Several times a year here at the magazine we’ll receive a query from a New Orleans expatriate trapped out there in the hinterland who wants to do an article about missing this city from afar. This idea has been done so many times that we never go for it, however, before dismissing the note there’s a little game I play with myself. It is called, “Finding the Gumbo Line.” Invariably there will be a sentence where the author laments about missing gumbo.
There is a lot to miss being away from this town, including red beans, anything with remoulade sauce, sucking the heads, Lake Pontchartrain soft shell crabs – but the reference is always to gumbo; maybe because the word itself is so plebeian, and it also sounds sort of comic. Plus gumbo is so diverse – like poor boys, it can come in many varieties. There is a sense of democracy to it.
Yet it’s a topic not to be taken lightly. Just as in democracy, there are certain principles that I believe in on matters of gumbo – including the following:
• Don’t mix meat with seafood. I probably stand alone on this one, including in this edition where our writer highlighted several gumbos that did just that. To me, though, that’s two different types of flavors. Give me chicken and sausage or seafood of any type, but let each have its own identity. (On a related issue, I don’t believe in wearing a Saints jersey with a Zephyrs cap.)
• Okra is good on any occasion. Many people feel otherwise and use filé instead. But okra adds a stronger flavor and, depending how many times the gumbo pot is reheated, transforms from slivers to a hearty green mush. Use enough okra and at some point you can eat gumbo with a fork.
• Always have sweet potato or potato salad. In many Cajun parishes gumbo is accompanied by the sweet potato, which helps complement the flavor; in St. Martin’s Parish potato salad is a tradition. Here is the surprising part: The sweet potato, or the potato salad scoop, is actually put in the gumbo and then picked at with the spoon while consuming the gumbo. It is an efficient, highly recommended way of doing things that also doesn’t dirty any extra plates.
• Finally – and this might sound like heresy – in preparing gumbo, instead of actually cooking a roux, some of those pre-packed roux mixes are pretty good and can be used. But, you didn’t read that here.