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Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002
There aren’t too many things that I can consistently do well. Nobody has to tell me this, my wife and familiars do an admirable job of silently reminding me, through a complex series of eye rolling and muffled groans, that “He’s at it again, just bite your lip and take it, we’ll all get through this together, somehow.”

But they don’t have jack to say when I get the urge to make Gumbo.

I’m a contemporary Cajun about the whole thing. It all comes out of a box or a can, I don’t yet have the patience (or requisite skill thereto) that would find me slaving over a cast iron skillet to make the perfect roux, the base for all good gumbo. Or the experience to craft a more traditional Cajun meal. Or the wherewithal to seek out unusual additions to make a more perfect gumbo.

But.

There isn’t a homeward bound South Louisiana trapper who wouldn’t paddle his pirogue a little faster, knowing that some of my gumbo was awaiting back at the shack in the swamp.

Knowing that I had a bag full of large shrimp on hand and a couple boxes of gumbo mix, I called Ally in the middle of the day and asked her to put the shrimp on boil so that they could be peeled and cleaned. I didn’t tell her to actually clean them, or start the other processes of the recipe, just get the shrimp started. Chef Outfoxed is jealous of his kitchen time, I have a tendency to think that since my gumbo is a well received it should be a proprietary thingy. A dish best prepared by me and me alone.

‘Nother words, nobody else gets to do the Gumbo Mambo in this house. They mustn’t witness the culinary art as practiced by me. Or maybe more accurately, the bludgeoning of the art.

Funny thing is, I can’t for the life of me figure out why they all like it.

“Dad, is it spicy?” This from my eldest, Beth, who never met a meal she liked with anything other than salt added.

“Dad, is it spicy enough?” From Maggie, who, like me, is an enlightened member of the “It can’t possibly be food without a rich full flavor” club.

“Dad, is there enough of it (despite what it might actually be)?” Ben, the 15 year old, who would eat cat food if assured that there was at least 4 helpings in the offing.

Knowing this, that there is a true disparagy of tastes around here, I proceed with blissful abandon. With a cabinet full of seasonings and Justin Williams at my elbow, I bent to the task at hand, never fixing gumbo the same way twice in a row, throwing cayenne pepper and caution to the wind. Liquid smoke? It has a Creole mansion as a label, it must therefore be fit for gumbo. Old Bay seasoning? By the case full, a generous shaking into the pot. Onion, celery, garlic. Olive oil. The same hands which measure wood by the millimeter are careless in the quantities and amounts suggested by any recipe for gumbo. This is mass dumping of foodstuffs into a boiling pot, and damn the consequences.

I got all into the very Southern-ness of it all. An admiring customer had forwarded a tin of Smithfield peanuts (Jumbo! Largest selects! Salted!) and I scooped out handfuls and considered the vision of salted hams and cotton fields embossed on the side of the decorative container. Put on some Allman Bros. on the stereo and advanced the volume to the threshold where window glass is prone to implosion.

This being Virginia, and not Louisiana, I might take liberties with what might be the proper way to go Cajun on myself. But smelling the simmering roux, seeing the shrimp cleaned and peeled, washing a mess ‘o peanuts down with a cold beer, I could well have been fresh from the bayou with a string of catfish and a battered black hat, calling for the mama to put out the cornbread in a pidgin French accent. It really got that bad.

The young’uns, they know. “Dad, is it ready yet?” Ben was already in line, a plate in hand, hopeful in his quest to be the first to sample. “Yes, my son. Go ye and plunder.”

That first burning spoonful, blow on the shrimp and the rice, the fact that it is physically hot from the stove unmistakable from the draughts of steam. But the way it opens up sinuses, that first realization that here is something with bite and spice and an after-burn. A hint of heat not from the stove but from the heaping handfuls of swamp sauce from a vigorous hand. Something most assuredly not mac ‘n cheese, something with tooth and a hint of mystery. Big shrimp, saucy and bold.

Gumbo in its primal form looks murky, it hides the munchy stuff in a brown broth that lurks on top, a sinister and doubtful broth. For those who see it for the first time, it is a foreboding thing, a thing which causes eyebrows to raise with a “Just what the hell is in this stuff, anyway?” look.

For the brave, the answer is not long in coming. It is the stuff of goodness not defined. It is taste that arouses senses long asleep, life in a cheap and ambrosia laden way. It is summer, it is raw, it is so very Southern. There is little to consider or argue over save the possibility that you may be too slow to snag the last ladle full.

It may be the crowning achievement of culinary art that this is something that Ally will get seconds of.

And for once, I fixed enough for all of them to eat to the point of stupor. Now there is a small container in the fridge with a strange brown cast to it. It looks murky. It looks almost illegal.

It also looks a good deal like lunch.

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