Posted on October 18, 2007 in Other writing

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Cajun and Creole roots run deep and where every recipe, it seems, begins, “First, you make a roux.” Though my parents were from Tennessee, they loved food and wine, and they fit in well among the justly renowned home cooks of the bayou country. Gumbo was daily fare in Louisiana for New Orleans socialites, LSU professors, and gator wrestlers alike. It was true that you needed roux to make it, but Mama always said that good stock was the real secret.
Through the years, Mama’s been proven right time and time again: I’ve found that it’s certainly the stock that makes a soup or a sauce; it can make a restaurant as well. (If there’s a stockpot going continually on the back burner in a restaurant kitchen, half the battle is won.) Gumbo, whether thick Louisiana style or the soupy Carolina version, both of which are poured over steaming white rice, depends on it.
To make gumbo from scratch, then, you’ll need some roux (also made from scratch), homemade stock, and, well, time. I usually make big batches of both roux and stock and freeze them in smaller quantities so that I always have both of them on hand. Then all I need to do is to assemble the dish and let it simmer.
“You can’t rush good cooking,” Mama said to me when I was about five. We had moved to the South Carolina lowcountry, the subtropical coastal plain that is the bayou country’s twin. She taught me how a slowly simmering stockpot of shells and vegetables turns a house into a home, and that homemade is always better.
Most folks think gumbo is from Louisiana, but in the lowcountry, sandlappers, as the residents call themselves, will tell you that the first Creole cuisine emerged in Charleston, where the West African slaves taught their masters how to grow rice and how to cook one-pot meals that harnessed the incredible bounty of the land, providing not just sustenance, but joy. Gumbo is a West African word for okra; the word, plant, and dish have more in common with West Africa than with France, whence came so many Carolina and Louisiana settlers, with their roux.
One-pot meals in West Africa have for centuries been thickened with naturally mucilaginous okra. The thick quality of the dish led to its being called by the very ingredient that made it that way. When okra wasn’t available, those French settlers would probably have thickened the soup with roux, a cooked paste of fat and flour. In Louisiana, the local Choctaw Indians showed the settlers how to use the ground leaves of sassafras trees – called filé — to thicken “gumbo,” even when there was no okra in the dish at all. Mucilaginous was the name of the game.
You can make gumbo with chicken or game, with sausage or ham, with just vegetables, or, perhaps most commonly, with shellfish. When I was growing up, we spent our weekends on our boat on the coast. Mama would send me out into the marshes with cast nets, buckets, and traps, to bring home the shrimp, crabs, and oysters that she used in the one-pot meals that were traditional in the lowcountry and practical in the boat’s galley.
If there’s one thing that separates the Creole kitchens of Charleston and New Orleans from the rest of the country, it’s our love of rice. I’m always amazed when I’m served flavorless converted rice, which is more trouble to cook than the real thing:
          Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add half as much rice (raw,long-grain, white) as water and allow to simmer, covered, for exactly thirteen minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit for twelve minutes more, never lifting the lid. Fluff with a fork (never stir with a spoon) and serve immediately. Each cup of raw rice will make two cups of cooked.
Gumbo takes time, but it’s mostly unattended. If you don’t have roux and stock on hand, you can make them at the same time (my oven method of making roux is a lot easier than Mama’s old way of constantly stirring the pot for an hour!). The rice cooks during the gumbo’s last half-hour of simmering.
This easy shrimp gumbo is one of my favorite dishes. It’s a good way to serve a crowd (you can multiply the dish without fear of failure if you want to serve more than the eight hungry shrimpers I know this will feed). Like many of the one-pot Creole dishes that I grew up with, this one needs only a little cornbread (made from scratch, of course) on the side and a fresh green salad afterwards. The dish will take about three hours from the making of the roux to serving.