The Reinvention of Gumbo
I love everything about soul food. Its touching history, heritage, and ability to make even the crankiest person magically start talking about sunshine and rainbows make for a fascinating, if highly trendy, cuisine. So when my good friend Tasha offered to teach me how to make it, I jumped at the occasion. A fabulous chef-turned-social worker, Tasha is the queen of soul food. From her mouth watering fried chicken to extra flavorful dirty rice, she brings maximum flavor out of the simplest of ingredients. Her spice cabinet is a flaming testimonial to this skill and is better stocked than most people’s pantries.
We decided on gumbo, a dish I taught myself to make several years ago when I was cooking in London. The thing is, the British palate just isn’t trained to handle the flavor bomb that is a good gumbo, and so I had to dumb it down a little. While a somewhat acceptable version came to be, I knew very well that this was nowhere near as authentic as some of the versions I’ve eaten in the US. So gumbo got kicked out of the repertoire and I went on to focus on mastering meat pie and Victoria sponge.
With that massive digression in mind, we took ourselves to Berkeley Bowl, a fantastic supermarket that carries literally every ingredient on the planet, and went hunting for gumbo making supplies. I received a crash course on the use of gumbo file (ground sassafras leaves), seasoned salt (basically MSG in a jar) and Cajun seasoning. It took a lot of convincing to leave behind the gumbo mix since it’s essentially flour and spices. After all, these aren’t in shortage at any self-respecting cook’s home.
So we got home and the crucial question came up. Roux or no roux. Roux is a classic component of French sauce making and is composed of melted butter and flour that are cooked off to different colors depending on the depth of flavor desired. Because of the heavy French influence in Louisiana, roux has immersed itself in the local cuisine, with some variants. For one, the sort of roux used in gumbo is oil, not butter based. It is also much darker than is generally used in a béchamel sauce. Many people consider this the base of any good gumbo, but since I don’t eat flour and it honestly takes 45 minutes of constant stirring to make a roux worthy of its name, we decided to skip it. Purists can suck it, we’re busy women!
Another crucial point is that as one of god’s chosen people, I avoid pork. (Bacon isn’t pork, it’s from the bacon animal). This automatically meant we wouldn’t be using andouille sausage to flavor this already dubious sounding concoction. Oh dear. Calamity. The ample amount of chicken thighs and chicken and artichoke sausages filling up my father’s freezer would have to do. Being a gracious and polite person, Tasha didn’t say anything but her usually chipper face was beginning to fall. I pretended not to notice and started cutting up the holy trinity, composed of celery, onion, and green bell pepper. It's essentially the Creole equivalent of mirepoix. She seasoned the chicken with a generous amount of a reassuringly simple spice blend called “Cajun seasoning” and battled the appallingly crappy electric stove to get a decent sear on the skin. Far too many agonizing minutes later, we managed something close to golden brown and said “fuck it good enough”. The trinity went in with more seasoning, and in the meantime I sautéed the sausages in butter as per Tasha’s firm instructions. Yes ma’am.
We then added water and the chicken to the pot and forgot about it, spending a couple hours gossiping and her trying to convince me to buy leopard-print eyeglasses. I threw in the extra fatty sausages and she picked and shredded the chicken, then added gumbo file to thicken the broth. Success! We managed to recreate this family classic without sacrificing the soul warming qualities that gumbo is so gifted at generating.