We are enjoying our first really strong cool snap of the season this mid-week, so yesterday Sarah enacted the perennial Cajun tradition of making gumbo to go along with the colder weather. Gumbo was a common meal of the common country Cajun throughout the cold-weather months, because its preparation on a hot stove for hours and hours helped keep the house warm, just as its steamy juiciness warmed the inward parts of the Cajun’s tummy as well as his soul. It’s one of those dishes that has more than culinary value, since its preparation in South Louisiana so often relates to celebration of all kinds of things, beginning with celebrating the first north wind’s relief from summer and continuing to celebrate throughout the colder months with weddings, holidays, and birthdays. I don’t know of any other regional dish in America that has such rich social and communal tradition associated with it.
The Cajun traditions were foreign to me, growing up in the un-Cajun side of South Louisiana. We only ate gumbo ever’ so often. And the only kind of gumbo Mama made was seafood gumbo. Because seafood ingredients can be exotic (and expensive!), gumbo cookin’ was really a special event. I doubt if we had it more than once or twice a year, and I don’t remember associating gumbo with cold weather. Gumbo-cooking, in fact, usually coincided with our catching a few Lake Pontchartrain crabs on a family outing–not enough to boil for the whole family, but enough to add some flavor to a roux, ergo Mama got out the gumbo pot, bought some oysters and shrimp, and fired up the stove.
Later I married into the Cajun culture and came to the Cajun’s distinctly cultural understanding of gumbo. Cajuns do fix seafood gumbo, but the real staple (and I DO mean staple!) for the prairie Cajuns is chicken and sausage gumbo. Those earthy ingredients, of course, correspond to the dietary constraints of the more inland-dwelling Cajuns who, in the old days, didn’t have shrimp, crabs, and oysters as did the bayou-dwelling Cajuns farther south and east. But they had chickens and they had hogs, and they had spices to make any dish exotic, and they knew how to put it all together. The result: the rich, sensuous flavor of chicken and sausage gumbo is hardly diminished by the humility of its ingredients.
Exotic fare for the common man: chicken and sausage gumbo.
Allons manger du gumbo, mes amis.
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