By L. Kasimu Harris
I don’t eat everyone’s gumbo. Never did. If I don’t like it, I ain’t got time to devise a plan to abscond and chuck it.
Gumbo is among the dishes, along with red beans and rice or spaghetti and meatballs, I almost never order at restaurants. I love those dishes — at home, where my dad probably makes a better gumbo and without pork. But this winter in New Orleans, many a day was unseasonably cold, and I feasted on gumbo at every eatery I visited. My dad, LeRoy Harris, makes a pot of gumbo for most holidays and sometimes just because. I eagerly await the announcement: “The gumbo is ready.” Long looked forward to that. And since Christmas 2011, I anticipate the gift of laughter, when a suspect pot of gumbo goes viral and gets roasted on the internet.
These failed social-media chefs still have a leg up on me. They attempted. I’m still unable to make gumbo, but I’m closer. I did interview my dad on his recipe, with begins with brown roux that’s thin and flavorful. He makes a gallon and a half or two gallons each time. He chops the seasoning by hand.
“You get a slow release when you cook it,” he says.
But my dad does use a food processor to grind up the chicken gizzards — I didn’t know I was eating that. He also boils the wing tips and shrimp heads for a stock and says, “It gives you the good flavor.” I know I need to boil it until the onion caramelizes and the bell pepper breaks down to avoid big chunks when eating. Then, he starts adding ingredients like the hot sausage and chicken. The shrimp is the last thing he puts in. He says the roux is basically where the flavors are at and I need to add it gradually until I achieve the desired consistency.
“So, a gallon of gumbo, tell us the pounds. Like a pound of shrimp yadda, yadda, yadda,” I ask.
“Depends on what you want,” my father replies in his typical relaxed fashion.
“Give us a guesstimate,” I prod.
“Depends on what you want,” he says, unbothered.
“What’s a good base? I know you can't put no four or five pounds of shrimp in there. What do you typically put? That’s the way I’ll put it.”
“Well, a pound and a half, two pounds,” he responds.
He also says preparing the seasoning takes two hours. After that, it’s another hour or hour and a half.
“The key is just to do it,” he says and chuckles.
Gumbo, in its current iteration, is a dish made for New Orleans, with a hat tip to the rest of the Gulf South. The “Gulf” is the crux for the gateway that received contributions from other cultures including African, French, Native American, and Spanish and made them into a way of life unlike any other place in the world. Gumbo is the face of New Orleans and its co-leasing of cultures. Gumbo is derived from the Central Bantu word kigombo, meaning okra. African slaves brought their love for a thin fish stew with okra to Louisiana. During the next century, the dish expanded to other cultures, and their kitchens adapted this dish that is still served. More importantly, the core ingredients of gumbo — shrimps, crabs, oyster, and filé — are all prevalent in the Gulf South.
My run on gumbo started on two different trips to Peche, in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. I always get a cup. Their roux is dark and thick and consistently flavorful. Every bite has a shrimp, crab meat, or an oyster. Both times, it was my appetizer and I followed it up with the duck pasta.
Then, a few days before Christmas, the McDowells visited from Slidell, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi. I had met Jeff and his son David at an Ole Miss vs. Tulane baseball game in 2009. We all went to Frankie and Johnnies, a neighborhood joint in uptown New Orleans, where the walls are adorned with sports memorabilia and photos. Their gumbo also has a thick roux and surprised me with its full taste. When I dine there, I usually get fried seafood and just didn't expect the gumbo to be good. On the day before New Year's Eve, I ate gumbo at Annunciation in the Warehouse District. It seemed like a place that deserves wider recognition.
Before social media, aside from eating it, what did one do with a good bowl of gumbo? And without social media, how will we know when someone is bastardizing the venerable dish? I think back to Christmas Eve 2011 when all was well until Reagan Gomez, an actor, and a Detroit native posted a photo of her gumbo.
It looked like a vegetable soup. The internet let her have it.
In New Orleans, the hashtag #thatgumbo started trending. Folks took issue with her choice of vegetables and the color of her “roux?”
Then, on Christmas Day 2017, Atlanta's mayor-elect (now mayor), Keisha Lance Bottoms, caught some Ls after she posted a photo of her gumbo. This was the day after the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-13.
Gumbo purists quickly picked apart her use of a gumbo base and for not making a roux, and for using snow crabs instead of the more traditional blue crabs. The comments and memes were funny, and some people actually came to Bottoms’ defense. My dad said it was not that big of a deal to use the gumbo base.
“It saves a little time, that’s all,” he said. “Some people just like to go through the process of doing extra work.”
I asked what would he say to potential decorators: “Try it and see if you like it.” I finally tried potato salad in my gumbo and since then, I’d had it a few more times. But my stomach contracts when I think about eggs in my gumbo. I thought it was a new thing, but apparently, it’s a tradition among some Cajuns.
But neither #thatgumbo, nor Mayor Bottoms’ base, nor eggs in gumbo came close to the vitriol and collective regurgitation in New Orleans when Disney in 2016 published a recipe called "Princess Tiana's Healthy Gumbo,” named for a character in “The Princess and the Frog.”
First, commenters were upset about the omission of a roux. Secondly, how come Disney didn’t just ask Chef Leah Chase, the New Orleans icon who inspired the character of Princess Tiana, for advice? Moreover, Disney didn’t even use a gumbo base. And its recipe featured kale and quinoa. I was horrified. New Orleans’ horror soon became national news, and the Disney empire tried to erase all evidence of its failure. They failed at that, too. The internet always wins, and on YouTube, CajuNerd provided us some maximum-strength stomach relief with a reaction video to Disney’s dining disaster.
Even once I learn how to make gumbo, you’ll have to see and taste it in person.
I have no ambition to share it on social media.