Affectionate portrait of that favorite Cajun comfort food and the tradition from which it came.
Down on the bayou, it’s all about the gumbo, the overstuffed soup that babies eat “as soon as they go off the breast or the bottle.” Now, bayou has a specific meaning, and former Wall Street Journal writer Wells (The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, 2008, etc.) opens with a glossary of key terms, including that one, which describes a riparian ecosystem that “provided habitable high ground in a place where high ground was rare” for the Cajun, or Acadian, French-descended refugees who arrived there after being expelled from British Canada nearly 250 years ago. Gumbo itself derives from an African word for okra, a key ingredient, along with sausage, shrimp, bell peppers, and always rice. Beyond that, there are spices of various sorts, making the gumbo peppery or mild, simple or savory. One is filé, a powder made of ground sassafras leaves, whose “application in gumbo was subject to a rather robust debate even in the deepest part of the Gumbo Belt,” namely whether it goes in while the gumbo is cooking or as it is cooling off. As the author notes, gumbo is not, strictly speaking, a Cajun invention, since it owes so much to West African antecedents, but nowhere has it become quite so elevated than Louisiana. From there, Cajun cooking has spread around the world. For instance, Paul Prudhomme’s concoction of spices for blackened redfish has found a welcome home in Greece. Gumbo allows for experimentation, which “requires confidence and willing guinea pigs,” though traditionalists will argue about that, too. In one cook-off, Wells, who grew up in the bayou, encountered gumbos made with tried-and-true hog lard, duck, and shrimp, with the most exotic thing being rabbit (“My mother would put rabbit in her sauce piquant but would never think of putting it in her gumbo”). The author closes his gently spun tale with a few recipes that foodies will want to test immediately.
A tasty treat.