I had gumbo on Sunday. I mean….I had two heaping bowls of gumbo on Sunday….for breakfast. OMG, was it good?! It’s been awhile since I had good homemade gumbo. People in Memphis are known for BBQ …not gumbo. I was visiting a friend’s sister and her husband in Prairieville LA. They asked me if I wanted rice? Sure. “I usually eat potato salad in mine,” my friend Ken said. What? I thought that was kind of weird. But, then I tasted his sister Rhonda’s potato salad. I tell you what…. I would eat anything on top of that potato salad. It was unbelievable. It was only outshone by the gumbo her husband Paul made.
I looked up gumbo on the internet. They called it a Cajun stew or soup. Good Lord…that’s sacrilegious. Neither one describes it, but I guess if you can’t use the word gumbo, it’s hard to describe. It is just about the best tasting thing on earth when it’s really good. There are marriages made because of the desire to acquire a good gumbo chef. A few weeks after I started dating my first husband, I made him gumbo at Momma’s suggestion. He ate four bowls of it in one sitting and laid around all evening watching football and talking about how good it was. He proposed the next day. I still believe that it was not my young curvaceous body that he wanted to have and to hold. He wanted to own the rights to that swirling, aromatic mahogany roux. My sister flunked out of college on her first try, so we sent her out to marry a coonass so we’d have an in-house gumbo chef. The rest of us married yankees. She did a good job. My brother-in-law Gary is the big draw for holiday gatherings. “Gary’s making a gumbo,” we say. Okay…I’ll drive 40 hours and be there. No problem.
In order to know how to make gumbo right, you have to go to gumbo royalty. The Cajuns or “coonasses”, as they affectionately call themselves, are the ones that make the traditional gumbos. I was shocked to discover that gumbo was not all that common when I moved away from Louisiana. I thought that’s the way everybody ate. I texted three of my favorite coonasses to ask them the secret to making good gumbo.
Billy is coonass royalty, although he didn’t like me describing him that way. His great, great grandaddy Thibodaux donated the land that comprises the town of Thibodaux, and so they named the town after him. I had to get his pedigree before I asked him gumbo advice. He likes to use the smoked andouille sausage, although he says, “us connasses like to put deer sausage in our gumbo.” Crab, shrimp and oysters complete his gumbo recipe.
My friend Paul whose gumbo made me swoon on Sunday uses a big cast iron pot to make his gumbo. You’ll notice that a lot of the gumbo chefs are the men in the family. Women do make gumbo, but it’s usually a man’s dish. It’s a ritual. Paul cooks his at least 3 hours but admits that he’s started using Savoie’s dark roux in a jar because it’s just as good as the homemade. My brother in law Gary agrees on that point. (So, even real coonasses like the jarred roux.) Paul likes andouille as well, but he likes a chicken and sausage gumbo. And, of course, they serve it over potato salad.
My brother-in-law Gary is originally from Plaucheville LA. His parents still spoke French instead of English. He wilts his onions, garlic and bell pepper (the holy trinity as it is called down there) in the roux so it darkens better. Another friend of mine, Keri, told me her grandmother did the same thing. He likes chicken and fresh pork sausage purchased from Bordelon’s Superette in Plaucheville. He always serves his gumbo with Louisiana sweet potatoes as a side dish.
Most everybody I know that cooks gumbo has a favorite gumbo pot. It’s usually a cast iron pot. Saturday night, Paul started salivating over this old rusty cast iron pot on a friend’s porch. He took it home with him and seasoned it. “We had to scrape all the crap out of it; then we built a huge fire. We put the pot in the fire and burned it. Then we wiped it out with mineral oil,” Ken said, describing the process. “After a 6 pack of beer and 4 glasses of rum and orange juice, it was beautiful,” he added. A coonass timer, I guess?
Most everybody, even my wannabe coonass friends, say the broth and the roux are the secret to making a good gumbo. Homemade broth is certainly desired, and my friend Tim says you have to cook the broth until the bones are soft. Andouille sausage seems to the be the sausage of choice if you don’t have your own homemade sausage. I know when I make my gumbo, I make my own roux, and that’s probably the secret sauce to my gumbo. I cook it slow for about an hour until it’s the color of dark mahogany. I have used the jarred roux, and it is really good. But, sometimes I just like the process and meditation of stirring it on my own.
Gumbo is really a celebratory and community food. I remember growing up, the men would start cooking gumbo at family reunions, and all my cousins would bring their game, and we’d throw it all in the pot together. By the time everybody was good and drunk and tired, the gumbo was ready. There was nothing like it. And, every gumbo is unique. The second day is usually better than the first, but you have to make a lot for it to be there the second day. It’s hard to stop eating gumbo. In fact, I could go for a bowl or two right now.