Her name is Victoria, and we hugged as if we’d known each other forever and had allowed too many days to pass without seeing each other, but the truth is that we were meeting for the first time. She followed me from the front door through my shotgun home to the last room; the one with the most sunlight and the music blaring. By the time we arrived we were friends, and it was as if she’d walked into her own kitchen. From the large brown bag that she carried, she lifted a heavy pot and set it on the stove. It was on loan from her aunt Linda, passed on from her mother before she died. It gleamed silver, but had acquired spots of rich brown patina at its base from age and use. We both shrieked at how beautiful it was. That pot was our altar and we spent the next eight hours feeding it.
We began with a drink. An old-fashioned, made with too much whiskey and not enough sugar. We skipped the cherry. Next came the music. Soul. Then, we were ready. And between the stories, the volley of questions, the shine of tears even in laughter, the jokes which have now become inside jokes, and more drinks, she diced, chopped, stirred, flavored, and managed to give me step by step instructions without hesitation or missing a beat in the preparations. We spent the day standing at the stove, never more than a few inches from each other and I watched her every move as she made her gumbo. Her recipe has evolved slightly since she made her first pot at sixteen and has been fine tuned from her mother’s version into her own. As we cooked, the colors changed through each iteration or addition of ingredient. The roux that began as sandy beige became a dark mahogany. Okra, celery, onions, peppers, and tomatoes were lined in bright shades of green, white, and red. Pieces of chicken were browned and added to the mix. “What’s the most important ingredient,” I asked? “My soul, and okra,” she said, “I call this Southern soul food, because I’m a Southern girl. I have a Southern girl’s hands. They were made to make gumbo,” she said laughingly, “and it’s soul food because I’m making it from my soul. I’m cooking from my soul. And the okra is what holds it all together, the juices and the flavors. I love the texture of it. It adds another layer of flavor. This is a pot of goodness right here.”
The name gumbo, or “gombo" as we call it in Haiti, is derived from the African Bantu dialect word “ki ngombo,” which means okra. Though we also use a roux, for Haitians there is no “gombo” without okra. I was five years old when I witnessed my first pot of gumbo being made. I remember my grandmother calling me in from playing with my brother and my cousin, washing my hands herself to ensure that not an errant speck of dirt remained under a fingernail, drying them quickly, lifting me up onto a stool and instructing me to watch. Thoughts of the game that I had just been playing evaporated as I watched her and my mother move around each other, cooking without hesitation or measurement as if from some ancient memory that only they were privy to. My 102 year old great-grandmother sat just a few feet away in an old rocking chair, barefoot and wearing her usual white dress and white bandana, smoking a pipe and shouting out an incessant string of instructions and questions. She was fully blind at this point, but knew exactly at which point they had arrived in the cooking process just by the aroma rising from the large pot. At one point, my grandmother brought over a large bowl filled with freshly cut okra and made me sink a hand into the bowl. It felt slimy, and slippery, and rough at the same time. She covered my hand with hers and squeezed it gently so that the juice from the okra slid between our fingers. I don’t remember what she said, if anything, but the memory that has remained from that moment is the charcoal tint of her skin against the brown shade of mine intertwined in the green lushness of what we consider the heart of gumbo.
Many years later, I asked my mother for the recipe and she looked at me blankly as if she couldn’t fathom why I didn’t just know how to make it, as if this was innate knowledge that I had somehow not tapped into. “You’ve watched me make it a hundred times!” She exclaimed. And I, with my fancy culinary school education and the well-taught need to know exactly which ingredients, when to add them, and for how long, exclaimed back at her, “I know, but I need the measurements and the timing!” – “Martine, you know how to cook it! Just add what you think is right, stop before it’s too much, and when it’s ready, eat it.” I finally did get that recipe but only by watching her a few more times and taking meticulous notes.
I’m an island girl who grew up surrounded by bursts of colors, the heat of which emanated through every nook and cranny of my childhood; my mother’s brightly colored dresses, the rainbow of ribbons in my hair, my father’s robin’s egg blue Volkswagen, the vibrant iridescent swath of feathers created by our hens and roosters as they squawked and squealed and hopped wildly while my brother chased them around our yard. Even the sounds of my childhood had colors. I grew up wrapped in the blanket of the melodies that my mother and her sisters, their mother and her mother, created as they bustled about, mothering, caretaking, cajoling, threatening, crying, laughing, shrieking, singing, cooking, praying, hoping and teaching. Their voices, raised or whispered, radiated green lushness, fire hot reds, golden yellows, cool shades of blues, and in their most fearsome moments, deep black. My memories shimmer in colors, and all of the colors radiate from those women in my life, and nestled at the heart was always a plate of food, then and now.
There were three of us in the kitchen when Victoria and I began our gumbo, and by the time the sun had begun to set and the pot was ready to give up its bounty, we were many more than that. It was unplanned and spontaneous, as it should be when gumbo is being served. Gumbo is not to be eaten by one or two. It’s made for a crowd whether by design or happenstance. It’s not fine china or fancy silverware, it’s mismatched bowls and living room chairs pushing against dining room chairs, and the odd patio chair, crowding around a table too small for the numbers. It’s unexpected drop-ins. It’s potato salad on the side, “just because”, she says. It’s loud talk and loud music, and it’s seconds and thirds. It’s filled Tupperware being pushed into hands as they leave your home to return to their own. It’s family, born or chosen. It’s all the colors.
For the roux:
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 cup flour
For the gumbo:
- 1 chicken leg quarters, cut up
- 2 tablespoons Tony Cachere's Creole spice blend*
- 2 pounds spicy smoked sausage, sliced ½ inch thick
- 6 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 2 cups sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- sprinkle of thyme
- 2 dried or fresh bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- 3 quarts chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Filé powder, to taste** (optional)
- Tabasco, to taste
- 4-6 cups cooked Louisiana White Rice
Season the chicken pieces with the Creole spice blend while you prepare the vegetables.
Prepare all of your vegetables before starting your roux.
In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning. If your roux begins to burn, you must start over.
Once your roux is ready, add the onions and stir into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 more minutes.
Add the seasoned chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the sliced smoked sausage and andouille and stir for about a minute.
Add the celery, bell peppers, tomato, and garlic, and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.
Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
Add the chopped okra, and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper, several dashes of filé powder, and Tabasco, all to taste.
Simmer for an additional 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo.
Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice.
*If you’re unable to find Tony Cachere, you can make your own creole seasoning by using this recipe.
**A slurry of cornstarch can be substituted for File powder, though you won’t get the distinctive “root beer” flavor that File is known for.