By this time it was early afternoon. We had pots and pots of it. We had about a dozen loaves of French bread to sop it up. The rice cooker was put to good use. I made a few big pans of orange marmalade bread pudding for dessert, and that night we had a party. Everybody raved about the gumbo. There were some Chinese guests who ladled their gumbo over the bread pudding; the rest of us had it over white rice and sopped up the broth with warm French bread.
My first experience with making gumbo filled me with a sense of happy accomplishment. Since then I have made some changes each time we put it together. For instance I skip the crab legs. James and I agreed that as much as we enjoy eating crab legs, we like using a spoon, not our fingers when it comes to gumbo. I also use peeled and deveined shrimp for the same reason. And, if I cannot find Andouille sausage, I don’t sweat it. I substitute a good smoked pork kielbasa and add a few extra pinches of paprika. If I am short of one ingredient, I add a bit more of something else. As of yet, no complaints.
We have okra growing in our garden right now, and so the other night, after looking at pictures of our times in Shanghai, a craving for gumbo began to stir. James’s eyes lit up when I mentioned it and so, I harvested a meager five pods of okra from the garden and began to make it.
Yes, I know, five pods of okra are not enough to make a reasonable amount of gumbo. And why would anybody go to all that trouble for a small pot of gumbo? So I substituted minced baby zucchini for the rest of the okra, and it turned out delicious. I made a big pot of grits for my southern guy, and we ate that with the gumbo rather than rice. I shared a quart with my cousin Bonnie and her husband PD. James had the next to last bowl for his lunch today.
While I was stirring the roux, I thought of different times I have made gumbo since that first time with Bubba. There was the time I made it for our Mardi Gras party a few years ago, and our friends the Appleman’s brought jambalaya and our friend Becky brought the most delicious French bread and a variety of herbed butter. My sister brought one of her specialty salads. What a celebration. There was the time I made it for my friends and coworkers at Northumberland County Head Start. What fun that was to enjoy each other’s cooking on our lunch hour! My friend Ann took some home for her husband, so he could get a taste. Last fall, when Colette and Coltin were staying with us I made it for the family – and all four of the grandsons, including the little fellow gobbled it up and wanted more. Talk about gratifying!
While I was washing and slicing the five freshly picked okra, Jesus came to mind and how he fed the five thousand on two fishes and five loaves of bread. Now would that not be something – to have that miraculous ability to multiply food. We would not have to wait for the rest of the pods to spring forth – we could have gumbo any time we pleased! No making do with minced baby zucchini. My mind circled around this would be happy scenario. However, it did not take me long to realize that as enjoyable as gathering all the fine fixings, chopping, mincing, crushing, and stirring can be, the joy of these culinary rituals would be lost on a daily, or even weekly basis. I want to make gumbo when the mood strikes me, when the memories begin to tease my taste buds and gumbo calls my name. Jimmy Buffet is right. It is a little like religion and a lot like sex; you should never know when you’re gonna get it next.