Portland, Oregon

Family Gumbo

By Sarah Broussard Weaver

Marrying a Cajun, like me, usually means good food for the rest of your days. Unfortunately for my husband, I didn’t know how to cook at all. Kraft mac and cheese and sandwiches were the best I could do. I slowly changed these sad dinners into better options, learning to follow recipes on the sides of cans and boxes before graduating to cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t have the right recipe for gumbo, though. The gumbo you need is imbued with family history and memories; it’s served in a bowl you have used for cereal since you were 4, and you look around your childhood kitchen while eating it. The dining-room music is your mom’s voice. You don’t have faith that you can replicate this in your own home, and neither do I.

After 12 years of living in Texas, I was tired of eating authentic gumbo only twice a year. The next time we went to Louisiana, I vowed to watch my mom make gumbo while writing down every step. I especially needed to learn the secrets of the burned flour and butter that transform into a magical substance called roux. I’d called my mom, asking for her recipe, but she couldn’t give it to me. It ran through her blood. There were no precise measurements; the order of operations and ingredients varied in a confusing way. I decided the only way to learn was to get out my notebook and prepare to record history. It would begin with the roux, the dark brown substance that is the mother of gumbo.

My mom pulled out her ingredients as I busily wrote, excited to receive these generational secrets. My dad began boiling potatoes and eggs for potato salad, then set up and filled the rice cooker. Mom tore open a plastic bag of sand-colored powder as I leaned closer to read the label: “Gumbo Base.” What fresh hell was this? With a righteous anger, I demanded to know why she was making fake gumbo, when I was here to learn the secrets of real gumbo. Mom was taken aback. She said, “I’ve been using this instead of roux for years now. Everyone uses it, even Maw Maw Bruce.”

This made it all so much worse. My 95-year-old grandmother, whose first language was Cajun French, raised swimming in the bayou, using an outhouse and wearing flour sack dresses, had resorted to using some kind of predatory mix for people who don’t know how to make gumbo. Life was unraveling, nothing was sacred.

I opened my eyes — they’d clenched shut with the horror of Mom’s revelation. I controlled my voice as I slowly asked if she could show me the authentic way, instead.

“Awww, it takes too long. This tastes just as good. It’s a shortcut,” Mom said.

If I had wanted a shortcut I would have used a Zatarain’s box mix. But there was no changing Mom’s mind — she reminded me that I had eaten and loved her gumbos over the past few years. They were all made with this Gumbo Base. So was the gumbo I’d devoured at Maw Maw’s house three days ago. I crumpled up the sheet of paper with the beginnings of my recipe. The Secrets of the Roux were not to be mine that day.

Later that morning, gumbo simmered in a silver, iron pot, releasing a magical scent. This was still a vital part of the smell of my childhood — gumbo, old books and Sweet Honesty perfume. It felt a little cheaper now. At the visit’s end, I brought home two bags of Gumbo Base and eyed them askance for six months. Next time my mom visited, I offered the bags to her — to make us a gumbo.

Things change, I know. After all, my grandmother has a bathroom now and doesn’t wear flour-sack dresses anymore. I guess I can argue the changes, or I can use my mouth to eat gumbo instead. But I’m not happy about my family turning to this newfangled savior, Gumbo Base. No, I’m already wondering if I can use an Emeril cookbook to learn the Elusive Secrets of the Damn Roux.