May 19, 2018
“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” – Confucius
Gumbo in the Air (Part 1) – In memory of my dear mother – 10/2/1918 – 5/14/2014
She and our close-knit family knew when the first cold draft blew through the floorboards of her historic home, gumbo season had arrived. Though a modest home, you could sense from the gallery-side rose garden that she kept, 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 file gumbo. With the opportunity for her to illuminate much brighter stolen from her as a domestic servant, she gladly surrendered to servitude to please everyone, especially her family. She had surrendered and accepted her humble station in life with pride.
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, 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.
Though she led most work on these 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 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 the 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’.
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 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.
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