Saturday, July 14, 2007
I find myself incredibly bored, hence the post
You know those days where you discard a dozen or more occupations with a sigh of frustration? My cat looks pretty happy, she is sacked out on my desk. I myself am bored out of my skull.
I thought I'd write about, well, I could pretend it was an Artist Date. Sure, yeah.
Last night, I was upstairs reading a book. Normally on Fridays, my husband and I practice what we call Catch As Catch Can for dinner. It's Friday, we've earned it. So I was sitting there as I said, and I caught a whiff of something that reminded me so much of Pama's gumbo, I had no choice but to make some.
My paternal grandma was Cajun, as was my grandfather. I called her Pama, a name she took up with gusto. Pama is a legend in our family. Strongwilled (she once pulled a gun on a man who tried to cheat her neighbor), a true lady, and a great cook, she loved nothing better than to sit on the front porch of an evening and chat with her family, her southern drawl wandering from ill friends to people walking past to what we were going to do the next day. I miss her every day.
I never actually got to eat gumbo cooked by Pama herself, at least not that I can remember. By the time she was older, she actually spent very little time cooking, though what she produced was fantastic.
But, she passed on the recipe to my mother, and we ate it frequently as I grew up. Pama's gumbo, for so we still call it, is my one true comfort food. I have only actually cooked it a few times since I moved out on my own, because it's just not the same. Also, my favorite version requires chicken gizzards, something I generally try not to keep on hand.
About a month ago, my dear friend's mother died and I went home for the funeral. On my last night there, my mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I knew without even thinking that it was gumbo. I made it with her, for the hundred thousandth time, and for a moment it actually felt like home, rather than this strange house stuffed with sewing machines and magazines and avoidance.
A true Cajun gumbo does not have tomatoes (shudder) like you find in most Cajun restaurants. That, my friends, is Creole, as is all that blackened crap you find. A true gumbo is a slightly unappetizing greenish gray in color, and sits on the back of the stove simmering for days on end, with the leftovers from various meals thrown in as it cooks.
It starts with a roux of flour and shortening or oil, which turns dark as you stir it, and richly nutty smelling. It's truly an alchemical process, the change happening from one moment to the next, in the blink of an eye.
Then you add chopped onions, celery, parsley, green onions, bell peppers, and chicken or some other meat, and bay leaves if you wish. You can also add okra, though most people think it's a bit like eating boogers (I, however, love it). Pour in water, let it simmer until cooked.
The most important part of the process is the gumbo file', which is a powder of ground sassafras leaves used for thickening. In true gumbo, if you choose to add okra you do not add the file, as both act as thickeners, but it is the file' that adds a delicate, dusky flavor and the green color. It is crucial that you add it after the soup has been taken off the heat. Add a very small amount and stir, then add a little more until you see a green sheen starting to form. If you add too much, it gets thick and ropey.
I can remember as a child, watching my father add the gumbo file' at the table. He would add it almost reverently, laving the soup across the ladle repeatedly until it was perfect. I think this is a moment in which he remembers his mother, and his father, both dead. They live on through this dish of our ancestors, and if the smell of browning flour and sassafras leaves gives me a twinge of nostalgia, I can only imagine what it makes him feel, his father having died when I was three. Perhaps he thinks of him, as he stirs. I am sure my grandpa used to perform the same task.
In the end, the gumbo I made last night was not all that good. I used sausage, which made it too greasy, and the flour wasn't quite cooked out enough. But as I added the file', I stirred it in a moment longer than necessary, remembering Pama and home and hoping I can make my children understand.