Saturday, October 23, 2010

Strength to Make a Gumbo

There are certain skills that people associate with Cajuns. They include being able to cook a gumbo, dance the two-step and ask someone how they are doing in French (Comment ca va?).

This knowledge and ability can be gained from practice or simply from frequent exposure. But what about Cajuns who have been away from the culture for an extended period of time? How do they reconnect with their heritage? Where do they find the strength?

One of my friends (non-Cajun) recently asked me if I would mind cooking a gumbo for a little party at her house. It had been over ten years since I’d made one, but I said yes because I was sure it was one of those things, like riding a bike, that would easily come back to me.

“Would you like me to buy a roux for you?” my friend asked.

“I’m from Vermilion Parish,” I said. “I think it’s illegal for us to use roux from a jar.”

I knew that the secret to a good gumbo was time and patience, so I made sure that I got up early the day of the event. I chopped up my bell peppers and onions and seasoned my chicken. Then I started the roux.

During the process, a friend of mine from New York called. He asked what I was doing and I told him about the gumbo.

“That’s such a stereotype,” he laughed. “Are all Cajuns required to make weekly gumbos?”

“Only during the cold months,” I said. “It’s where we get our strength.”

During our conversation, I stirred the flour, oil, bell peppers and onions in a pot on the stove. The mixture resembled caramel colored Play Doh, but before it could get any darker, the chopped up vegetables started to burn.

I hung up with my friend and dropped my roux into a pot of boiling water. Once it started to dissolve and turned the color of chicken noodle soup, I sensed there was something wrong. Although it had been ten years since I’d cooked a gumbo, I was fairly sure it was supposed to be darker. I also realized that the reason the roux was like clay was because I hadn’t used enough oil.

So I started over again. I cut up more onions and bell peppers, and threw them in a pan of olive oil and flour. My Cajun confidence began to diminish, so I called one of my sister-in-laws for advice.

“Don’t let this get out to the public, but I’m cooking a gumbo and need some help with my roux,” I said.

“Why didn’t you just buy it from the store?” she asked. “That’s where I get mine.”

“Pride and stupidity kept me from buying the roux,” I answered. “Stubbornness is going to keep me from giving up now.”

My sister-in-law told me that my roux was supposed to be the color of a dark chocolate bar. When I explained that my cut up onions and bell peppers were starting to burn, she said that I was supposed to add those afterwards, and that I’d have to start over again.

I was out of flour and patience by that point. It had been almost two hours since I’d begun the process, and couldn’t start over. The party was that afternoon, so time was an issue.

“I’m just going to have to scoop out the onions and bell peppers later,” I explained. “What do I do after the roux is the color of a chocolate bar?’

My sister-in-law said that she liked her roux and water to be the same temperature. For example, if the roux was cold from the refrigerator, she put it in a pot of cold water. If it was freshly made and hot, she put it in boiling water.

“After a couple of hours, taste it,” she said. “If it tastes too much like roux, add a tablespoon of tomato paste. It kills the sharpness.”

It was a good tip to know for the future, but not practical at that point because I didn’t have any tomato paste. I planned to kill any sharpness in the gumbo with potatoes and hot sauce.

After my second roux was dark enough, per my sister in law’s suggestion, I put about three heaping tablespoons of the mixture into a pot of about one and half to two gallons of boiling water. Once it had dissolved, I poured it through a strainer several times to remove the burnt onions and bell peppers. Then I put it back on the stove and let it bubble for a couple of hours.

By this point, I was exhausted and irritated. I was about to call my friend and tell her that there would be no gumbo for her party, but that I’d drive through Popeyes and get a bucket of Cajun chicken.

Where do people get the time and patience to do this? I wondered. Where do they get the strength?

A memory of my dad in my parents’ kitchen popped into my head. He loved making gumbo, and would dance around to Cajun music during the process. To him, it was a fun-filled event, not an exhausting chore.

I took the memory as a message, and grabbed my dad’s old cowboy hat, put on some Cajun music and began dancing around the mess I’d made in the kitchen. I boiled smoke sausage in water to get some of the grease out, and then added it and the chicken to my bubbling roux. I occasionally stirred the concoction, and several hours later, I had myself a gumbo.

My first taste came nine hours after I began the whole process. While I’m sure there are gumbo snobs in Louisiana who would have given me the thumbs down, my first spoonful tasted like success.

No one at the party vomited or asked for heartburn medicine, which I took as a good sign.
But I was especially happy about the lessons I’d learned from the process.

Being able to cook a good gumbo isn’t what makes us Cajun. But spending nine or more hours in a kitchen reminds us of the struggles our ancestors endured in the journey to make a better life for themselves; that wonderful nourishment can be created with a little time and patience; that mistakes are a part of life, but learning from them gives us strength.


1. Buy a dark roux
2. If you’re too stubborn or proud, then make your own. Put on Cajun music, then mix olive oil, butter and flour in a skillet on low to medium heat. Stir for about thirty minutes, making sure that it doesn’t burn. Use enough oil so the mixture is a little thicker than cake batter. Cook until the color of a dark chocolate bar.
3. Put about three heaping tablespoons of roux into pot of boiling water with about one to two gallons of water.
4. Season and add cut up onions, bell peppers and whatever else you want.
5. Let bubble for at least two hours. The longer, the better.
6. Add chicken, seafood or sausage and let cook on medium heat for about two hours. Stir every twenty minutes or so.
7. Enjoy.

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