By Doc Lawrence.
It’s a dish everyone seems to enjoy and like its distant cousin, barbecue, comes in many varieties, varying by region, arguably a work in progress. This is gumbo, the ubiquitous semi-liquid that passes for a stew, soup or something yet to be named. It begs for accompaniments like hot French bread and good rice, and it’s one recipe that takes to Tabasco like Jack Daniel’s to ice cubes.
Growing up in Atlanta, I accepted gumbo as a staple. It wasn’t a family favorite, but then neither was wine. Like it’s musical kin, the blues, gospel, rock and roll and country, it wasn’t inaccessible, seemed to be close enough when you needed it. Plus, it was so doggone tasty and filling. A meal for less than a buck including the bread and rice, and just an extra nickel for a bottle of Coke.
My first REAL gumbo was my initial visit to New Orleans as a skinny 17-year old tow headed freshman at Florida State University, a trip made possible as a member of the Army R.O.T.C. drill team, invited to march in a Mardi Gras parade, bunking for free at Tulane University.
Gumbo – the authentic stuff – was served at lunch in the French Quarter’s hallowed food shrine, Buster Holmes. The drinking age then was 18 and no one carded me when I ordered mugs of French Quarter brewed Jax beer. The jukebox played foot stomping music by the likes of Allan Toussaint, Antoine “Fats” Domino and Clifton Chenier. Precious memories.
The word gumbo is African, Bantu I’m told, meaning okra, one of the seeds that came to the New World via the cruel ships carrying human cargo. From my perspective, omit the okra and the concoction becomes soup. However, there are those who don’t care for okra and substitute file powder, a potion with Choctaw Indian ancestry made from dried sassafras root, also a thickener.
Joe Dale’s Cajun House in the Buckead section of Atlanta remains my choice for one of the South’s finest restaurants and Dale’s gumbo was spectacular, the real deal loaded with andouille sausage, shrimp, crabmeat, rice and elevated with hot spices and aromatic goodies. This was a file production with not a hint of okra. The hot French bread was replaced the moment it was gone and you could order good wines by the glass for under $4.00. Dale was an American original whose sauce, Dale’s Steak Seasoning, a delicious soy-sauce-based sauce/marinade is still being sold throughout the South and country from Florida to California.
Chef Marvin Woods prepared a turkey gumbo for me while I sat at a bar in his Miami Beach restaurant kitchen in 2004. Chef Marvin, who went on to star in Turner South Network’s hugely successful television show, “Home Plate,” and still has two popular cookbooks in print, served a lighter version of gumbo that had little fat, with some low country rice called Carolina Gold. We ate gumbo and drank wine, listening to the music of Ray Charles, doing what you’re supposed to do when celebrating friendship.
Good gumbo goes well with Ray Charles’ songs.
Like many other Southern dishes with African-Caribbean heritage, gumbo evolves, constantly reinventing itself. Gumbo Ya-Ya was the last meal I enjoyed while I was a guest at the luxurious Fairmont Hotel a few days before Katrina ravaged the place. Now reopened as The Roosevelt – the original name – I had Gumbo Ya-Ya at the suggestion of Jyl Benson, a renowned New Orleans business leader with close ties to legendary
restaurants like Galatoire’s.
Of course, it was delicious. What is the Ya-Ya, I asked? “It’s the same as a lagniappe,” Jyl explained. “A little something extra that enhances the gumbo, making very special.” I thought I detected a jigger of Madeira.
Craig Claiborne’s monumental book, Southern Cooking (Times Books, 1987) has several gumbo recipe variations. Chef John Folse, the brilliant cook, culinary educator and television cooking show pioneer has quite a gumbo anthology and some knockout recipes in his highly collectible, monumental treatise, The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine ( Folse & Company, 2004). Both books deserve a prominent place in a kitchen library.
Wines with gumbo? Of course, provided you heed a few rules. Nothing tannic, but lots of fruit. An easy start is Kluge Estate Viognier from Virginia, a Gewürztraminer or Riesling from New York’s Finger Lakes, Oregon or Washington State. For a red wine, you’ll never go wrong with any of the ten Cru Beaujolais.
When the gumbo is on the table and the wine poured, a Deep South toast is in order: bon appetit, y’all!
Flavors And More – October 2009