By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
FISHTRAP HOLLOW – It takes a village to make a gumbo. Not just any village, either. One cold day, I started missing my wonderful Louisiana friends and thinking how good a gumbo would taste on a snowy February day. I decided to try.
There was a hitch. Though I’ve spent part of each year in Cajun country since 1996, I’ve made only one gumbo in my life, using rancid roux from a jar and wasting a boatload of shrimp in the process.
In my defense, why make your own when you are surrounded by amazing Cajun cooks who routinely call you up and leave succinct phone messages – “Gumbo’s ready!” – with an implied command to get your bib on and get to their table. My cooking a gumbo in South Louisiana would be like singing the alphabet song to William Faulkner.
Here in Northeast Mississippi it was different. It’s nigh impossible to find a good gumbo. At least, I know how not to make gumbo. Cajun gumbo – which is almost a redundancy, since they perfected it – isn’t vegetable and chicken soup with shrimp. The Cajuns I know either make a chicken and sausage gumbo or, for special events in flush times, a seafood gumbo. Never the twain shall meet. And most don’t pollute the grease and flour gravy with tomatoes or okra.
I knew better than to try and find good seafood this far from the coast. Chicken and sausage I could muster. But then I remembered what my buddy Doug Mequet said when he visited me and decided to cook a gumbo. “Is that the biggest pot you got? Where’s your gumbo pot?”
Until Mister Doug’s culinary pot call, I thought I had ample kitchen equipment. Cajuns set great store by their pots, and the smallest kitchens have pots the size of the Super Dome. No self-respecting cook would be without one big enough to cook a gumbo for the entire parish.
I know the Cajun cook’s First Commandment: First you make a roux. But in my case it was different: First you buy a pot.
Twenty-four quarts and several dollars later, I was ready. Almost. I decided to phone Jeanette Latiolais, the best cook I know, and ask her advice. How much water? How much roux? How do I season the chicken? When do I drop it into the gravy?
She patiently talked me through the process, reminding me that the liquid should be so dark you can’t see the spoon, or, as Mister Mequet had said, “Gumbo should be the color of the swamp.”
Friends started to gather, which is what happens when you cook a gumbo. Lucinda and the Flatlanders were taking turns singing. The dogs were hanging close, in case there might be some boudin, too. Eddie Williams, who paid attention when Mister Doug cooked, came to offer advice. Volunteers sampled the gumbo. People drove all the way up from Tishomingo and Tupelo when news of the gumbo floated by e-mails through the ether.
There was potato salad, which is the obligatory Cajun companion to gumbo. You would serve gumbo without a spoon before you’d leave off the potato salad. Some cooks even put the potato salad in the gumbo, but I didn’t go that far.
Vicki made a king cake from scratch, and Gary got the baby. We laughed and ate and drank and solved all the world’s problems, from Mississippi to the Middle East.
And that’s the point of a gumbo, however you choose to make it. It’s not so much a dish as a raison d’etre. Or as we would say here in Hill Country, something to live for.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.