FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Gumbo Ya-Ya

Gumbo is one of those amazing dishes that is a very personal affair; as with other such foods -- like chowder or chili -- every cook seems to claim her or his to be the best and most authentic, but there doesn't seem to be any single definitive recipe. Sure there are specific ingredients and methods needed in order to call a soup gumbo, but there is also much flexibility; there are probably as many gumbos as there are cooks who make them.

Thus, recently while contemplating the subject of gumbo, and having a trip to New Orleans planned with my cousin Roger, we decided to sample the dish at its source. Arriving hungry and still somewhat stunned from that odd feeling of boarding a plane in the snowy north and only hours later exiting into a rather tropical one, we began our "gumbo-quest" immediately. Asking a waiter for seafood gumbo he stated that this particular restaurant didn't have it to offer, and that theirs was basically a sausage gumbo. But curiously, when our gumbo arrived at table mine had two crab legs in the bowl jutting skyward while Roger's had none. Besides its inconsistency from bowl-to-bowl the gumbo was good, but not great; it hit the spot. Over the course of a long weekend we managed to sample a half-dozen gumbos in various restaurants, ranging in quality from good to great. And as presumed, during our entire jaunt we did not have a single disappointing gumbo.

Roy F. Guste Jr., fifth generation proprietor of Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans claims in his book, The 100 Greatest Dishes of Louisiana Cookery, that gumbo is the single most important dish in all of Louisiana cookery, and that anyone wanting to develop a repertoire of this cuisine should learn gumbo first. While gumbo is a dish that is often overly romanticized and can also be intimidating for a novice cook, it is also very simple to make. Pretty much anything edible can be made into gumbo. Besides the traditional sausage, chicken and seafood, there are recipes for gumbo based on such unlikely items as alligator, duck, venison and even squirrel.

New Orleans chef and poet Howard Mitcham, in his book Creole Gumbo and All that Jazz, states that there are no two gumbos alike, not even when made by the same cook. He also likes to equate making gumbo to that of an early jazz band -- "it's an improvisational thing." On the other hand, while there are many different types and versions of gumbo, the one item that is strictly necessary is roux, and not just any roux -- a Cajun roux.

Roux is a type of thickener that is common to French cuisine and is made by cooking together equal parts fat and flour until the flour is cooked to a desired color and consistency. While the French do use dark roux for various preparations it is still pale in comparison to the Cajun roux; one of the distinctive characteristics of a Cajun roux is its dark brown color. This dark color is obtained by heating oil to almost smoking then stirring in flour and cooking it until the flour browns. By toasting flour in this manner it will lend a dark color and distinctively nutty flavor to whatever dish in which it is used; roux is not only used for thickening, but also flavoring and coloring. Roux is such a ubiquitous component to classic Cajun and Creole cuisine that more often than not a recipe will begin by stating "first make a roux." The word roux is derived from the French rouge, referring to the reddish brown color that flour achieves when cooked.

There's also the question as to whether one should use file powder in their gumbo or okra. Purists say that it should be one or the other, never both. (In the past I've actually made gumbo that contained both okra and file and the world didn't end.) Interestingly, gumbo actually takes its name from the West African word gombo, meaning okra. To make things even more confusing, there's also a gumbo that contains neither file nor okra -- Gumbo Z'Herbs, or Herb Gumbo. It's not actually made with herbs, but with greens such as spinach, kale, etc., it's a vegetarian gumbo that is sometimes consumed during lent.

The word gumbo is also used for non-food descriptions as well, such as the Cajun phrase gumbo ya-ya, meaning when everybody is talking all at once. I'm assuming this phrase was coined in regards to the soup, making reference to it having so many ingredients and flavors in the gumbo pot at once. Thus, it's not uncommon to see restaurants that list "gumbo ya-ya" on their menus. And in days gone by, the rural patois spoken by African and Caribbean slaves was also called gumbo (or gombo).

Gumbo is a Cajun dish, opposed to Creole, and the original recipe was based on as much frugality and function as it was culinary pleasure. Like the people themselves, Cajun and Creole cuisines share many similarities but are at the same time distinctly different. Cajuns are the descendants of the French Acadians who were forced from Nova Scotia by the British in the 1780’s. At that time some went back to France, some settled in the New England area, but most of them found their way to rural southern Louisiana and devised a culture and cuisine using what was available in the region. The word Cajun is derived from the transmuting of the word Acadian. Generally -- and briefly -- speaking, Cajun food relies more heavily on spices than Creole cuisine, and also on pork products and locally caught seafood, such as crawfish, redfish and shrimp.

Creoles, on the other hand, were most often American born with French or Spanish heritage. During the early 1800’s, while Spanish were ruling Louisiana they named all people that were American born citizens and had direct European lineage, Criollo, later to be translated to the French, Creole. Creoles were city folks and their cuisine was usually more refined and relied more on the use of cream and butter; it was directly influenced by the classic cuisines of Europe. Both Cajun and Creole cuisines, though, rely heavily on roux and were also influenced by slaves (American born and those from Africa and the Caribbean) and by the local Choctaw Indians.

Early Cajuns were a frugal civilization, they lived off the land and wasted nothing. A good example of this is the comparison of a classic French dish using a courtbouillon to that of the Cajun version. In French cuisine a courtbouillon is a flavorful liquid in which one poaches fish, it contains wine, vegetables and herbs, and is often discarded after the fish is cooked. In Cajun cuisine the courtbouillon actually becomes part of the dish, the Cajun cook saw the potential meal in the courtbouillon and built on it. She added the ever-present roux, along with tomatoes, peppers, spices and slices of redfish, the courtbouillon became not just a cooking medium but also a sauce.

While the cuisine of southern Louisiana is often compared to that of Europe, most likely because of the French-Creole language, there is really nothing else like it anywhere: it is distinctly an American cuisine. The food traditions of this area are definitely rooted in Europe, but the ingredients and methods that were used to adapt these dishes and make them what they are today are purely American.

On this most recent visit to New Orleans I contemplated the fact of how some areas in the French Quarter contain some of the most beautiful and quaint streets in America, yet at the same time at 2am on any given night its main thoroughfare -- Bourbon Street -- can also be one of the ugliest. And as much as I attest to veering away from the area while visiting the Crescent City, after being sufficiently fortified I often find myself at the end of the night on that notorious street to people watch and observe the sheer chaos ("last call" is a moot phrase in a city where bars never close). On just such an occasion recently it really seemed to me as if I was on some other parallel with real life, someplace made up. The street was packed with people in various states of mind and dress, it was like some sort of hedonistic Alice in Wonderland ... and everyone was talking all at once. Gumbo ya-ya.

Shrimp, Sausage and Okra Gumbo
Yield: 3 quarts
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 small green pepper, seeded and diced
3 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
8 ounces andouille sausage, split lengthwise and sliced
12 okra pods, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 cups chicken stock
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1/2 cup rice

First make a roux by heating the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat and stirring in the flour with a wooden spoon (be very careful, hot roux will stick to one's skin and burn immediately). Stir the roux continuously for about 10 minutes, or until the roux has become brown and smells of toasted nuts. If the roux burns, or small burn flakes appear in it, discard it and begin again. Add the diced onion, green pepper and celery, stir it into the roux and cook it for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, sausage and okra, stir it into the roux and cook it for an additional 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the salt, thyme, pepper and chicken stock. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stir it to remove any lumps. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the soup for 20 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook the soup an additional 10 minutes. While the gumbo is simmering, boil the rice in plenty of salted water. Serve the gumbo in a bowl with a small mound of the boiled rice, or if desired, stir the rice directly into the gumbo.

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