THE CASE FOR SUMMER GUMBO
On most summer weekends when I was a kid, when the weather was good — and by good, I mean, furnace-hot with humidity thick as a sponge — my father was out in our boat. A successful business owner by profession, dad worked hard, but fished harder. He lived to be on the water, casting for specs and reds in the brackish marshes off Venice, Louisiana.
My poor father needed a son. Instead, he got two daughters. My older sister wasn’t much interested in dad’s twin passions: boating and fishing. But me, I was right there with him, his little pigtailed sidekick bopping around the center console.
Eventually, my parents bought a fishing camp on Trappers Canal, a sandy spit of land about a 15-minute boat ride from Venice . The canal was populated with camps on both banks, with about a 60-40 mix of commercial fishermen and recreational folks . Total population pre-Katrina probably numbered less than 20 or so on a busy weekend.
On Friday afternoons, dad and I would pack up ice chests, our bathing suits and fishing clothes, sunscreen, bug spray and some groceries, and haul the boat down from New Orleans to Venice, getting to the launch before dusk. As the boat cut through the passes, pointed toward Trappers, we’d keep an eye out for red wing blackbirds, brown pelicans and egrets. Maybe a dolphin or two would swim alongside us, cutting in and out of the wake.
Those camp weekends were quintessential Gulf Coast living: Get up at dawn, fish hard until mid-morning, take a snooze in the AC at midday, then out on the water again in late afternoon to catch the running tide. We set out traps along our dock for crabs and bought fresh shrimp from the local shrimpers. If we were lucky, our neighbor at the camp next door might have molting soft shells, and he’d bring us a few to fry up.
To this day, when I smell salty air mixed with sunscreen, I have a Proustian moment, flooded with memories of ice chests heavy with fish, crabs and shrimp, and so many incredible meals. The bounty of the Gulf Coast spoiled me rotten. Wasn’t everyone’s meal swimming just hours before it landed on their plate?
I recalled all of this recently as I picked up a copy of the gorgeous cookbook Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining, and Savoring the Good Life by Lucy “LuLu” Buffett. Yes, that Buffett. She’s Jimmy’s sister. More important, she owns LuLu’s, one of the most fun restaurants in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Since the restaurant is perched on the side of the Intracoastal Waterway, you can dive into LuLu’s L.A. (Lower Alabama) Caviar (aka black-eyed peas in balsamic vinaigrette) while admiring the boats navigating the no-wake zone. It’s the perfect kind of Gulf Coast people watching.
Gumbo Love encapsulates that easy/delicious vibe but in written form. From cucumber margaritas to crawfish cornbread casserole, the book is full of recipes that make you want to head into the kitchen and invite over a few friends.
As I flipped through the pages, though, one recipe stopped me short: Lucy’s Signature Summer Seafood Gumbo. Now wait a minute, gumbo…in the summer?
Down here on the Gulf Coast, don’t we always proclaim the first chill of autumn — even when it barely nudges the thermometer past 80 degrees — to be “gumbo weather?” Gumbo, at least in my family, is cold-weather eating. My proud Cajun husband could subsist on dark roux in the winter months. But mention it in August, and he would check to see if I’d fallen on my head.
So, I called up Buffett for some insight.
“My grandmother had a pot of seafood gumbo on the stove on Fridays all year round, being Catholic,” said Buffett, who grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
That Friday gumbo would feed the whole family and leave enough for leftovers. “The smell would wind its way out of the kitchen, down the driveway to greet us in a welcoming cloud,” she wrote in the book.
Today, eating locally grown, seasonal ingredients is a point of pride for food lovers. But back before refrigeration was widespread and affordable, eating food in season was just, well, eating.
In summer, blue crabs, brown and white shrimp, and plenty of produce are fresh and abundant on the Gulf Coast. And, if you’re lucky, maybe you have a few late-season tomatoes still on the vine before the heat finally sapped the life out of the plants.
Gumbo literally means okra (the word gumbo is widely accepted to have come from ki ngombo, the Bantu term for okra), and fields are bursting with the long slender fingers at this time of year.
Suddenly, this summer gumbo was making a whole lot of sense.
In Louisiana, the spring/brown shrimp season generally runs from May to July, while the fall/white shrimp season typically opens in mid-August. The seasons are roughly similar in Mississippi and Alabama. “During the summer, brown shrimp make up the majority of the catch,” according to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Department at GulfShores.com. “In the fall and sometimes late summer, white shrimp may end up in the trawl. White shrimp tend to be considerably larger.”
Buffett considers gumbo a year-round dish, cooked to feed the masses; to celebrate weddings, christenings, birthdays and milestones, as well as to soothe the soul at funerals. “Every kid that has gotten married, I made the gumbo for the party,” she said. “I have taken gallons of gumbo to a wedding for someone who is like a daughter to me. And when someone passes away, we say, ‘Let’s get the funeral box ready,’ and we send gumbo and other goodies. People are always so appreciative. It’s the best medicine.”
Buffett has a whole suite of seasonal gumbos in her book. When the weather finally (finally!) gets that crisp edge, she prefers a smoky gumbo with chicken and andouille, filé, shrimp and maybe some oysters if they look good. She also has a recipe for “True Acadian (Cajun) Gumbo” with wild-caught Gulf shrimp, oysters, lump blue crabmeat and filé. (Notice the absence of okra and tomatoes in those.)
For those who still object to the thought of a hot, steamy, dark roux dish when it feels like 110 degrees outside, stop and consider this: Do you eat other warm foods in the summertime? Would you turn down a plate of spaghetti and meatballs just because it’s hot outside? Nah. Why should gumbo be any different?