The First Time I Made Gumbo
Used to be, there was a cuisine Continental Divide between the foods of north Louisiana and south. The foods of north Louisiana reflected the taste of fellow Mason-Dixon Line inmates, with cornbread, porkchops, collards, blackeyed peas and the like being some of the foods we cooked and ate there. I won’t go into the difference in foods in south Louisiana, considering there’s German, Cajun, Creole, French, Italian, Sicilian and more.
To illustrate the difference, someone brought my mother crawfish in Jackson Parish, and she had to explain what they were. Oh, I knew them as the tiny makers of chimney-like mud piles in my papaw’s yard, and the oldsters used to send us out there with bits of bacon on a string and a stick to catch those mudbugs. What a bunch of rubes we were… Gave them some time to drink a cup of coffee and eat pie in peace.
I had gumbo for the first time at the dining table of my elderly cousin, Cecil Dale Richardson, who lived in East Feliciana Parish. Cecil Dale was a fantastic cook, and anything that landed on her dining table was worthy of the best restaurants in New Orleans. She placed a beautiful bowl of rice and gumbo before me, and I stared into the most beautiful dark roux I’d ever seen. I had a quick lesson course from mother on how to eat gumbo with whole crabclaws. I had no idea what gastronomic delight lay before me.
That first bowl of Cecil Dales’ gumbo prepared me for eating well in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and the beginning of an understanding of regional recipes. I remained unconvinced though that the work involved was proportional to the reward of having made homemade gumbo, but I was young and a fool.
Flash forward several years. A friend of mine who worked for an oil industry service company had a duck lease, and was being transferred to Houston. He offered my sweetie and me a freezer full of field dressed duck, and I jumped on the offer. The first chance I got, the ducks were defrosted, and I’d found a recipe in my huge collection of Southern Living Annual Cookbook collection for Oyster, Duck and Andouille Sausage gumbo. What bliss!
Once the ducks were defrosted I discovered a problem. Buckshot was falling out of the ducks as I handled them, with a plink here, a plink there, amidst my husband-to-be laughing almost hysterically at my puzzlement. You see, despite his being a Yankee from western New York state, he’d come from a family of hunters who hunted everything from foxes to turkeys, and was familiar with buckshot. I on the other hand came from a family of Southern women who expected their men to field dress and render said game ready for the stew pot or roasting pan. The buckshot was dealt with, and I put the ducks in a huge double boiler to make stock.
Oh my dear Lord Jesus. Who knew that wild duck could render a house uninhabitable? Why didn’t someone warn me, or were they just waiting for my epicurean epiphany? I dumped the stock out, chilled the ducks, and we abandoned the house for three hours, windows open, so the stench would air out. I came back and started again, made the stock, deboned the birds, and made a beautiful gumbo. Wish I’d taken a picture of it.
My mother was called, and I reduced her to laughing so hard that she was crying. Had to put the phone down so she could catch her breath. Once she’d gathered her wits again, she reminded me of the old story from north Louisiana about cooking Poule d’eau, or Water Coots. One placed the Poule d’eau, or commonly called pouldeau, with a brick in the over, roasting it carefully for an hour. After an hour you removed the brick and pouldeau, threw the bird away, then ate the brick. My mother was such a comedian…
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: Water Coot with Young
No waterfowl were harmed in the writing of this article…