Gumbo Crazy

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2014

“Sure, I’ve got room. I can handle one big bird or two small ones. Maybe more if I clean stuff out.” After a pause and a sip of beer, my buddy asks, “So what’s the goal this year?” The birds in question are turkeys, and every November, I start sounding a little bit crazy. “Last year it was 21, plus some carcasses and a dozen wild ducks. This year I figure two dozen.” And with that — the annual acknowledgement of a kitchen-based obsession —the Gumbo Crazy officially begins.

This public confession kicks off one of my favorite times of year — a 5-month, nonstop, large-format kitchen project. It’s a time when I’m never not in some stage of gumbo preparation. Until the mid-April run-up to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I’ll be cooking big batches of turkey and andouille gumbo on a semi-industrial scale — tending my backyard smoker, stirring two-burner Magnalite pots, and cranking out more gumbo than Nebraska state law allows.

Last year, my personal flock of 21 frozen turkeys became 27 batches of gumbo. (Doing the math… two gallons per batch … carry the one…) That’s 54 gallons of spicy, savory, roux-thickened goodness that most folks get once a year, tops.

During gumbo season, I give my house’s heating system a break, opting instead to warm my shotgun house with my trusty stovetop. My neighbors grow accustomed to the smells of blue smoke carried on the breeze and spicy pots cooling on the side porch. To be fair, any responsible mental health practitioner would probably diagnose this as a treatable psychiatric syndrome. Maybe Gumbo Compulsive Disorder? Pediatric MawMaw Syndrome? Old Man Boudreaux’s Disease? But here’s the thing: Every good gumbo starts with a story, and mine began during a 10-year exile in Central Texas.

One day in early November as friends were musing over plans for Thanksgiving leftovers, I inquired about post-feast plans for the turkey carcass. “The bones? We throw them away. What would you do with them?” The answer, as anybody raised on the Gulf Coast knows, is obvious: Make turkey-bone gumbo.

This particular variation on the gumbo theme is a stock-first affair — where your kitchen time starts by slowly simmering whatever’s left of the Thanksgiving bird with aromatic vegetables to make the richest poultry stock imaginable. After a few hours over low heat, chunks of turkey meat emerge from hidden nooks and crannies, and the bird’s connective tissue and bone marrow fuse with the water, making for a thick stock that jiggles like savory jello when chilled. With apologies to our friend on Sesame Street, big birds make the best stock, and I wasn’t about to let a gumbo-ready carcass go to waste on my watch.

During my Austin years, I developed a reputation as a one-man culinary cleanup crew with a curious mission of driving around on post-feast Friday, gathering turkey skeletons from friends (sometimes one, sometimes 10). That night, I’d make a huge stock and separate meat from bones and gristle. On Saturday, I’d make turkey-bone gumbo spiked with grilled hot links, then have a party to celebrate the holiday season. Collecting bird carcasses seems a little eccentric, perhaps mildly insane, but manageable by Texas standards.

Fast forward to New Orleans, 2010. A friend moving to Portland offers me a two-level meat smoker that’s not welcome in his new apartment building. A light bulb went on. If I smoke my own birds, I can have turkey-bone gumbo any time I want. I’ll be released from my Pilgrim-centric turkey timetable! I can smoke two birds at a time! My acquisition of that smoker triggered my modern-day Gumbo Crazy.

The first year, I dialed in my slow-smoking technique with pork shoulders, chicken wings and other specialty meats. I’d smoke a couple of turkeys for jambalaya and gumbo. I learned the discrete stages of a proper turkey gumbo (thaw, brine, smoke, “stock up,” sauté, simmer and freeze). I’d load the smoker with a pork shoulder on the top rack and a turkey below, and slowly baste the bird with melting pork fat. Oh. Hell. Yes.

The following year, I noticed that during November, turkeys were a bargain, so I bought one at Rouses as part of my weekly shopping. If I had excess freezer space, I’d grab another bird when I went to Rouses, then another the next trip. I started to give quart-sized containers as holiday or “new mama” gifts.

The second year, the bird count was 10. Twelve months later, cold fronts approached, and I realized that I needed more freezer space. More cold storage would mean more Rouses turkeys, which would mean a longer “gumboification” season. Which brings us back to my friends. As an adult in 21st-century America, I’ve got friends who don’t cook. Like, at all. As such, they’ve got full-sized freezers containing a bottle of vodka and two empty ice trays — empty space that yearns to be filled with turkeys in exchange for gumbo.

In subsequent years, my list of “Freezer Friends” grew along with my seasonal bird count. I’d hit Rouses every time I needed something, and pick up a couple of turkeys as a reflex (a loaf of bread… and two turkeys. Paper towels… and turkeys. A box of Chiclets…). I’d stash frozen birds all across town — like a manic squirrel before snowfall — and retrieve them as space allowed.

Each Freezer Friend receives quarts of gumbo as a token of thanks and an invitation to eat on Twelfth Night, or after a parade, or some random Wednesday. (Gallons of frozen gumbo make for easy winter weeknight dinners.)

From my stove-warmed house, the pots never quite stop bubbling and the smell of smoked meats never have a chance to clear, because I know that soon enough, spring turns to summer and multi-day gumbo sessions won’t make any sense. I’ll reluctantly turn on the AC and put away my pots, but keep a few quarts of gumbo on hand and one bird of those 24 to cook sometime during the summer.

Turkey gumbo in summertime? It may sound a little crazy, but I can live with that.