Monday, November 9, 2009

Life as Gumbo

Johnny Nash--"Stir It Up" (mp3)
Tony Trischka (featuring Syd Straw)--"Alfa Ya-Ya" (mp3)

One of the better pleasures of life is sitting down to eat a bowl of real gumbo, made without haste using a traditional recipe. But, arguably, an even greater pleasure is constructing that gumbo. I have spent much of the weekend doing just that. Hang with me, if you're not a cook (yet) and trust that my purpose is not to brag on my gumbo. I'll try to make a broader point.

The complexity of a gumbo depends on several steps, none of which can be rushed. Sure, there are shortcuts one could take, bottled this and frozen that, but each one would diminish the final stew. Gumbos tend to split into two basic camps: seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. I made the latter, mostly because I had picked up some incredible andouille sausage the last time I was in New Orleans.

Gumbo's nuances are built layer by layer. The first layer is the chicken. You need to fry or roast it to intensify the flavors in the bones, meat, and skin. After you pull the skin off the bone, the bones become the base of the chicken stock, which, when boiled, then simmered, with onion, celery, carrots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley in water that, left on low heat, becomes a rich broth. So, two things done. The key, though, is the roux. The gradual browning of white flour in hot oil until it becomes as dark as chocolate is the essential component. As it becomes the color of peanut butter and then darker, it takes on a carmelized flavor like nothing else. To achieve that perfect roux requires constant vigilance and stirring for the better part of an hour.

SIDEBAR: When is the last time most of us stirred anything for 40 minutes?

The addition of the Cajun trinity of chopped onions, green peppers, and celery, with garlic, to a dark roux releases smells into the room and house that seem like some heavenly blend of fried chicken and soy sauce. After the vegetables have softened, pouring in the chicken stock, brought to a boil, with bay leaf, thyme, and a blend of other spices, and then simmered for an hour or so, creates a base of some 20 different tastes, some added twice and in different ways. There is no quick way to duplicate it.

Then the chicken is added back in, and with it, the chunks of andouille, itself a myriad of flavors, including pork and pepper heat and smoke. And, finally, the okra, both as a taste and as a thickener, sauteed to eliminate the sliminess and to include yet another seared flavor. Finally, the seasoning is corrected, and over two days with essentially 7 major steps, eight if you serve it over rice, you have gumbo.

Gumbo is a pleasure both ways. If you don't know how it's made, then you are amazed by the complexity of its flavors, and each bite is a revelation. Your tongue, your mouth, your brain all know that you could not pour it out of a can. Or, if you do know how it is made, if you make it, then you are equally rewarded, in that you have successfully executed each step.

I could have talked about bread or ice cream or even a relationship. The point would be the same. Taking the time to do things the way they need to be done, the way they are best, is neither a luxury nor just a nod to some nostalgic vision of the past. The reality is that back when the world was slower, when money wasn't as important, when quality could reign over quantity, there were slower processes of life that justified themselves easily--first because the shortcuts weren't available, and, second, because the waiting increased their worth.

In the past few years there have been a plethora of books about things/places/books/etc. to do/see/read/visit/etc. before we die. I appreciate the sentiment. It's a big world, as Joe Jackson would say, so much to see.

But the book that really spoke to me was the one by Jan and Michael Stern, 500 Things To Eat Before It's Too Late (and the Best Places To Eat Them). You will note the slight shift in emphasis. Sure, the "too late" could refer to our potential imminent demises just like the rest of the books, but when you get into the Sterns' book, you quickly realize that the places, the joints, the specials dishes they advocate are ones that are made in Mom 'n Pop places whose offerings are specific to particular parts of the country. They have been making the same foods in the same basic ways for decades. When these places don't make them, who will? Who will carry on the traditions of making these foods the way they always have been made? "Before it's too late" means before the rush of the modern world squeezes them out, before their expensive, time-honored techniques become too expensive.

I tried to hit a number of these places when I was in Chicago this summer and to indulge in the best Italian Beef sandwich, the breaded steak sanwich, the Chicago hot dog, etc., but for me the larger issue becomes even more important each year when the holidays approach. That's when treasured family recipes, things that a deceased parent or relative or neighbor used to make, come to the forefront.

And here's the news that no one wants to hear: those people are deceased and they aren't going to be making those special treats that they used to make. We have to do it. But, maybe, we don't have time, we don't know how to, maybe we just don't want to, maybe we don't even care to, maybe we don't cook, maybe we don't bake, maybe our children will never know the difference. Hey, wake up! The past is disappearing and it isn't coming back. It's about to become an extinct animal. Short of cloning it, and I don't know how you clone time, the things that were important or comforting to us are going to be gone if we don't save them.

So that's why, up above, I wanted to give you an idea about how gumbo is made. And I'm here to say, it's all just gumbo, baby. Seven steps, one step at a time. Totally worth it. Ain't nothin' like it. Nowhere. Because it's my gumbo or your gumbo and that means it becomes my family's gumbo and maybe someday, a child or a grandchild makes it just like I used to. 'Cause families, too, are like gumbo--layers upon layers upon layers.

Bob will be serving his gumbo at the Mocs' tailgate this coming Saturday if the weather holds. Johnny Nash and Tony Trishka are available at Itunes. I don't know why the classic Johnny Nash track does not play, but it does download, so you can listen to it that way.


Daytimerush said...

Thanks for this post! Right on!

Anonymous said...

This post was right on. I don't think its too hard to make, but my mom is the only one "right now" who knows how to make it......Hot sausage cornbread dressing. There is nothing else like it on Thanksgiving or special events. It was handed down from my dad's mom to my mom. I am going to be watching closely next get together. There's a mean oyster dressing as well.

Jason said...

Thanks so much Bob in so many ways! The recipe sounds delicious, and the message is appreciated as well.

troutking said...

Great post, Bob. Love that book, too. To Superdawg!

Kath said...

Hey Dad, this makes me so excited for NOLA!!

jed said...

wonderful post!!!