Ken Wells

The Gumbo Belt

Growing up on the banks of Bayou Black west of Houma, I got a peek into the old ways — of how people lived life and how they made their gumbo.

We moved there in 1957 when I was nine years old. My dad, Rex Wells, an outlander from Arkansas, took a job as the payroll clerk for the Southdown sugar mill. His package included a tidy, rent-free planter’s colonial on six fertile acres set right across our clamshell road from the bayou at a place called Mandalay Plantation.

For the first couple of years, we got our water from a cypress cistern. My five brothers and I learned to swim in the bayou. We kept big gardens and fished and hunted and trapped to supplement our larder.

My mom was born Henrietta Toups in Thibodaux. Bonnie, as she was called, spoke Cajun French, could dance the two-step and cooked a mean Cajun gumbo. By specifying a Cajun gumbo, I mean a gumbo cooked with a roux, although her roux wasn’t always the same. Chicken-and-sausage gumbo meant a dark roux (and no okra). She made her seafood gumbo — always shrimp and often shrimp and crab — with a lighter roux (and always with okra).

My mother had strict gumbo rules. If you didn’t make that roux, it wasn’t gumbo. She would never mix seafood in her chicken-and-sausage gumbo, and she never put meat of any kind in her seafood gumbo.

Oh, and no tomatoes. Ever.

And, yes, cher, use filé, but only at the table to jazz up an already cooked gumbo. Do not put filé in your gumbo at the boil (though my mother had heard, to her horror, that some people did).

Oh, wait. Bonnie did sometimes break her no-seafood-in-her-chicken-and-sausage-gumbo rule if fresh oysters were available. She’d ladle them in at the very end, bring her gumbo to a boil, and then turn it off and let the oysters steep. Oh, my. The flavor memory lingers still.

That’s what I love about the Gumbo Belt, which I define more or less as the I-10 corridor from the Texas border east to Mississippi. All the mommas, daddies, and gumbo-cooking aunts and uncles have their ironclad rules — and then break them in the tastiest ways possible.

Back when I was a kid, gumbo had its challenges. Bonnie’s chicken-and-sausage often began with chasing a chicken down in the yard. Well, not always chasing. Our Granny Wells, who grew up in backwoods Arkansas, lived with us. She wasn’t more than 5’2″ and the mildest-mannered, sweetest grandma on earth. But she had a clever way of luring chickens to her feet by dispensing tantalizing amounts of some special store-bought chicken feed from the apron she always wore.

Then when the right chicken wandered into the right spot, Granny would snatch it up and pop its neck with a speed and skill that made the Wells boys wonder if a spirit had invaded Granny’s body. If you’ve ever witnessed the death dance of a wrung-neck chicken, you have surely not forgotten it. But, mercifully, it never lasted long.

You still had to scald, pluck and dress the chicken to get it to the gumbo pot. But our chickens were free-range before that term was likely invented, their diets supplemented by generous servings of cracked corn once a day. It was always a plump hen, never a rooster, that my mother cooked. No chicken in my memory has ever tasted better than those.

But do I, today, want to chase down a chicken in the yard? Absolutely not. I’m hugely grateful for the evolution of the modern supermarket — like the one that publishes this magazine — that makes gumbo prep so much easier but still hews to the traditions and sensibilities that keep the gumbo pot boiling.

When Bonnie got an envie to cook seafood gumbo, we often drove down to the saltwater bayous south of Houma — places with names like Dulac, Pointe-aux-Chenes and Theriot — to get the very freshest seafood directly from the boats. My mother often did the bartering in Cajun French because, back then, French was the dominant language in these bayou communities.

But more often than not, Dad and my brothers trailered our 14-foot johnboat down those dusty, potholed shell roads and, after launching, hooked up a small trawl and started “dragging” some remote crook of the bayou. It wasn’t uncommon to haul in 50 pounds or more of shrimp in a morning or afternoon. If the tides were running right, sometimes we just threw a castnet and filled up a big hamper with the glistening crustaceans that way.

We caught our crabs using a different method. We’d bring strong twine and a bucket full of chicken necks that we’d saved over the season and stowed in our freezer. We’d cut the twine into, say, 12-foot lengths, creating a dozen or more crab lines. Then we’d tie on a chicken neck and toss the bait into the water at some suitable spot along the bayou bank, letting it sink to the bottom, then wait 10 minutes and pull it up slowly. On a good day, there could be two, three or even four crabs clutching the chicken necks. Get a big net under them and they’d go right into the hamper.

My mother actually had a name for these crab lines. She called them “puhlonks” because that’s the sound the bait made when it hit the water.

Using those puhlonks, it was not unusual for us to come back with a bushel, sometimes two, of fat crabs. Those not reserved for the gumbo pot got boiled in Zatarain’s (a concoction I don’t have to explain to people of the Gumbo Belt).

Oysters were seasonal in our family — only in the winter months. We sometimes bought them from the oyster-pluckers down the bayou. But it wasn’t uncommon back then for us to harvest a sack or two while we were on a redfishing trip. The conditions had to be right. Ideally, a cold front had moved through the night before with a coup nord — a cutting north wind — that had blown down the tide and left vast stretches of wild oyster reefs exposed. You didn’t need tongs, just stiff gloves, to pry the oysters from their reefs with your hands.

Like most Cajun mommas, Bonnie cooked more than gumbo. She cooked sauce piquants (turtle or rabbit), court-bouillons (always redfish), and étouffées and stews made with either chicken or crawfish. You already know how the chicken got into the pot. For crawfish, there were no farms to speak of back then, and not that many vendors unless you wanted to drive all the way to Morgan City to buy Belle River crawfish — considered the biggest, fattest and tastiest — from a local fisherman.

No worries. Across the bayou from us, on Southdown land, sat a beautiful little stretch of swamp bounded by an old natural levee. We’d hike there, hauling our crawfish nets and the aforementioned chicken necks. I remember on one particular trip, we filled up two burlap feed sacks with crawfish in a single morning.

Our gardens were ambitious. We planted one on the batture, the narrow strip of land between the road and the bayou, and carved another out of a rambling cow pasture behind the farmhouse. Believe it or not, in 1957, Southdown still kept a mule lot — in part, I believe, because tractors could not easily navigate the narrows of the batture, and because the batture often contained the most fertile ground. So once or twice a year, Dad would pay Southdown’s mule handler to walk his mule the mile down our dusty shell road and form beautiful, straight rows on our batture.

He’d then retire the mule and come back with a tractor to plow the big garden behind the house. We grew pretty much everything that would grow down here; for our gumbo pot, okra, onions, shallots and bell pepper — celery, no. It’s too hot. We’d also plant tomatoes, pole beans, radishes, cucumbers, squash, and honeydew melon and cantaloupe, which did well, even though the watermelons we often planted did not. (Too hot, again, was our guess.) In the fall, we’d plant two long rows of potatoes.

My mother would help plant the garden but one thing she wouldn’t do is pick okra, as much as she loved to cook with it — not just in her seafood gumbo but in the tasty smothered okra stews she made. Anyone who’s picked okra knows why. The okra hairs and milky secretions from the okra stems when you cut them away from the stalk can cause serious itching if they touch bare skin. Thus, it was left to the Wells boys — dressed in their “okra-picking uniforms” — to harvest the okra.

The “uniforms”? Long-sleeved shirts, gloves, ball caps and sunglasses to prevent okra juice from squirting into your eyes. Try that in the heart of the hot, sweltering South Louisiana summer when the okra ripens, and you will understand why the Wells boys would rather go to the dentist than pick okra.

My parents quit the bayou in 1968 and moved to a small brick ranch house on the northern outskirts of Houma. There was no room for a big garden there, although Dad still faithfully planted his Creole tomatoes every spring along their backyard fence line.

Bonnie kept the gumbo pot going. By this time I had enrolled at Nicholls State in Thibodaux and would soon move there to avoid the daily commute. Happily, I had gumbo connections in Thibodaux as well. My Maw-Maw Toups lived with my Uncle Pershing Toups and his kindly wife, Ann Adele Naquin. Of course they could cook! Everybody with a Cajun or Creole surname in Thibodaux could cook.

I was working as a part-time reporter for the Houma paper and had little money and, anyway, the cheap lunchtime tuna sandwiches at the Aquinas Center on campus were no substitute for my chief comfort food. So a couple of days a week, I would just happen to show up at the Toups’ house on Spruce Street right around noon. The Toupses kept an open house — no need to call, just come and come hungry.

Oh, my. Reliably, I would walk into a kitchen where red beans or white beans and rice with sausage, chicken stew or gumbo, usually chicken-and-sausage, was on the stove. Sides? Always potato salad, sometime smothered green beans, smothered potatoes or okra.

Here’s how it went:

Me: “Hey, y’all, it sure smells good in here.”

Maw-Maw: “You must be hungry, cher. Come get you a bowl.”

Me: “Oh, well, are you sure?”

Maw-Maw: “Mais, cher, look at you. You so skinny. Eat, cher!”

Me: “Okay — if it’s not too much trouble.”

Maw-Maw: “As if you ever been trouble, Kenny. And I know how much you like your gumbo.”

And so I would have a bowl of gumbo (and usually two), and we would talk and catch up, sometimes the Toupses lapsing into Cajun French, which I could understand well enough, though I do not speak it. And I would drive away thinking how lucky I was to have been born in this place.

Half a century later, I drove the length and breadth of the Gumbo Belt, eating gumbo in more than 60 restaurants and dozens of homes to research my gumbo book. What I found was that from Opelousas to Lafayette to Breaux Bridge to New Iberia to Thibodaux to South Lafourche to Houma to New Orleans, and other stops along the way, the gumbo spirit — joy and pride in food, family and place — is as strong as I remembered it in my Bayou Black days.

More surprising is how our beautiful and tasty comfort food, so long a secret of the Gumbo Belt, has moved onto a national and even international stage in respectful ways that I could’ve never predicted. I leave you with one example.

In Chicago, where I live now, there are at least seven gumbo-serving restaurants that I’ve discovered. One, called Heaven on Seven, sits in a nondescript office building just off the city’s downtown Magnificent Mile. But when the elevator opens to the seventh floor, you walk into South Louisiana — Mardi Gras beads and “Blue Dog” posters on the walls, Abita Amber on the menu, Cajun music on the sound system and the smell of gumbo wafting through the air.

Heaven on Seven is owned by a Chicago-born…Greek family. The gumbo is made with a roux and, while it might not stand up to the exquisite gumbos cooked in the Motherland, it is very good gumbo — the real deal.

And so when I inquire as to how this came to be, the young woman at the counter tells me that 20 or so years ago, her dad visited South Louisiana and fell in love with the food and the people. He came back to Chicago vowing to open a Cajun restaurant. And in an act that seems crazy, he called the most famous chef he knew to beg him to teach him how to make gumbo.

The chef? Paul Prudhomme.

The best part of the story: Paul Prudhomme — by then a superstar chef — called him back and told him to come on down and he would teach him the Gumbo Way.

Is that not a beautiful story?