My Heritage, My Gumbo

Written and photographed by Colin Thompson

There are three things I learned while being raised by a mother from Louisiana - the best restaurants have their bathrooms in the kitchen, good food must “stick to your ribs,” and never, under any circumstances, put tomatoes in your gumbo. I’ve had gumbo so many times throughout my life, I couldn’t tell you what it was like to eat it for the first time. But when I can get my hands on a bowl, I can’t help but to be reminded of my mother in the kitchen - the smell of onions stewing seeping into every corner of the house, the sting of cayenne powder drifting in the air, and the soft, slow bubble of the stew on the stove. She would work for what seemed like hours, starting with preparing the roux early in the afternoon. From there, she would stew heaps of onions, celery, bell peppers, and sausage until it was time - she never set a timer or kept track of how long the gumbo was on the range, but without fail she knew when it was ready and would promptly cut the heat. The moments my working mother would prepare a home-cooked meal were few and far between, but when she had time to prepare a dish for our family, there was an immense sense of pride in the toils of her labor.

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Admittedly, everyone seems to have a bias for their own family’s home-cooked meals. However, there has always been something magical about Southern food for me. It may be the buttermilk, three sticks of butter, and inhumane quantities of salt that do it in for me, but without fail Southern food cannot be replicated. Growing up in Texas and Louisiana, there was always an emphasis on feeding the crowd; if I had walked into someone’s house and hadn’t eaten in at least two hours, their parents would force-feed me as many things as they could rummage out of their pantry. After moving to New England, I longed for these blissful moments of affection expressed through food. Sure, I will always welcome a small cracker plate, but there was something so meaningful behind the gratuitous culture of food in the South.

Unsurprisingly, authentic gumbo was hard to come by up north. What was once my lifeline as a child disappeared completely, and over time my connection to the South faded as well, save for the few days out of the year I was able to return home. But every time I walked through the door of my childhood home, I was greeted upon entry with a piping hot bowl of gumbo. While I took this for granted the first few times, I’ve realized that these meals remind me of where I come from, who I am, and what food means to me. Seeing past the fads, boutique fast-casual eateries and unnecessary amounts of avocado I typically subscribe to, that bowl of gumbo made me feel loved.

Perhaps the reason a gumbo chain has yet to make it up north - or exist, really - is because it can be a bit labor-intensive. But when it comes to food that speaks to the soul, nothing is quite as magical as gumbo. At a glance, its origin, a roux, isn’t the sexiest concept - it’s essentially fried flour slop, and all you have to show for it is a sore bicep. However, it’s through this magical slurry that one of the most iconic Cajun dishes takes form. When done correctly, roux is rich, nutty, and velvety. When done incorrectly, it tastes somewhat like charred toast, with the mouthfeel of wet sand. Nobody wants that.

Treat your roux as you would your own child, and you’ll avoid that mess. If you’re a purist like myself, you’ll be making your roux on the stovetop - and that means you need a good whisk, patience, and immaculate cooking music. I’ve been really into Trance Farmers lately, lots of good tunes to zone out to while choppin’ veggies and whiskin’ away. Through your dedication and sheer willpower to see this gumbo through, you’ll get an idea of how one can put love into the food they make.

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My Mother’s Sausage Gumbo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Serves 4-5

A quick note on the consistency of gumbo - some people like it thin and runny, and some people like it thick. If you want to make it thicker, add less broth, throw some okra in at the same step as the broth, or add gumbo filé, also known as powdered sassafras. You can dash some in when you throw the rest of the spices in, or even use it as a condiment at the table; my mom prefers this method since you can avoid the unwanted sliminess that okra sometimes imbues and better control the thickness of your gumbo. I will say that I have yet to come across filé at grocery stores in Boston, but you can always order some online if you’re feeling adventurous.


Ingredients

Roux

  • ¼ c. flour

  • ¼ c. vegetable or canola oil

Gumbo

  • 4 stalks celery, diced

  • 1 yellow onion, diced

  • 1 green bell pepper, diced

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 3-4 links sausage, sliced

    • Andouille sausage is best, but you can also substitute this with kielbasa or vegan sausages.

  • 4-5 cups chicken or vegetable broth, separated

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1 ½  tablespoons paprika

  • 1 ½  tablespoons dried thyme

  • 1 tablespoon onion powder

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder

  • ½ tablespoon black pepper

  • ½ tablespoon white pepper

  • Cayenne powder to taste

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Extras

  • 2-3 cups of cooked rice

  • Fresh parsley to top

  • Hot sauce to top

Optional

  • 1 cup of sliced okra, ½ inch pieces

  • Gumbo filé, to preference

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Steps

  1. In a heavy-bottomed large pot over medium-low heat, pour in your oil. Whisk in the flour to combine, and whisk continuously for about 30-40 minutes, preventing any flour from sticking to the pot. You want to go low-and-slow here; if you burn the roux, you’ll have to start all over again. If your roux is getting too thick and gritty but not browning, turn down the heat to the lowest and keep whisking until it gets smooth again.

  2. Are you still whisking? Good! At this point, your roux should be thick, smell nutty, and taken on a color between peanut butter and milk chocolate.

  3. Once you’ve got your roux in good shape, toss in the celery, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Sauté the vegetables for about 5 minutes, or until the onions become translucent.

  4. Pour in 4 cups of your broth in addition to the bay leaves and spices, stirring to combine. Increase the heat, bringing to a boil, and then lower the heat and allow the gumbo to simmer. Stirring occasionally, let that bad boy simmer away for at least 30 to 45 minutes.

  5. In the meantime, coat a large pan with oil over medium heat. Cook sausage until nicely browned. Once cooked, remove and put on a plate with a paper towel to sop up any of that extra grease. You can also pour some of the leftover grease in the pan into your simmering gumbo for some extra flavor.

  6. After the gumbo is done doin’ it’s thing, check it out and see how you like the consistency. Too thick? Add some more broth! Too thin? Add a little gumbo filé until you get there. If the my tip above didn’t get your attention earlier, check it out to learn about how to play around with the consistency of your gumbo.

  7. Once you have tamed your roux-beast, remove the bay leaves and grab a bowl. Fill it up with some cooked rice, and ladle in your gumbo. Top with sausage and some chopped parsley, if that’s what you’re into.

  8. Congratulate yourself! You just made a roux-based stew, which is no small feat. But, uh, do you mind if I come over and snag a bowl too?

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