“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” – Confucius
Just as in Thanksgiving kicking off the mirliton season, the Christmas holidays kick off the gumbo season in New Orleans, especially for Black Creole families.
Mirliton is also referred to as chayote squash. It is a summer squash that has a taste of melon and pecan. During the holidays traditional creole families half, boil, scrape the fiber out of the shell, thensauté it with onion, garlic, bell pepper, celery, parsley, and spices, then adding Italian breadcrumbs, ham, and shrimp. We then stuff the mixture into the hollow mirliton shells and bake, topped with butter. This is very delicious and one of my all-time favorite Creole dishes.
Gumbo is New Orleans’ most popular dish. This is a traditional meal all over the state of Louisiana but is especially popular among black families, especially roles. The ingredients may vary from family to family, neighborhood to neighborhood, and in various parts of the state. But we do tend to agree that either the gumbo is going to be filé Gumbo or Okra Gumbo.
Filé Gumbo is thickened by filé (dried and ground sassafras leaves) and pan-roasted flour, called a roux. Okra Gumbo is more popular among roles. It obviously contains okra, tomatoes, ham, shrimp, and crab, but typically does not contain the variety of ingredients that file gumbo does.
Gumbo is New Orleans’s melting pot dish. The name is derived from a West African word for okra. Filé comes from the Choctaw NativeAmerican Indians. And roux is a much darker version of the French sauce base.
A SHORT HISTORY OF GUMBO – by Stanley Dry –
Of all the dishes in the realm of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is the most famous and, very likely, the most popular. Gumbo crosses all class barriers, appearing on the tables of the poor as well as the wealthy. Although ingredients might vary greatly from one cook to the next, and from one part of the state to another, a steaming bowl of fragrant gumbo is one of life’s cherished pleasures, emblematic of Louisiana as chili is of Texas.
Here is a story about how my humble and beautiful mother Eunice executed her gumbo preparation ritual. Kevy
Gumbo in the Air – In memory of my dear mother – 10/2/1918 – 5/14/2014
Back in the late 1960s, my mother and our close-knit family knew that when the first cold draft blew through the floorboards of our historic home, the gumbo season had arrived.
Though a modest home, we could sense from the gallery-side rose garden that she kept impeccably, the hallway piano and furniture aligned with photos of grandchildren, to the floors clean enough to eat from, her home and family reigned supreme, even above herself. She delighted now in beginning to prepare the season’s first Creole filé gumbo. This feat would give her the opportunity to illuminate much brighter than when she served as a domestic servant for a wealthy white family. She gladly surrendered to servitude to please everyone, especially her family. Now she was surrendering by gladly accepting her humble station in life with pride.
My mother Eunice had a hard life but somehow sustained through unimaginable challenges. her black Catholic faith gave her determination and kept her going. Having endured through the black plague as a child, the Great Depression, the birth of 11 children, the death of 2, as well as, enduring marriage to my violent and alcoholic father, she proudly told her survival stories as family members attentively listened. With certainty, this occurred as she worked on one of her many tedious seasonal projects, such as when preparing crayfish bisque, washing and changing curtains on her home’s 35 windows, and at gumbo time. These tasks took hours to complete and with her kids involved, she had our undivided attention.
Though she led most of the work on the major undertakings, she made use of having such a large family, and carefully took advantage of the free labor, but only on simple tasks. Maybe tasks like peeling shrimp, but never deveining them. Chopping the’holy trinity’ seasoning (onion, celery, and bell pepper), but never browning the roux. There were details in this recipe that only she knew how to ‘do right’. As kids, she told us many times that if she wanted something ‘done right’ she’d do it her damn self. We would hear this line often, especially when we didn’t make our beds to perfection.
A feisty woman with passions for Catholic saints, especially for St. Anthony, ‘for he’s never failed her’, hard work, and her gumbo recipe. Though her determination seemed special, she was not the only one. Many humble New Orleans Creole women also felt the gumbo breeze of each season.
Before surrendering her passion for preparing gumbo to old age and frailty, she’d once again prepared this culinary delight to the attraction of her family, friends, and neighbors for weeks to come. She grew up during The Depression and told stories to us as she went through this methodical and lengthy process. At a vibrant 80 years young, she had prepared nearly 150 batches. I calculated it for she prepared gumbo only at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and perhaps on one additional special Sunday, say for a birthday or even for a funeral. …About 3-4 times a year. She started cooking at age 10. Now you do the math.
She actually started preparing the dish months in advance, storing ham bones, turkey parts, crabs, and shrimp in preparation for this day. She never bought the frozen seafood, ‘no siree!’ She only used the fresh shrimp from a fisherman on the side of Claiborne Avenue, where most black mothers did bargain shopping at neighborhood meat, super, and dollar store markets. Sometimes when the timing synchronized, the Seafood man or ‘Okra Man’rode through the impoverished Uptown neighborhood in an old pickup and parked it on a corner with his wares to sell. From his megaphone, he shouted, “I got, Okra, Blue Crabs, Shrimp”, and anything else gumbo, which is nearly everything, until Eunice and many black mothers sent their kids out to the street corner to get a pound of ‘this or that’.
Whether it’s watermelon, tomatoes, zucchini or cucumbers — Mr. Okra’s got what you need. TWILA’s Taylor Frey introduces to this New Orleans icon who sells produce from the back of his pick-up and brings a unique flavor to the streets of the Crescent City.
She carefully pulled bite-sized meat from thawed carcasses and placed them in bowls, boiling the bones for broth. Shrimps and crabs were cleaned and prepared, but put in the fridge, for they were added last. She used to add oysters but stopped altogether because they could spoil the gumbo, not allowing her to freeze some for future Sunday dinner surprises. Frugality ran through her veins. She did not believe in waste. She knew how to stretch a dollar; she could ‘make it holla’ too.
We had limited tasks to perform, such as bringing items to her or cleaning up after her, and of course, eating 2-3 bowls when ready. By the time Eunice brought all the preparation together, bowls covered the kitchen table and inside the fridge. With the ‘trinity’, seafood, chopped meats, sausages, broths all prepped, she stood over the stove with a cup of all-purpose flour in her hand aimed and ready to start the roux.
As the roux browned everyone took a bit of a breather, namely her. We all knew that after the roux, broth, spices, and other ingredients were combined, the gumbo would make itself, and only required stirring and an attentive eye on the stove. We could not mistake the nutty smell of roux browning to the color of perfection. That smell signaled to me, and the rest of the household, that we could go out to run errands and play. To her, it called her to the next domestic chore, likely already in the making. She would say, ‘a man can work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.’ Her work never seemed to end, but she had the patience of Job.
As a proud maid, she maintained humility, finding joy in serving others, her family and her employer’s family. She also cooked, cleaned, and raised 5 children for a white affluent St. Charles Avenue family. She worked for them for nearly 50 years.
Often her gumbo ritual began, after serving her employer’s family, then preparing and serving her own family a fish-on-Friday meal. We enjoyed freshly made filé gumbo on Sunday or on holidays. Getting a serving made us feel obligated to attend mass. Okra Gumbo was a type of gumbo we ate occasionally on weekdays. Eunice earmarked each day of the week for certain dishes, Leftovers Monday, fried foods Wednesdays, Beans Thursday, Seafood Friday, and Special meal Sunday. Her home ran like a well-maintained piece of machinery. Her budget never ‘runneth’ over.
Eunice, who aged very gracefully, with what Creole folks said was ‘an olive complexion’, meaning not too light, but lighter than brown, stunned with charm. She had ‘good hair’, very fine, curly, and often unruly. Looking at an old 1932 photo of her, at 18, she looked like a young Sade. She looked slightly Cuban, yet Ethiopian. While preparing gumbo she told us how her grandfather, from Cuba, favored her because of her light skin. We learned about her dropping out of grade school to care for her dying mother and grandfather, abandonment with 9 of us after my father died. But she managed to keep fun memories even growing up as a poor ghetto child. Helping her with the gumbo had a residual benefit of acquainting us with our heritage, as well as, revealing to us family secrets.
Her prior husbands, both jealous of her beauty and quite insecure, accused her of flirting or cheating, but she never did. Even though the rage of her sometimes violent and alcoholic husbands, she maintained faithfulness to Catholicism, and to fulfilling her roles including serving her delicious gumbo, when the wind beckoned her to. She never divorced. Her steadfastness and toughness, since her early years, kept her committed. She may have enjoyed ‘carrying the cross’. She coined herself ‘a tough titty’ as she was exceptionally resilient.
By the time her day-long gumbo regiment neared completion and rendered entrancing aromas, she found relief. You couldn’t tell though, because she would look a mess. With her tattered and worn housecoat of many years soiled with roux drippings, shrimp and crab juices, and her hair all over her head, she sat down to break for a liver cheese and mayo sandwich. She found solace though, in the unmistakable aroma that permeated up and downstairs, and throughout the Irish Channel neighborhood. She found joy in serving this treat to her family.
By Sunday she looked radiantly beautiful and proceeded to attend mass. She wanted to be admired by God too, even more than by her family. Her deeply divine spirit influenced everyone’s admiration for her. She greeted every encounter on her church stroll with an addicting smile. Though I could see the current and historical challenges in her face, hair, clothing, and varicose veins as she damn-near slaves for others over the years, she never revealed all that she’d endured, when she socialized in public. She liked to look good. Her stylishness only decorated her already infectious smile. My six sisters groomed her, always keeping her current, as vigorously as she attempted to groom them for domestic servitude at home. It didn’t work for any of those often-bitter equally strong personalities, though.
When the Creole filé gumbo wind blew through, it didn’t blow just for Eunice. It blew for nearly every Creole mother in New Orleans. They got the summons as if they had read smoke signals in the sky. Most of the city prepared for tasting a variety of different gumbos, as all creole mothers thought theirs tasted the best.
Eunice prepared the best filé gumbo according to me and all who knew her. Her spirit was in the soup! …Not the spices, roux, or other ingredients. The sacrifice, love, and smiles were the secret and unique ingredients. The stories and wisdom she shared entertained us each time.
These magical years will remain with me forever, as will the pain and disappointment that we all accepted when fragile health took this gift away from her, and from us forever.
Days like those have faded from our day to day living, but not the stories, the recipes, and the love Eunice shared with us all.
Planted deep in our hearts are the memories that seem to surface every time the first cold wind of gumbo season blows. It’s blowing now.
Here’s a great written Gumbo Recipe – Kevy Michaels
Creole Gumbo Recipe From Mrs. Elie – Invite your friends and family over to dig into the Creole version of this classic Southern dish
Read more at the Smithsonian Magazine – Follow on @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
Here is an authentic New Orleans Gumbo recipe that looks the way my mother prepared it. She, of course, had to cut corners on all of the more expensive ingredients. She stored some ingredients that would go into the gumbo months in advance, such as ham bones, turkey parts, and chicken parts. She would usually buy the sausage and seafood fresh on the day before preparation.
My mother would add bay leaves, parsley, onion, garlic, bell pepper, and celery, unlike this recipe. She added more spices but didn’t add tomatoes. She did not add okra to filé gumbo. She did add tomatoes and okra to Okra Gumbo, which is a different kind of gumbo popular among Creole families.
This recipe does, however, come pretty close to my mother’s recipes. Remember each family, neighborhood, and different regions of Louisiana had its variation of gumbo. All of these areas also have a history of slavery, consistent with gumbo’s historical roots tracing back to Africa.
Gumbo 101 with Chef Leah Chase – 111,892 views – NOURISH – Published on Jul 3, 2018
Note: Ms. Chase discusses Gumbo Z’Herbs, which only Creoles know about. Gumbo Z’Herbs is a vegetarian gumbo with about 7 different types of field greens.
There is also okra gumbo, which I mentioned early. The focus of this post is on File Gumbo. This is the most popular gumbo in New Orleans, and among my family and friends.
What goes into an authentic Louisiana Gumbo? In restaurants, kitchens, and cookbooks all over America, you find menu items masquerading as Louisiana Gumbo. So, how do you know it’s the real thing? The iconic Queen of Creole Cuisine, New Orleans Chef Leah Chase has the scoop on gumbo. Watch this episode to make sure your next bowl is the real deal. ~~~
Welcome to NOURISH with rocket scientist and whole hog barbecue pitmaster, Dr. Howard Conyers! Think of this show as food for your mind, body, and soul. Host and Co-Producer: Dr. Howard Conyers Writer and Co-Producer: Christina Melton Director and Post Production Supervisor: Donald “D.Ray!” Washington Videographer: Bennie Robertson Graphics: Ryan Golden Original Music: Brass-a-holics from New Orleans, LA The Mike Foster Project from Baton Rouge, LA Produced by PBS Digital Studios and Louisiana Public Broadcasting Made possible with funding from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
“Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow internet service to see who they really are.” – Will Ferrell
Gumbo preparation requires patience on the part of the cook and the guest. I wanted to make light of the virtue of patience with this humorous video. Kevy
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