The Tao of Gumbo

Willie Wallace, a jovial man with the attributes of Jove himself: strength, intelligence, and an overwhelmingly benign presence, has been around Oxford for a long, long time.

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. 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 a white roux for a cheese or cream sauce.

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 roux 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, is 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 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. Chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine, though some purists will disagree. Stir this mixture vigorously until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Transfer to a heavy six to eight quart pot, add another quart of the stock and put the pot over a low flame with a buster and stir frequently. 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 dried 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 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 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 (20-25 ct.), and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic; use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take 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 back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot. I can’t emphasize the importance of using a flame buster. If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper. 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 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.

This is my gumbo. It’s a good one because it follows precepts, and you must know the rules before you break them. In time, you will find your own gumbo, and discover that it, too, takes a certain presence of mind.

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