On the Proper Way to Pronounce New Orleans, and the Delights of Seafood Gumbo

My father’s second wife brought a wealth of new culinary adventures to our table. I’ve previously blogged about “Tricking kids into eating,” the story about my step-mother trying to pass off chicken liver as steak. Other notable favorites she introduced me to include salmon patties–imagine salmon chopped to the consistency of shredded tuna, mixed with mayo and onions, and then pan fried. It’s actually better than it sounds. She introduced yet another fried fish meal, previously frozen flounder. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I add the “previously frozen” part because, while I admittedly loved this dish, doused liberally with red-wine vinegar, there was that one unfortunate time where, as she was cooking it, it turned to complete mush. Literally, it went from “frozen” to “mush” right there in the pan in a matter of seconds. After that, it sort of dropped off our regular menu.

My step-mom was a good cook, but her mother, my step-grandmother, was an excellent cook, though she tended to more veggies than I would have preferred then. “Granny,” as we called her, honed her craft daily in what I felt was a strange relationship with her sister whereas my grandmother acted as her sister’s maid. Each week my grandmother dutifully washed and ironed her sister’s laundry and most every night my grandmother cooked her sister dinner, usually “To Go.” Having an older brother myself, albeit briefly, I could never shake the feeling that it probably galled my grandmother having to act as her sister’s caretaker. But maybe it wasn’t like that.

Now, you may have noted a trend in the types of foods my step-mother introduced me to. Prior to her, I’d never had most types of seafood, certainly nothing as exotic (to me at least at the time) as shrimp! I like shrimp now, although for my taste, it’s very bland unless you really spice it up with 3x the amount of crab boil as the box tells you, and a ton of horseradish in the cocktail sauce.

But, as much as anything, shrimp has become a nostalgia food, no doubt partly thanks to the events that transpired during one of our first “step-family” get-togethers. These tended to happen in the fall and winter, what with Alabama summers being intolerably hot. No one wants to stand around mingling when it’s 95 degrees and 97% humidity, unless you’re at the pool, which only one family had, but it didn’t have a gathering space for more than a few, so it was rarely used by anyone outside of their immediate family.

It all happened at our annual Christmas party, which culminated in a gift-exchange. Unlike “white elephant” we kept it simple and just drew names to decide who was buying for whom. So, you were never really sure what you  were going to get. Sometimes you’d get something great, because they asked your mom what you wanted, and sometimes you’d get something not so great because they simply didn’t want to spend much money on you. But, as these things go, I didn’t hate it.

We almost always had the party  at my aunt’s house, probably because my grandmother did most of the cooking and she lived just a bit down the road from my aunt, making it easy to transport all of her casseroles and pies. My aunt, Shirley (not her real name), was a quiet woman. She was a gifted hair dresser, a craft she practiced in a building her husband bought for her out back behind their house. Usually, my step-mom cut my hair, but whenever aunt Shirley did it, I was in heaven.

Aunt Shirley had an eye for decorating and her home was exactly what Southern Living magazine would be like if they based their decorating on reality, which is usually the budget of a single, working-class income, and little more than a Michaels store for inspiration (hey, it was the country). However, it was a decided step-up from our own home, which was sparsely furnished and had very little by way of knick-knacks or art.

The highlight of the evening for me wasn’t mingling with the family; I couldn’t have cared less about that. No, what made the evening special was all the delicious foods and desserts I never got to eat at home. My step-mother kept a copy of “Sugar Blues” on her nightstand, which tells you all you need to know about eating at my house. But at these family gatherings, it was all there–pies, cookies, fudge even–just laying out on the table with no one to tell me “stop” or “that’s enough.” It was glorious!

For the main course that year, my step-mother volunteered to make gumbo, a southern main course-slash-soup that, to this day,  is one my Top 5 Favorite Meals. Now, there are as many variations on Gumbo as there are pronunciations of the great city of “New Orleans” with the only acceptable pronunciation being, “New Orlens” spoken quickly and with an emphasis on the “Or”. Anyone who doesn’t live there and tries to say it like “Nahlens” as if they DO live there, is just an idiot.

Back to gumbo; some of the differences you’ll find from one gumbo recipe to another comes mainly from the addition of different proteins. At its most basic, gumbo is a chicken-stock soup made from boiling a whole chicken until the meat literally falls off the bone. From there, you’ll find all sorts of seafood additions ranging from shrimp, to oysters, to scallops and crab. Usually, the “crab” wasn’t real crab, what with how expensive it is. Usually, the “crab” was artificially substituted with sweetened pollock. I’m not gonna lie; it tastes pretty good to me.

Now, there are two ingredients in gumbo that are non-negotiable. The first is the roux, a flour and fat concoction that sounds as delicious as it tastes in your final dish. To make a proper roux, mix equal parts flour and fat (preferably a flavorful fat like lard). I prefer good old bacon fat with the chunks filtered out. Mix the fat and flour in a hot pan or under the broiler in your oven until it is a rich golden brown. My step-mother made her roux in a pan in the broiler, but I find that too difficult to control. You can easily catch the flour on fire and that is not a mess you want to deal with. I prefer a heavy, cast-iron pan, on medium-high heat to start. Once it starts browning, you have to keep it moving, else it burns and then you have to start over.

My step-mother had a saying, “The darker the roux, the better the brew” and while I’m not sure I’d call gumbo a “brew,” a good dark roux will elevate your gumbo to a whole ‘nuther level.

The one other absolute must-have ingredient is okra. I hate okra. I hate picking it and I hate eating it, fried or otherwise. But okra is essential to gumbo both as a thickening agent and for its flavor. It’s as essential as “Gumbo File,” a fancy name for dried sassafras, which is nearly impossible to find in my area outside of Amazon.com. With the okra, put it in a blender until it’s gooey and then mix it with your gumbo base just before it all cooks together. You won’t even notice the gooey consistency as you’re eating, but anyone who has had real gumbo will immediately know if it’s NOT there.

Back at the party, with the socializing over, we all gathered together in the dining room for grace, which was usually led by my grandmother, a prayer-warrior of a woman. Despite her religious fervor, she said the fastest blessings you ever heard, which always struck me as hilariously funny for someone who began and ended every day reading her Bible and praying. With the Lord having blessed it all, we kids went to our small table in the breakfast nook while the adults gathered together at the big table in the formal dining room.

Within minutes, a steaming bowl of gumbo was delivered to me, along with a tall, cold glass of sweet tea and a small-stack of Saltine crackers. My cousin, who had grown up eating all the foods I was only just becoming acquainted with, instructed me to crumble up my crackers and mix them into my gumbo and when I did, I found another surprise. A ball of sticky white rice resting just under the surface of my gumbo. Yum!

Knowing the gumbo was right off the stove, I blew on it before venturing a taste. I tentatively put it in my mouth. As I did, my eyes widened and my mouth watered. It was delicious! I had another spoonful, and then another. But then, I stopped. Something strange was in my gumbo.

Let’s step back for a moment: while this was my first time eating gumbo, it wasn’t my first time eating shrimp. In fact, I had helped clean shrimp on a few occasions prior. For the uninitiated, when you get fresh shrimp, like right off the boat at the docks, you get the whole shrimp; head, whiskers, shells and all. The first thing most people do when preparing shrimp, is remove the head. But you have to be careful, particularly if you’re pulling them from a bag. Shrimp heads are like little nightmares, full of spikey  protrusions, all designed to protect their eyes and whiskers. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch one under your cuticle, or under your fingernail and that is a pain you do not want to deal with.

shrimp eyes

That night, as I stared at my bowl, I noticed something familiar floating around in the gumbo. A LOT of somethings in fact. What are those THINGS floating around in my bowl? Those small, round, pale gray orbs? And then it hit me: they look like shrimp eyeballs!

Well, you can imagine how that affected me. I put down my spoon and stopped eating immediately. A few minutes later from across the room my step-mother saw me sitting stock still and, knowing I was usually a quick eater, called out, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you eating?” I mumbled something about my gumbo being weird and with a concerned look she told me to bring it over to her.

The twenty or so steps it took to reach the dining room, me carrying my bowl full of shrimp eyeballs, felt like an eternity.  When I got there, my step-mother peered over into my bowl and after a quick glance said, “What’s wrong with it? I don’t see anything.

I looked up at her, everyone at the table staring expectantly, and I said in a quiet voice, “It’s got shrimp eyeballs in it.

Have you ever really watched someone’s face when they’re reacting to bad news? Particularly when they’re having a good time and they see or hear something that immediately shuts them down? That was my step-mother’s face in that instant. She went from smiling to glaring in a micro-second and that’s when I knew I was in deep.

In a calm, measured voice, the one she reserved for when I was REALLY in trouble, she said, “Those aren’t eyeballs, they are okra seeds.

Despite the raging war clearly going on in her head, with one side telling her to do one thing and the other side reminding her where she was, in a measured voice she instructed me to return to the table and finish eating. I wish I could say I completely believed her and was able to set my doubt aside and eat my okra seeds, but I can’t. Okra was not a vegetable I was acquainted with and so there was no “A-ha!” moment for me. Rather, I ate my bowl of maybe-shrimp-eyeballs in silence, catching increasingly angry glares from the dining room.

That little episode cost me at least two days of the silent treatment, more on that in another blog. I never did understand why she got so triggered at such a simple misunderstanding. But, that was true of so many things with her. You never could tell if she was going to react with staggering ferocity, or if she’d just laugh it off and tell you go back out and play. In her later years, that duality become more pronounced, to the point where I have wondered if she is bipolar. I’ve never asked.

To this day, I can’t eat gumbo without reliving that night and without feeling that “pit of my gut” feeling under her withering gaze. Years later, we would laugh about it, or at least she would. Like so many things from my youth that she considered “no big deal,” the shrimp-eyeball-episode was a watershed event that left an indelible mark on my psyche.

But it also made me more attuned to my own kids’ eating habits and now, anytime I introduce something new to them, I’m careful to make sure they know what it is. And I never lie to them!

But then, I’ve never tried to trick them with liver-steak either.

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