Something for Easter: Love & The Art of Gumbo by Patricia Houser

The Roux
Creative patience does not come easily to me. When the energy flows, I can barely finish a project before envisioning the next; sometimes I set one aside entirely because the urge to execute a new one overpowers any adherence to completion I might have impressed upon myself. So when I endeavored to make my very first roux, the commitment was a stretch. Gumbo was a staple of my childhood. As I salivate over its familiar flavors, the memories that
this evokes are just as deep and rich. It was soul food—served in times of celebration and times
of despair.

Gumbo first came into my life by way of Mr. Al, a surrogate grandparent for my first three decades. Al Brame was a kindred spirit to most who met him. A lifetime of loving well manifested as wrinkles around his eyes and stubborn calluses on his hands. I sat at his table countless times, always feasting on the very same meal: gumbo, boudin, and Saltines. I’m quite certain that his mere presence filled me up more than the meal we shared, though he never let
me get away with anything less than two helpings. In my younger years, I was mesmerized by the way this giant of a man with oak like fingers gripped the delicate spoon and even more so by how every part of him seemed to soften in my presence.

His gumbo was rich and hearty. As a child, I knew nothing of the time it took to develop the layers of flavor, yet somehow I knew that a whole lot of love went into that pot.

Mr. Al delighted in me. I knew this with certainty and our affection was mutual. When he’d visit us, I’d wait excitedly for the familiar hum of his red truck at the end of our cul-de-sac. He’d often pull over and scoop me up for a hug, then set me on his lap to steer us to our driveway. Love flowed from him like lagniappe in Cajun country.

My dad learned the art of gumbo making from him. I just watched from afar, eyes wide. They typically made it in a pot so large I could hide in it when not in use. They stirred it with a wooden paddle spoon as long as my leg and cooked it out in the driveway over a gas cooker. My dad’s gumbo quickly became the favorite side dish at my family’s annual crawfish boil. I was curious about the whole process, but cautioned to keep my distance because of all the hot equipment.

The roux is the very foundation of the gumbo. Hardly noticeable once the gumbo is served but the basis for the whole dish nonetheless. It’s like character—who you are when no one is watching. It takes patience and careful attention to make; nothing more.

I carefully measured the oil and flour—equal parts of each—turned on the flame under the sturdy pot and anxiously anticipated my first culinary metamorphosis. The roux gently came together as I stirred it dutifully and quickly reached a sand color. Soon after, it hit a light caramel color. But then, it failed to darken further. I stirred and watched and waited. Nothing. I was perplexed and humbled. I couldn’t serve a blonde gumbo. Did such a thing even exist? I decided to call my dad.

“My roux isn’t getting darker.”
“What do you mean, ‘your roux isn’t getting darker’?” he prodded.
“My roux isn’t getting darker. It looks like caramel. It’s blonde. I’ve had it on the heat forever,” I
explained.
“Well, what does the jar say?” he offered.
“The jar. The JAR?” And then I was onto him. “This is no brunette bottle job. I’m trying to make
my roux.”
My entire life had been a lie. Well, every bowl of gumbo at least. He’d used pre-prepared roux
and I’d never known it.

That simply wouldn’t do. The roux is the foundation.

Having grown up in a time of convention and practicality, my creative impulses caused me to call into question nearly everything. I choked down spoonfed expectations. I tried mightily to fit inside my jar. But I didn’t fit. I spilled out, leaving mess after mess in my wake.

I didn’t have much cooking acumen at that point in my life, but intuition told me to turn up the heat, keep stirring, and give it time. And as my roux darkened from a warm caramel color to peanut butter to milk chocolate and finally to a deep, dark coffee brown my creative patience expanded. Some things are simply worth waiting for. Who knew such conventional ingredients could become something so gloriously rich?

The Holy Trinity
When the roux reaches its desired toastiness, you add in the Holy Trinity—onion, celery, and bell pepper. A Cajun mirepoix. The trinity sweats down inside the scalding hot roux and things really begin to take shape.

In cooking, as in life, there is plenty of room for personal philosophies and preferences, but calling upon tradition offers some much needed direction.

Onion. Celery. Bell Pepper.

Though I didn’t discover my cooking chops until my mid 20’s, I think I was destined to find my home in the kitchen. Both of my grandmothers were phenomenal cooks. One died long before I was born. Ella Rae—for whom my oldest daughter is named—has always been my kitchen muse. What I know about her is pieced together from conversations with my mom. Friends and neighbors called upon my grandmother Ella Rae to make cakes and other desserts for their most special occasions. She also loved to cook for her family; I suspect it was a love language for her, just as it is for me. With children spanning an 18 year age difference, my mother recalls her scurrying about the kitchen with a towel tucked into her apron to dry a steady stream of tears as she prepared a meal to sustain the older boys when they headed back to The University of Arkansas after a weekend at home.

I summon Ella Rae’s spirit when perplexed or in need of some inspiration. In truth, I have full conversations with her; the fact that I’ve never known her in the physical sense nor stood in her presence matters little. Our kith and kin neednot be present for conversations of the heart.

My other grandmother (affectionately known as“Tilly”) with whom I have only a few kitchen memories, was equally gifted. Though I was too young to cook at her side, I fondly remember feasting on her chicken soup with homemade
noodles, Czech pigs-in-the-blanket, and traditional Austrian strudel. The collective culinary wisdom of these women transcends time and space. They give me permission to break rules, to make up my own, to follow my intuition. But like something as sacred as one’s own personal spirituality, it helps to have a few solid tenets upon which to explore variations.

Onion. Celery. Bell Pepper.

Gumbo. Boudin. Saltines.

Forever and Ever Amen.

I cling to these just as I cling to my Louisiana roots. Texas friends often joke that while I was born in Louisiana, I made it to Texas just as quickly as I could—just shy of my fourth birthday. While my memories of that time are limited, I feel proud of my roots.

State lines aside, I was raised in the hard wooden pews of the Episcopal Church, a community I still belong to today. But wild ideas about who God is and what love means stirred inside me as a child and today give rise to my own deeply personal faith. With the likes of the Bible, the Gita, memoirs of women searching for truth just like me, and books on Celtic Spirituality and Quantum Physics all in communion with one another on my bookshelf, the recipe for my personal creed is known only by my creator. I wrestle with big questions. I watch wide eyed as the nature of God reveals itself to me in mundane daily tasks like cooking. I stand with one foot in the spiritual realm and the other in reality as we understand it, and I feel a constant pull to bring those two worlds together.

Onion. Celery. Bell Pepper.
On Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Stock
Just before the birth of my first child, a moment which marked my own rebirth into the world, I took a roadtrip with my mother and oldest sister to my mother’s hometown of Camden, Arkansas. Little remains of the town today, but as we explored the haunts of her past, we found ourselves paying a visit to Stinson’s Jewelers. Mr. Stinson recognized my mother immediately. They reminisced. Then he looked at my sister and me and said, “You girls come from good stock. You know that? You come from good stock.”

My mother beamed. I nervously smiled.

Nearly a decade later, I still think about that comment. Are some people simply born “good” by sheer nature of their lineage? Is it my birthright to claim I am made of good stuff? Aren’t we all? Surely we’re all cut from the same cloth-–I suppose it comes down to one’s own personal creed as to whether those fibers are good or not.

Whenever my mind turns into itself, and I think about my roots and my beginnings, I can’t help but think of stock—the kind you simmer on the stove. I know this wasn’t what Mr. Stinson was referring to, but given my propensity for cooking, it’s my most reliable metaphor. The thing that perplexes me is that I know enough about making a good stock to know that it takes work to create. It starts with some pretty humble beginnings—bones and scraps—forged in the fire to pull the very life out of them. Maybe like ours, its goodness is innate, but it surely deepens over
time. The fire either entices every bit of good flavor to come forth or it runs so hot it inevitably burns.

From the outside looking in, I was given every advantage in life—the resources deemed necessary for future success. But life issues each of us some scraps. Some have entered into my awareness; there are others I’m still unearthing. My scraps seem to center around limited ways of thinking and a deprecated sense of self; their remnants linger deep down inside of me. It’s my life’s work to do something “good” with them, to dare those dry bones to come back to
life. To have something good to show for myself when at last the flames are extinguished. So I throw in the scraps—all of them—as they become available to me, and I use them toward a larger purpose. In cooking, as in life, it’s really our choice.

I add my stock to the heavy Magnalite pot—a thrift store find given to me by my mother when I first left home. Many a memory has simmered in that pot. I like to make stock periodically whenever I have leftovers that I don’t want to waste. I coax the flavors from bones, vegetable scraps, and aromatics for many hours before freezing it in batches for use at times like these when my desire to create eclipses any vain attempts toward organization and preparation. No
matter. I always have a few quarts stored up in my freezer. Fragrant steam rises from the mixture as the rich liquid meets the stewing vegetables and roux, taking with it my unspoken prayers. It’s almost time.

The Magic
When I stand over the simmering pot to add the final ingredients—admittedly, whatever I have on hand at the time—the magic begins. Andouille sausage, venison sausage, shrimp, crawfish, chicken, whole or chopped okra, garlic, Bay leaf. In a particularly rebellious move, I once added tomatoes. I atoned for that sin by omitting them the next time around, but the deviance was delicious.

My best culinary creations come to me in dreams—when the subconscious mind pushes through the doubt and inhibition of my waking mind.

The flames on my gas stove serve as a portal into that dream world where the creative energy of my ancestral lineage meets my own deepest desires.

The smell is intoxicating. I don’t even have to taste it to know with certainty that this batch of gumbo is joy. It is safety and comfort. Something of a magic elixir that makes me feel seen and known, loved and protected, full of hope and certain that every wrong will right itself. A little more fire. A little more time. All will be well. On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Gumbo is notoriously ugly. Even when plated by a Michelen starred chef, it still resembles the muddy waters of The Mississippi. But people say that it’s what’s on the inside that matters, and I cling to that truth. And boy is that muddy water delicious…and lifegiving.

I season my gumbo with a secret mix of herbs and spices. No measuring spoons; I just eye them in the caverns of my hand and then into the pot they go. Soon enough, it will be ready to
serve.

A steaming pot of gumbo seems to absorb all of the love that spills out of me and I can present it to those in front of me without worry of squeezing a little too tight or gazing a little too long. And when I tuck into a bowl myself, the spoon serves as a vessel for a lifetime of memories to come flooding back, the gumbo a balm for whatever ails me. The warmth makes its way to the very tips of my fingers and toes.

I feel more confident in the dishes I produce than I do about my own presence in the world. Cooking offers me a place at the table. And when those gathered with me delight in my food, I gather up what portion of delight my vulnerability and insecurity will tolerate and allow it to nourish me. Perhaps some day I won’t avert my eyes when they compliment my food. When they compliment me.

I’m reminded of Mr. Al. Oh, how my heart longs for him, but he’s joined the ranks of the Heavenly choir that sings me home in the kitchen. I find my rhythm. I grab a spoon and I soften in his presence at my stove.

My gumbo represents my desire to adhere to the rules and my tendency to question them. Honoring tradition, it harnesses my own primal instincts as co-creator with God. It celebrates the goodness of our very essence along with our brokenness. It offers endless opportunities to grow and change, to be reborn again and again through its muddy waters. Batch by batch, the thin places of my life grow more and more transparent, loved ones in my dream world inch closer, and the desires of my heart wait eagerly in the caverns of my own callused hands.
No two batches are the same, but the flavors of love overflow.

 

“Rooted in family, faith, food, friendship, and the beauty of the Southern landscape and its
people, Patricia Houser’s writing serves to explore the universal experiences of love, hope, struggle, regret, and triumph.

Though rarely sharing my work, I’ve been an avid writer ever since the seventh grade when my
English teacher introduced me to the art of writing. Today, it is my job to help teenagers find and
share their own stories—often first convincing them that they have something worthwhile to tell.
Now, I am ready to share my own.” – Patricia Houser

 

 

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