Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Life as a Gumbo

I make gumbo once a year. Mardi Gras. Grant and I have thrown a Mardi Gras party every year since we evacuated from New Orleans in 2005, with the exception of I believe 2010 when I was enormously pregnant with what we would soon learn was a daughter. Mardi Gras used to be for us a celebration of our darling New Orleans, memories of friends we shared the holiday with in years past and just a general love for all things gastronomic, musical and alcoholic.

I also love a chance to wear a costume.

Grant does not share this affection.

But I started making a huge pot of gumbo a few years ago when our guest list swelled to 50 and I needed something that I could make ahead of time, would stretch if necessary and was undeniably New Orleans. I started with Emeril's recipe and six hours later decided that no matter how delicious it was, it wasn't worth it. Paul Prudhomme's was much easier and didn't require as many steps. Equally delicious. This year I went old school and made the first recipe that popped up when I googled simply "gumbo".

If you have ever made gumbo, you know that there are multiple steps, beginning with the creation of a handmade stock and ending with the decision to add the Tabasco INTO the pot or leave it graciously on the counter to allow friends to choose their level of heat. In the middle are all the elements which make gumbo as a dish so unique, and makes the person who creates the gumbo convinced that only theirs is pure and right. It's all about the tradition.

There is the creation of the roux with all it's variations (butter vs. oil vs. lard as the fat), okra or no okra, tomatoes or no tomatoes, using the French mirepoix (onion, celery, carrots) or the Cajun holy trinity (onion, celery, bell pepper) as the aromatics, which herbs make up the "Cajun seasoning"... it gets pretty intense. Thus making gumbo is a cooks dream. There are a million ways to riff on the recipe and no one can say you did it wrong. Well, anyone else who makes a different gumbo can say you did it wrong, but when you are serving a room full of western Pennsylvanians, hopefully everyone just thinks it is damn good.

Because gumbo is quite possibly the world's most perfect food.

As I was making my gumbo yesterday in preparation for our 9th Mardi Gras away from home, I found my mind wandering. Pursy and Knox were very happily in the living room watching an old Mickey Mouse cartoon (I love Netflix!) and I had prepped everything that morning, making the actual cooking of the gumbo quite easy. Easy in the sense that I only had to do three things at once instead of five. So I was poaching the chicken, stirring the okra and coaxing my roux into the deep golden brown I was praying it would turn before the smell of scorching flour reminded me that "stirring constantly" is a command not a suggestion.

I had never added okra to my gumbo and was intrigued by the phrase in the recipe "stir until no longer sticky". It didn't look sticky when I added it to the skillet, so thought maybe it meant that the edges would sauté nicely and become caramelized like brussels sporuts. Then they became sticky. It was incredible- the thick translucent liquid that was now threatening to turn the entire skillet full of okra into one gelatinous mass. I began stirring faster and quickly took a photo and texted it to my friend Sarah Joy who is legit Louisiana homegrown. She immediately texted back and said "you have a long way to go". Relieved that she wasn't impressed by the disgusting display on my stove, I took her advice and continued stirring. With my left hand, while my right hand was stirring my roux.

Now completely at the mercy of my gumbo elements, I stood at my stove stirring constantly and thinking about how my life feels a lot like this a good bit of the time. Things working in different pots that need my full attention or they will spoil. I can't stop stirring or something will burn and I don't have enough time to start over.

It has to work.

And that means I am fully present. It doesn't matter if the phone rings or someone has to go potty or the house next door explodes. My priority is this funky looking okra and the heart of my entire pot, the roux. And so my mind wandered to some insignificant life decisions, like the fact that I decided to stop using plastic tupperware and use glass mason jars for all my food storage. I started thinking about what lunch box I would get Pursy for her first day of preschool and wondering if my Mom had held on to my Strawberry Shortcake one. I thought about how grateful I was that the front tooth Knox had loosened during a head first dive was turning from grey back to white. I thought about the seminary class I am starting in a few weeks. I thought about the new espresso I bought last week and how disappointed I was in it. I thought about how Grant and I are giving up alcohol for Lent this year and...

Grant and I are giving up alcohol for Lent this year. Now, we have been celebrating Mardi Gras for 10 years and Ash Wednesday (the day after Fat Tuesday) never really happened for us. We enjoyed the revelry of the last day before the 40 days of Lent but never observed Lent ourselves. But we are now learning about the church calendar and the feast days and the holy days and have decided to pull those ancient practices into our family's life.

So today is Ash Wednesday. The first day of Lent. Tonight we will go to an Ash Wednesday service and remind ourselves about the purpose of these 40 days. We are starting off on the road of remembering Christ's suffering that ended with the cross. On Good Friday we will solemnly remember the death and burial. And then on Easter Sunday we will lift up our heads and rejoice in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is a beautiful time.

What is that smell?...

My thoughts returned to my gumbo as the roux turns a beautiful dark brown and the okra magically separated and all traces of stickiness cooked away. I assemble the rest of the ingredients and the gumbo simmers happily while I go upstairs to put on my pearls and red lipstick. Time to show these Pittsburghers how Fat Tuesday goes in our house...

Happy Mardi Gras yinz!!


  1. Love! We spent four years in New Orleans (2000-2004) and the delicious food is something that stayed with us. Poboys, Gumbo, Jambalaya, Étouffée, and any manner of "smothered" delicacies are a pretty regular occurrence at our dinner table. I have to admit that I've never made an okra thickened gumbo. The scares me! Funny...we also lived in the Pittsburgh area (Cranberry Twp) for a year or so, and it was such a joy to feed my cajun/creole food to our friends there and also to the family in Ohio. No intimidating expectations to live up to! Enjoy your seminary class!

    1. I used to be so intimidated by these recipes...still am, to some degree. An etouffee?? Good on you, Shannon! The okra wasn't a thickener, just an extra element. The roux did all the hard work. And the okra was fabulous. New staple in my gumbo. :)

  2. Pursy's smile just says, "I love New Orleans like Mom and Pops".

    1. Pursy's smile says "my parents let me eat king cake at 10p on Mardi Gras"