Willie Wallace has been around Oxford for a long, long time. He has owned and operated Local Color all that while, and Willie’s endurance should make him a model for anyone else opening an alternative-style business. Willie is a jovial man with the attributes of Jove himself: strength, intelligence, and an overwhelmingly benign presence.
It was Willie who started me out on the gumbo thing. Willie is from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can and was about as exotic as escargot. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent a lot of time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups. Well, I think I was the one to mention a gumbo, and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?” Well, I think I tried to bluff my way through not knowing what a roux was for all of ten seconds before Carol and Willie both just started laughing, and I finally just had to admit I didn’t know what the hell a roux was, so they told me, and out of this embarrassing incident came a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. Thanks, Willie.
Like a lot of other folks, I’m really serious about my gumbo. A good gumbo takes time to prepare, and it also takes some presence of mind. The roux itself takes a considerable amount of attention and some practice despite aversions you may have heard to the contrary. A roux is a mixture of butter or some other fatty substance and flour cooked together for varying amounts of time, depending upon its final use. There are three types of roux: a brown roux, a blond roux, and a white roux. Each is used as a thickening ingredient in sauces, brown roux in brown sauces, blond roux for a host of other uses, and white roux for white sauce such as Béchamel or a Velouté.
Now, these are the classical precepts for a roux, and when the French settled Louisiana in the early 18th century, the cooks they brought with them followed these rules in their kitchens. But somewhere along the way the rouxs used in Louisiana came to be cooked far longer than the Continental kinds. Some authorities believe this came about because of the dalliances of Creole apprentices in the early restaurants of New Orleans, but however it came about, the brown roux of classical French cuisine, described as being a “good light brown color,” ended up being nearly black in the Louisiana version. This deep, rich roux gave whatever it was added to a depth and resonance hitherto unknown in French cookery, and indeed a good dark roux is today the basis for many of the most robust recipes in the formidable New Orleans arsenal of cookery.
This good dark roux is the same sort I use in my gumbo. I call it a beer-bottle roux because it is about the same color as a brown beer bottle. To make a roux for gumbo, I take a quarter cup of olive oil and a quarter cup of vegetable oil (bacon drippings are even better) and bring to a moderate heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet with high sides (a Dutch oven is perfect). Stir in about a 1/2 cup of plain flour. With a wooden spoon or a wire whisk, stir the flour briskly as it browns. Add a little more flour to the mixture—say a tablespoon—as it cooks until all the oil is absorbed. Stir continually, scraping the bottom frequently, until the roux is a rich, dark, almost mahogany color. If you scorch the roux, start over again. You can make this roux ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for use in soups and stews and sauces for beef or game and for étouffés.
To begin the gumbo, while the roux is hot, toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated. Then add a quart of warm stock. Fish stock is best, but if you have no fish stock, a rather weak chicken broth will suffice. Stir this mixture until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Add another quart of the stock. At this point you might want to put the mixture into a larger pot, since this recipe makes about six quarts of gumbo. Put the pot on a flame buster to keep the bottom from scorching, or else watch your gumbo very carefully and stir frequently but do not scrape the bottom of the pot. After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and two pounds of frozen sliced okra which has been rinsed under running water to reduce the mucilage, else the gumbo may become ropy. At this point, add about four heaping tablespoons of basil and fresh chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, three tablespoons of leaf thyme, a tablespoon of oregano (more if you want, but be quite careful because it will make your gumbo bitter), a tablespoon of black pepper, a tablespoon of white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and begin tasting. You may very well want to add more garlic, and you certainly will want to add some salt. Some people like to put a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a little lemon juice in at this point, but I add this at the end. Also adjust your liquid, adding more if needed. Cook this mixture on low heat for an hour or so, then turn off the heat and let the flavors set.
Now you’re ready to add your seafood. Take about two pounds of small shrimp, and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic, so you might want to taste your gumbo and use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take also about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach them in a little of your stock water until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture. Then poach two dozen oysters in their liquor until their edges just curl and add them to the mixture.
Bring the gumbo back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot as at this point you have a huge investment of time, care and money on your hands. If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder, good hot crusty bread and melon. To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can also make a good vegetarian black-eyed pea gumbo by using a vegetable stock and adding a quart or so of cooked dried or fresh black-eyed peas using the basic seafood spice mixture You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken, just be sure to blanch the sausage first to leech the fat out before you add it to the gumbo mixture, else the sausage fat will overpower the other tastes.
Be creative; do whatever you want. You might want it hotter, thicker, thinner or whatever. You might not like so much celery or onion or bell pepper. You might not like tomatoes. Please yourself. But be aware that gumbo is sort of a Zen thing; it takes a certain presence of mind to make correctly, and you have to be involved at all times. It takes devotion.