Every south Louisiana boy is honor-bound to say that his mother makes the world’s best gumbo. I am distinguished from the rest of my tribe in that regard in this one particular:When I make that claim, I am telling the truth.
From This Story
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). My mother’s gumbo is a pleasing brown shade, roughly the color of my skin. It is slightly thickened with a roux, that mixture of flour and fat (be it vegetable, animal or dairy) that is French in origin and emblematic of Louisiana cooking. When served over rice, my mother’s gumbo is roughly the consistency of chicken and rice soup.
My mother’s was not the only gumbo I ate when I was growing up. But my description of her gumbo could easily be applied to most of the gumbo made by our friends and relatives. Or, to put it another way, I was aware of a spectrum, a continuum along which gumbo existed. A proper gumbo might contain more of this or less of that, but it never ventured too far from that core. With one notable exception. 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. Since filé powder wasn’t seasonal, it was often added to okra gumbo at the table for additional flavor. Wieners, chicken meat and giblets—these things appeared in some people’s gumbos and perhaps they liked them there. But I aways viewed them as additives, inexpensive meats used to stretch the pot.
Gumbo for me and my sister meant hours peeling shrimp or chopping seasoning a day or two before a major holiday. It meant the first course of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It meant an appetizer as filling, rich and complicated as the many courses that followed it. Gumbo meant that God was in His heaven and all was right with the universe.
The cracks in said universe began to reveal themselves in the 1980s. As the Cajun craze had its way with America, I began to hear tourists, visitors and transplants to New Orleans praising this or that gumbo for its thickness and darkness. This was strange to me. Gumbo was supposed to be neither thick nor dark. Even more important, “dark” and “thick” were being used not as adjectives, but as achievements. It was as if making a dark gumbo was a culinary accomplishment on par with making a featherlight biscuit or a perfectly barbecued beef brisket. Naturally, I viewed these developments with suspicion and my suspicion focused on the kitchen of Commander’s Palace and its celebrated chef, Paul Prudhomme.
Prudhomme hails from Cajun Country, near Opelousas, Louisiana. He refers to his cooking not so much as Cajun, but as “Louisiana cooking,” and thus reflective of influences beyond his home parish. For years I blamed him for the destruction of the gumbo universe. Many of the chefs and cooks in New Orleans restaurants learned under him or under his students. Many of these cooks were not from Louisiana, and thus had no homemade guide as to what good gumbo was supposed to be. As I saw it then, these were young, impressionable cooks who lacked the loving guidance and discipline that only good home training can provide.
My reaction was admittedly nationalistic, since New Orleans is my nation. The Cajun incursion in and of itself didn’t bother me. We are all enriched immeasurably when we encounter other people, other languages, other traditions, other tastes. What bothered me was the tyrannical influence of the tourist trade. Tourist trap restaurants, shops, cooking classes, and at times it seemed the whole of the French Quarter, were given over to providing visitors with what they expected to find. There was no regard for whether the offerings were authentic New Orleans food or culture. Suddenly andouille sausage became the local standard even though most New Orleanians had never heard of it. Chicken and andouille gumbo suddenly was on menus all over town. This was the state of my city when I moved back here in 1995.