My Aunt Cathy taps her flip flops on the floor as she waits patiently at my Grandma’s dining room table. She jokes, “Those Cajun spices muddle a person’s senses. Nobody can resist the spicy smell of Andouille sausage, roast chicken, and garlic.”
The heaping bowl of rich mahogany broth lures everyone. The rich savory scents drifting from her stove top even ensnares door to door salesmen. Their elbows stick to the plastic tablecloth as they spoon rich mahogany broth into their mouths. Last Thanksgiving my Uncle Kenny bumped along 500 miles in a clunker truck just to scoop up a bowl. Her gumbo even heals my hurting heart after a difficult day.
Pondering the gumbo’s ingredients, I beg my Grandma for her recipe. Her smiling eyes crinkle as she slowly shakes her teased hair. I frown at her reluctance to share. Determination to discover the secret sparks within me.
Capturing her recipe became my mission. Whenever I suspect she might be creating her roux, I huddle near the stove top following her every step. Carefully observing her wrist movements with the array of spices, I notice she never measures anything! The little bottles of seasonings soon become one giant blur. While hastily scribbling down the special ingredients on the back of my homework assignment, I see her grin.
“About that much of flour should do it. Added some white flour to breakfast’s bacon drippings. Keep stirring until it’s brown.” Her mocking voice sounds like a poor imitation of Julia Childs. Sighing in frustration, my hand cramps as I calculate her adjustments. Her nimble fingers move so fast adding “a pinch of this” and “just a spoonful more of that.”
As the hours tick by, the roux slowly thickens. Hovering near the giant pot, I frequently spot her smelling the broth. She dips her small spoon down into the hearty blend of bay leaves, onions, and green peppers. Waving it side to side beneath her nose, she inhales a deep breath. Gently pushing my spoon away, she reminds me the flavors need to blend overnight. Reluctantly, I wait for tomorrow’s delight.
Meanwhile I admire the surprisingly short list of ingredients written on my new recipe card. There has to be more ingredients than just that! My eyes follow my directions for my Grandma’s gumbo. Pour in bacon drips from this morning’s breakfast. Add “this much” flour until the roux is mahogany brown. Then, drop in veggies, crispy and fresh. Add last night’s left overs to give it a zip. Heat until it smells just right. Pop in sizzling sausage and roast chicken. Simmer all day, then place in the fridge so flavors blend.
Recreating the treasured recipe with my mom later, we suspect foul play after tasting our thin concoction. However we jostle the measurements like a great mathematical dilemma. The next day we carefully examine our bowlfuls of Grandma’s gumbo like a pair of mad scientists. Sadly our suspicions of a missing ingredient were never confirmed. Begging once again for her recipe, I groan in frustration as she shakes her head no. However, I refuse to give up on my dream of recreating her steamy bowl of chicken gumbo.
Early one morning after a full day of cooking her roux, I poke around Grandma’s kitchen like a blood hound. Carefully hidden under paper towels near the top of the garbage can, I discover my Grandma’s secret ingredient. Shock, surprise, and amazement create emotional chaos within me. My suspicions of foul play were true! A flattened box of Zattarain’s Gumbo mix lay discarded in the trash.
Grandma rounds the kitchen corner. I look up at her with questioning eyes. She beams a smile from ear to ear as she laughs, “Never forget ordinary ingredients create an extraordinary bowl of gumbo. ” At the time many summer days spent with Grandma seemed ordinary. However now I treasure these ordinary days as an extraordinary childhood.
Grandma’s Recipe for Gumbo
Sauté onion and garlic, then add enough flour to begin the roux. Mix beef bouillon cubes with beef broth. Drop in the following: scallions, Creole seasonings, gumbo file, bell peppers, Worcestershire sauce, and salt/pepper according to taste. In a different skillet, brown sausage and chicken before adding it to the mixture. Simmer for several hours and add this and that to adjust the taste. If it tastes like it is still missing an ingredient, add a package of Zattarain’s Gumbo mix. Cook rice in a separate pot and pour the gumbo over immediately before serving.