Everyday Sacred: A Personal Path to Gumbo

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[Photographs: Chris Granger]

It's a cold winter's morning in New Orleans—don't laugh, we have them—and, in accordance with the Ways of My People, I'm tending my stovetop. Outside, the sky glows a neutral gray, and steady winds force frigid air through unseen cracks in my house's weathered floorboards. The shadow cousin of Arizona's "dry heat," a Louisiana "wet cold" easily penetrates the wool and heavy denim clothing I'm wearing with a distinctive chill that triggers a primordial call—to gumbo.

This particular batch I'm making demands three burners on my standard-issue gas range-top: one for the tall stockpot that contains a dismembered turkey carcass (bones, skin, sinewy necks), the other two for an oversize Magnalite roaster that's gingerly straddling two pulsing blue gas jets. A soothing heat radiates from the stove, and a complex but familiar aroma—smoke, sausage, and spice—floats through the house and chases the cool air away.

Over the course of the afternoon, the roux-thickened elixir will burble away as flavors deepen and solid chunks of turkey meat dissolve into individual shreds. Coins of smoked sausage, browned, crispy, and bacon-like, will soften and render, giving up their porky essence to a thick, nutty broth that's damned close to brown gravy.

By evening, I'll have four gallons of smoked turkey and andouille gumbo (my own trademark variation on the Louisiana classic) ready for serving. Around dinnertime, I'll add the final herbal touches—a blast of minced Italian parsley, a scattering of thin-sliced green onion—and feed eight hungry guests. In the morning, I'll ladle into quart-sized soup containers and freeze the remaining three gallons, which I will eat and share with my friends for months to come.

Our Culinary Cornerstone

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In south Louisiana, gumbo holds a place of honor that transcends the restaurant soup course. In many New Orleans homes, making it is part of a tradition that represents culinary bounty, prosperity, and the joy of homecoming. But in the smaller towns along Interstate 10, gumbos are also a way of marking the seasons: Cooks in Cajun country shift into serious gumbo mode when that "wet cold" I mentioned earlier arrives and cravings for warmth kick in. It's a time when we start duck hunting, a time when fat Gulf oysters reach their decadent peak and the sugarcane harvest clogs the back roads with slow-moving tractor traffic.

Due to its relatively time-intensive nature, a well-made gumbo is what I refer to as an "everyday sacred" dish, and a cornerstone of Louisiana's multilayered cuisine. Ranked by degree of culinary difficulty, gumbo sits squarely between rice and gravy (a quick and savory workaday staple of the south Louisiana canon) and crawfish bisque (a high-handwork labor of love reserved for the most special occasions). A proper gumbo takes time and effort. Making it can be a deeply personal expression, developed over years of practice and slow evolution.

A Louisiana cook's signature gumbo is as unique as a thumbprint. In a land where cooking is a near-universal survival skill, and men and women share the stove, strangers often discuss individual styles and roux techniques in initial tail-sniffing conversations. Sure, my own gumbo, made in multi-gallon batches whenever the north winds blow, can be described simply in ingredient-centric shorthand as "smoked turkey and sausage." But how I got to this particular version involves a decades-long journey marked by countless hours of pot-stirring, onion-chopping, and culinary lessons along the way. Any truly personal gumbo develops in phases, triggered by curiosity, constant study, and happenstance. This is how I learned to make mine.

1986: The Barnyard Baseline

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For many young cooks, culinary journeys begin with a wee bit of desperation. After years of dormitory life, I started my senior year of college in San Antonio, Texas, with the first real-life apartment kitchen that I could call my own. Having been raised at my grandmother's stove, I was excited by the prospect of expanding my admittedly minimal cooking skills. I'd already learned a few useful dance steps from watching my grandmother during my mostly latchkey small-town childhood, but the resulting repertoire (hot-rodded jarred pasta sauce, grilled bologna, tortillas roasted over a gas burner) got pretty old pretty quickly.

Back home in Cajun country for Christmas break, I sought the counsel of Michael Vidallier—an older friend and coworker from a youth misspent at the local guitar shop. During five formative teenage years, I learned many of life's great lessons from Mike: how to decode the sonic genius of Jimi Hendrix, the value of gutbucket country tunes, the importance of energetic curiosity, and how to recognize the good in people while letting acerbic assholes float into space. ("Them? I got no time for that kind of people," he would say.)

When I went over to Mike's for a yuletide visit that year, the tree was twinkling and, in accordance with tradition, a pot of gumbo simmered away, filling the house with a comforting savory aroma. It was a winter's version of the ubiquitous pot of coffee that welcomes visitors in Cajun kitchens—where there's always time for a long talk, and company knows to knock on the kitchen door instead of the rarely used main entrance. If you've got a pot of gumbo on the stove, it's easy to accommodate the inevitable arrival of folks who pop in for a quick visit: a little bowl of comfort to pass the time and encourage conversation. Mike's gumbo was a simple affair that he learned from his grandmother: chicken and smoked sausage, dark roux, onions, bell pepper, and celery, an affordable version that seemed easy enough for me to re-create in landlocked San Antonio, where a proper seafood gumbo would cost a semester's tuition.

Unlike other chicken and sausage gumbos, Mike's was smooth and hearty, with chunks of sausage but no chicken bones to get in the way of my hungry-boy appetite. He told me about the process in the abstract, employing lots of grammaw-inspired descriptors like "about," "until it looks good," and "not too big, not too small." I returned to Mike's house a few days later for an official gumbo lesson, paying careful attention as he browned the chicken parts until the skin resembled crispy graton (pork rinds), made the stock, and dredged and separated the chicken meat from its connective tissue and bones once the bird was boiled down with bay leaf and peppercorns.

I also learned how to make a basic roux, which required some grueling patience, and the hallmark of the "Mike Vidallier Method"—ending with a roux rather than starting with one. Then there was the marvelous moment when the diced aromatics hit the super-heated oil and perfectly browned flour, resulting in a fragrant steam and a consistency like bayou mud. After stirring that into the stock, we were an hour away from dinner, though I could hardly wait that long.

I grew up feasting on a wide range of gumbos—thin chicken/sausage variants served in public school cafeterias, my grandmother's okra-based springtime shrimp recipe, the occasional multi-meat affair thickened with earthy filé powder (ground sassafras leaf). But I loved the versatility of Mike's approach. Done correctly, in its simplest form, his gumbo was a pot full of rich, gravy-like goodness that you could pull off with standard-issue grocery store ingredients (poultry, smoked sausage, flour, and common aromatics), and it didn't require thickeners such as filé powder or okra. (When you thicken your gumbo with okra, you're beholden to your grocer's freezer except during summer and fall. And, while filé powder is ever-present on south Louisiana spice racks, venture too far north, even to Shreveport, and you could be hard-pressed to find it.) Plus, if I felt the need, I could always gussy up Mike's gumbo with shrimp (if they looked good), shucked oysters (if they were cheap), or, well, okra (if I damn well felt like it).

Living outside the Franco-centric motherland, and aspiring to life on the road, I needed a flexible recipe like Mike's that would travel well and deftly adapt to the local larder without too much flavor-based compromise. I needed something that I could pull off in a cramped kitchen, whether it was in San Antonio or Brooklyn or Berlin—any place where gumbo is considered Exotic Foreign Cuisine.

First, though, I needed to practice by making a few dozen pots of my own, using Mike's gumbo as my north star. Weeks later, I took to my Texas kitchen and proceeded to make some admittedly terrible batches. They involved rushed roux the color of wallpaper paste, burnt chicken, and spoonfuls of spongy, not-quite-edible cartilage. But I knew that if I worked on the basics, I'd improve over time. You can't hurry a good gumbo.

1994: The Turkey Bone Two-Step

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Fast-forward a few years (and many batches of gumbo). After a couple of extended travel binges and a hilariously short stint in graduate school, I ended up in Austin and settled into post-collegiate life in the Lone Star State. I was living in a house that allowed for large-scale parties without fear of downstairs neighbors alerting the local authorities. My roommate and I (a friend from my hometown) began a Sunday tradition known as the "Big Food FooYay" (Cajun slang for "foolishness"). In the early days, we'd cook up big batches of food and invite folks over for a Sunday afternoon hang-around. Gumbo was always on the menu, and as the event gained traction, we found ourselves feeding upwards of 20, 40—then 60 people. But no matter how big the crowds grew, it seemed that a gumbo could always feed everyone. All we had to do was add another chicken, or make some extra rice. That's the beauty of large-format Louisiana cooking.

In a hat-tip to our Texas locale (and, honestly, to save browning time), I started buying smoked chickens from the plentiful local barbecue joints and grilling hot links, instead of the traditional andouille sausage, for the porky portion of the program. Smoke-on-smoke made for a wonderfully local adaptation. And, as the thrice-yearly parties swelled in size (eventually about 150 to 200 friends and neighbors would show up on a given Sunday), I dreaded the intricate handwork of dredging eight or nine petite chicken carcasses, with their little nooks and meat-holding crannies. Like a frustrated infomercial housewife, I yearned for a solution to my tiny-bird busy work. And the solution, I discovered, was a turkey.

Actually, it was a turkey bone. Big Food FooYay practically begged for a version of Turkey Bone Gumbo, a magical south Louisiana post-Thanksgiving treat. This gumbo variation transforms the picked-over carcass from our annual Pilgrim-focused feast into the richest of all possible poultry stocks, with the tender meat that Uncle Calvin often missed during the ceremonial carving process. It's an exercise in thrift and decadence, and one of my favorite gumbos of all time.

During a large pre-FooYay dredging session, I realized that turkey crannies are a lot more accessible than the ones on teeny-tiny chickens, and subsequently called a few local smokehouses to inquire about bigger fowl. The result was a richer gumbo with less fuss, muss, and bother that could accommodate an ever-growing crowd. And so I'd learned another gumbo lesson: Bigger birds are always better.

2010: Gumbo Claus Is Born

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By the time I left Austin for New Orleans in 2001, I'd honed my gumbo's flavor and consistency to a proverbial fare-thee-well. While I was no longer cooking it up with the frequency I did in Texas, several times each year I would purchase a smoked bird, drive out to the country meat market for the best andouille, and commit myself to a two-day gumbo-making ritual (stock, dredge, roux, sauté, simmer). I'd serve some of it on Mardi Gras parade nights, and always had a spare quart or so left over for my sister at Christmas.

But one November, a buddy who was leaving town offered me his Weber Bullet smoker for long-term storage. ("If you don't take it, I'm just puttin' it in my sister's garage. You interested?") Like that, I had my very own smoker, just as turkey prices hit their annual low in American supermarkets. (Loss leader economics FTW.) The result was that I could experiment with my big-bird smoking techniques at bargain-basement prices, and give frozen quarts of gumbo as holiday gifts. I figured I could log precious kitchen hours and (as a bonus) never have to set foot in a mall again.

This stage of my gumbo education kicked off a kitchen-related obsession that bordered on madness. The first year with the smoker, I bought four turkeys for gumbo purposes. The next, 11. By 2014, the total was capped at 23. As the bird count increased, I simultaneously entered the realm of small-industrial production and roux-fueled insanity. During the peak years, I annexed the freezer space of non-cooking friends in exchange for quarts of the good stuff. I kept track of frozen birds with an Evernote document and took to describing myself as "a hungry squirrel with a large-format poultry fetish."

And now, from November until mid-March—my gumbo season—the stovetop perpetually heats my Uptown shotgun house, and my fridge turns into a solid block of one- to four-gallon industrial Tupperware containers. Around 50 gallons of smoky gumbo feeds my friends in lieu of Christmas-y baubles. To those in my circle, I have become Gumbo Claus—the bringer of cold-weather cheer, the filler of friends' freezers.

2015: One Final Touch

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As time goes by, my gumbo ritual focuses on the little things, the minute refinements of technique and flavor that can sometimes come like bolts from the blue. After 20 years and change, I know the drill, I know what people enjoy. But that never stops me from asking friends this all-important question: How do you make your gumbo? While engaged in just such an exploratory conversation recently, the phrase "I put fish sauce in mine" stopped me dead in my tracks. A fellow New Orleans food writer tossed it off on Twitter, and I was so intrigued by the idea that I added a few tablespoons of the Asian condiment to my next batch of gumbo. Sure enough, it gave my old barnyard classic a delicious layer of funky, salty flavor that made every spoonful even more satisfying and addictive than before.

If you ask me, my fish sauce epiphany illustrates the most important lesson about gumbo: No matter what you think you know, keep on asking questions. It's a big world out there, and there's always more to learn. And so I will leave you right now to tend to the pot of gumbo that sits simmering on my stove, the one it's taken so many years to perfect. The one that is truly my own. I've still got work to do.

Dedicated to my friend and teacher Mike Vidallier (1958–2016). Thanks for teaching me many of life's most important lessons and pointing out the stars to steer by.