The Gumbo Issue

23 Ingredients And Me

There comes a time in a young cook’s life when they need to have The Talk. You’ve got questions about a confusing, complicated world. You’ve seen just enough of life to know that, oftentimes, things aren’t what they seem. In one critical area of culinary life, you need answers.

“Mama, how do you make gumbo?”

My mother took a deep breath, exhaled…then smiled a bit. “Depends on what kind of gumbo you want to make, sweetie.”

“Chicken and sausage.”

When i told her that, Mama took a second, shook her head, and then blew my mind.

“I’ve never made that one. My mama only made shrimp and okra gumbo, and there’s a reason why…”

The conversation that followed — The Gumbo Talk — was the beginning of a journey, the start of a Gulf Coast culinary education that has taught me a lot about tradition, culture, geography, family history and a world of flavors. It was my chapter of a South Louisiana birthright, and my connection to generations of cooks who developed a wildly varied food group united under a single name: gumbo.

If you want to cook gumbo, you need to start somewhere, and in the days before easy internet searches and 24-hour food channels, your best option was also the simplest: Go ask your mama.

At the time, I was in my early 20s and had lived outside Louisiana for a few years — college in Texas, a few years loosely based in California — and wanted to re-create the more comforting, yet complicated, dishes of my youth. I’d never stirred a roux, never set a pot to simmer for hours, never dallied with large-format Louisiana foods. When you live in Louisiana, gumbo just tends to happen to you. When you live away, you need to make gumbos happen. I was ready.

I knew the style that i wanted: a solid roux-thickened chicken and sausage gumbo, the workaday variation so common to our part of Cajun country. We lived in the small bayou city of New Iberia, a short hop away from the Gulf’s rich recreational fisheries and the cattle-friendly rice country of the coastal prairie. Always an enthusiastic eater, I’d had plenty of different incarnations of the sainted dish growing up, and being the curious type, I always tried to identify different flavors and ingredients as I went. Okra was always easy to spot, as were the different whole-animal seafoods (crab, shrimp, but never crawfish). I could recognize the tang of filé powder on the tongue and the silky dankness of a well-made roux. I scarfed up bowls at friends’ houses and cold-weather family celebrations, and even went back for second helpings on days when our public school cafeteria featured gumbo on the lunchtime menu.

I had decided that my personal starting point would be a classic: savory chicken and smoked sausage with a medium-dark roux. And my mother would pass along the Wisdom of My People, and I would understand the world.

The story that shattered my world was a tale about her mother’s gumbo and her accompanying aversion to roux cooking. It goes like this:

When my grandmother Lorelle — a North Louisiana girl from Catahoula Parish — was a young bride (sometime in the late 1930s/early 1940s), she was learning to cook for her new husband, an Hebert boy raised in Shreveport with deep roots in South Louisiana’s Assumption and Iberville parishes. She tried to make a gumbo in the South Louisiana style — dark roux, deep flavors — but in her first attempt scorched the roux and gave the final dish a bitter, burnt flavor. The gumbo was barely edible, but not wanting to waste food, she served it anyway. My grandmother (we called her Mamma) was so humiliated, she never made another roux, choosing instead to develop her signature version: shrimp and okra gumbo. No roux = no danger of bitterness.

This simple gumbo is the one she served her family and passed on to her daughters and other family cooks. For diners at her table, “gumbo” meant a very specific combination of flavors that are synonymous with Louisiana summertime — chewy sliced okra fresh from a neighbor’s garden, plump shrimp recently pulled from the nets, a fresh tomato if they’re ready and a can of RoTel if they’re not. She cooked it often, and people loved “Lorelle’s gumbo.”

That was Mamma’s gumbo, the one on which my mother was raised, and the dish she passed along to the next generation. But since I wanted to learn a different style — I wanted to feed gumbo to a lot of people in Texas, and couldn’t afford inland seafood prices— I went the “roux and poultry” route, seeking counsel and knowledge from a high-school co-worker from outside Abbeville. “My” gumbo started out as Mike Vidallier’s gumbo, which he got from his grandmother.

In a way, I chose a different fork in the road, and another edible family history.

I’ve always loved Mamma’s story for its million different delicious layers: a portrait of my grandmother as a nervous young cook, her “never again” kitchen trauma response and, in a larger sense, how an important dish can define a cook’s identity. In the moment, it was a significant hit to my world view. In my mind, my grandmother had culinary magical powers, yet she couldn’t make this foundational dish? I needed to get some air. It was like being told I was adopted, or getting the results of a very surprising genetic test (23beans & Me, perhaps?).

Fast-forward about 30 years and, once again, I was thinking about home-cooking culture, family tales and gumbo. I spent decades writing about food and cooking culture in and around New Orleans — using all my “hungry and curious” skills to eat and understand how restaurants work. I’ve eaten a million different gumbo styles, and always ask the cook or waitstaff the same key question: “How do you make your gumbo?” I’ve talked gumbo with the venerable Leah Chase (“Some people make that Creole gumbo and it’s like a religion”) and the late, great Paul Prudhomme. I’ve eaten and discussed gumbo with so many of the chefs that defined the dish in New Orleans’ food scene over the decades. For example, Donald Link’s early signature style — dark roux, chicken, tasso, andouille — made its way onto other menus around town as cooks learned and then carried it with them to the next gig. I learned about wintertime “duck camp” gumbos with juicy oysters and occasional bird shot. I dedicated my own cooking practice to a Thanksgiving ritual — rich turkey-bone gumbo. I loved gumbo as a culinary institution, a widely varied food group and a never-ending source of impassioned kitchen stories (“Now let me tell you how I make it…”).

But I kept going back to that story — that burnt roux tale — as a touchstone, but one that I’ve never heard since my mother explained the gap in her cooking education. I’ve told it for years to explain why I don’t use seafood, thicken with okra or put tomatoes in my pot. However, I realized that I was the only one in my family who remembered the story since my mother passed away in 1995.

I wanted to dig a bit deeper, so I went to our family’s living archives — a living cookbook maintained by my mama’s youngest sister Noel and the firsthand memories of Mama’s siblings.

The first part was simple enough: Noel’s keen organizational and preservation skills made finding the “recipe” easy enough (a huge advantage of being from a family shot through with librarians).

The official version is as follows:

Shrimp Okra OR Chicken Okra Gumbo

Sauté 2 pounds of okra with 1-2 chopped onions, chopped celery (2-3 ribs) and green onions, and one big fresh tomato (or a can of tomatoes). Also add one or two cloves minced or pressed garlic. Cook until it stops roping (being slimy) and the onions are tender.

For shrimp gumbo, add one to two pounds of peeled shrimp, and enough water or chicken stock to make it soupy. Season with salt, pepper and Tony Chachere’s, and cook at least an hour. It will be even better the next day.

For chicken gumbo: Follow the same instructions, except precook the chicken by boiling or sautéing it. You can either leave it on the bones or pick the meat off. Add the sautéed mixture of vegetables to boiled chicken stock and season to taste. Better yet: Use both chicken and shrimp for a really meaty gumbo. Serve over rice.

And as much as I love the story, I love this description even more. Partly because it’s more of a sketch or a process document than a traditional recipe. If you knew Mamma, you can hear her voice in the practical yet vague directions. You’ve got a few ingredients, a couple of tips and a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to proportions, timing and just about everything else. (Got shrimp? Great. Chicken instead? That’ll work.)

And of course, my favorite near-universal punchline of Louisiana cooking: “Serve over rice.” (As if you had to tell us.)

The next phase of research was, in truth, both something I would do anyway and pure joy. Over the course of a few days, I spent hours on the phone talking to my mother’s remaining sisters — Lula, Barbara Rose and of course Noel — talking about gumbo, family updates and the state of the world.

I told them the “burnt roux” story and asked if they’d ever heard it. None had, but the consensus seemed to be that it sounded a lot like her. (There was a great story about Mamma baking a pie so bad that she buried it in the backyard rather than let anyone eat it.) When it came to roux, each sister gave a variation on “She never made them. She just didn’t have the patience.” So, pretty on brand, in the parlance of our times.

After laughing a bit, we moved on to the prime question: “How do you make your gumbo?” and the stories continued. Barbara makes gumbo in Colorado for friends and special occasions. Noel can’t make her mother’s recipe because her family hates okra. Luckily, Lula (who lives nearby) will always put a quart in the freezer for her baby sister. (“I love her for that.”) We move on to grandkid talk and whatever jokes come to mind. But after we hang up, I think we’re all thinking about our family traditions, the folks that taught us, and when we’re making the next pot.

We can get older and keep cooking, but The Gumbo Talk continues.