Choosing one iconic dish from each state to prepare for Flavored Nation’s sprawling event in St. Louis in late October is a job that varies from very easy to very hard, depending on the state. Some states, like South Dakota, are tough because non-Dakotans can’t even think of one dish, but others like Louisiana have somany candidates for “state iconic dish,” who could ever narrow it down tojust one?
Well, we had to, and we did. Back in May, we connected with Dickie Brennan Jr., of the royalest restaurant family in New Orleans, seeking his sage advice. He saw the problem right away, of course, and hesitated little before opining “it’s gotta be gumbo.” I know in my bones that he’s right.
Oh sure, you could make a case for po’ boys, jambalaya, crawfish étouffé, red beans and rice, etc. But gumbo’s sheer ubiquity wins the day. It’s on every kind of menu everywhere in the state, from bar food to middling meals to fine dining. It’s also simmering on the back burner of almost every home kitchen in the state. The cuisine of few states is so dominated by a humble soup.
I flew to the Big Easy last week to stick my nose into Brennan’s favorite gumbo pots, and learn more about the Big G. Fittingly, Brennan had the most memorable explanation for why gumbo towers so in his state: “It’s the best parts of Louisiana brought together into something magnificent.”
“Bringing together” is the theme song of Louisiana. Even the word “Creole” comes from a Spanish word meaning to “create,” to forge something new out of disparate elements. The flour-fat roux that begins the cooking of most gumbos owes everything to the French, who dominated “Nouvelle Orléans,” established in 1718. That sausage in your gumbo came from a group of Germans that established a colony near New Orleans in 1721. The seafood in many gumbo pots comes from the Spaniards who took control of the territory in 1762, and their love of peppers also plays a role in gumbo development. Without these settlers, cayenne pepper may not have assumed such an important role in local cooking.
Then there’s okra, which comes from West Africa, as did countless thousands of New Orleans residents over the centuries, some brought as slaves directly from Africa, some through slave markets and plantations in the Caribbean, but all remembered their love for the unique, mucilaginous vegetable, named ki ngombo in the Niger-Congo language spoken by many slaves, a phrase which many food historians believe is the source of the very word “gumbo.”
And let’s not forget the “local” influence, the Cajuns. They, too, were emigrants to the area, in this case, emigrants from “Acadia,” the French-speaking part of Eastern Canada. They were expelled from Acadia in the late 18th century, and thousands of these Acadians/Cajuns poured into the swamplands north and west of New Orleans. They were crafty in adapting local ingredients for cooking; they turned, for example, the roots of the sassafras plant into a powder known as filé — which adds flavor, and thickening, to stews and soups like gumbo.
Almost every gumbo made in Louisiana today is thickened with roux. There are not many other overarching generalities about gumbo. As I learned from my tour, there are lots of variations out there.
Brennan and I set out about noon last Sunday from downtown New Orleans, hell-bent for the further-flung gumbo destinations that most New Orleans tourists wouldn’t know about.
The first stop was Frankie & Johnny’s, an old-fashioned, tile-floor bar in a funky part of the Uptown neighborhood. The bar goes on forever and there’s even more seating space in the back room. It’s not hard to imagine hundreds of boozy celebrants filling this place with Zydeco joy on a Friday night.
For me, the greatest joy was right in a bowl. We were served two bowls, in fact, each standing in for the two major “flavors” of gumbo, surf and turf. The first was on the way to magnificence, a really fine chicken and andouille gumbo.
“When you get right down to it,” Brennan says, “gumbo’s all about the stock.”
The best was yet to be. “Seafood Gumbo.” That’s what it says on the menu. It might as well say “The Apotheosis of Seafood Gumbo. Go No Further. You Have Found The Ultimate.” That’s how it struck me, anyway. The shellfish flavor in that stock was so deep, it almost tasted like spices.
“Cloves?” I ask owner David McCelvey,.
“Nope. Just plenty of shrimp shells,” he replied.
It was fairly dark, which is what happens when you slowly, carefully cook the roux for an hour or so, medium-thick, with a modicum of rice afloat and a couple of shrimp swimming by, but the genius is in that incredible broth.
“What’d you think?” I ask Brennan when we leave.
“Damned good,” the man replies. “But too many shrimp shells.”
I gasp. Could it be that Dickie thinks it’s over-flavored?
“Oh no,” he says. “depth of flavor is great. But too many shrimp shells give you an iodine flavor. You want more crab in that stock.”
And the chicken and andouille gumbo? “Real good,” he says. “But too much roux. It’s a blonde-ish brown. That means the roux didn’t cook super-long. And the less it cooks, the more it keeps its power to thicken. Good gumbo, but too thick.”
I am enrolled at Gumbo University.
On to the next stop, a place way outside of town that I’ve visited before for its amazing po’ boys: Parkway Bakery, near Bayou St. John. The po’ boy part may be on the tourist radar, but nobody talks about the amazing Parkway gumbo.
The place was jammed at about 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon with locals merrily sipping their drinks while in the long lines. I re-visit my fave, the fried shrimp po’boy, which is as perfect as ever, but I find out that the roast beef po’ boy is the real specialty of the house. They bring me a cup of the roast beef gravy and tell me that making stocks and sauces is at the heart of what they do. That gets us to gumbo.
Despite trying to run this jumpin’ Sunday lunch, the young owner, Justin Kennedy, can’t resist sitting down for a moment to tell me every detail about the stock in his Turkey and Alligator Sausage Gumbo.
He cooks whole turkeys for hours and hours in various liquids, including cream of mushroom soup. Wait, this gets better.
“The stock I get out of it, which I use for gumbo,” Kennedy says, “is medium-thick because of the cream of mushroom, which means I don’t need any roux for the gumbo. I can always taste the flour in gumbo, any gumbo. I don’t like it. I prefer to leave it out. But I do use okra to help thicken it.”
And there before me are two bowls of roux-less turkey gumbo. Now, I must clarify. There’s only one gumbo on the menu, but it usually takes 2-3 days to make its way to the front burner. It “ages,” while the “older” ones are served first. Kennedy wanted me to see what the gumbo made today is like, compared to one made three days ago. Quel difference! If you come to Parkway, try to talk your server into giving you the “aged” gumbo.
“Holy mackerel,” is my response to this non-seafood gumbo. Delicious, with an overwhelming turkey flavor in the “aged” one, particularly. Medium-dark brown (“it’s my turkey that gives it the color”). Medium-thick. Great seasoning and spices. Sticky-lip gumbo, from all that divine collagen.
We get in the car and it’s Dickie time, once again.
“Should be one of the best gumbos in New Orleans,” he says. “But there’s not gonna be any cream of mushroom soup in it a week from now.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I’m gonna have a little talk with Justin,” Brennan says, with a faint smile.
Some restaurants have executive chefs, who oversee things. Some restaurant companies have executive chefs, who oversee things. Brennan is one level above that. He’s the unofficial executive chef of New Orleans. Whether he’s involved with a restaurant or not, he wants everyone to produce excellent food.
“But Justin’s on to something with that turkey,” he says, “because turkey is great for gumbo.”
Lastly, we go out of town and really out of town, about 30 minutes by car, toward the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain. I’m dreaming about what kind of Sunday lunch scene we could be headed toward and when we pull up to Middendorf’s, open since 1934 in the tiny fishing village of Manchac, dang it all, it is my dream!
Who doesn’t long for a big old house, in a beautiful rural setting like the waterways of southern coastal Louisiana, filled with family after family smiling, munching, communing, loving, living large, as if it were 1956? Generations shoulder to shoulder, singing the great eternal song. This is the long-forgotten American dream, right here, as palpable as the crunch of the fried catfish from a nearby inlet.
And then there’s the Seafood Gumbo, served in this classic setting. Is it the best? Brennan thinks so. I gotta say, the dark-brown liquid is as intense as the one at Frankie & Johnny’s, but much thinner, more elegant, a great testament to the weakened thickening capability of a properly long-cooked roux. And it’s definitely more of a crab thing than a shrimp thing, garnished with half a dozen crab claws. This makes Dickie happy. Me, too.
I ate many more gumbos during my five days in New Orleans — including one of the best, the very crabby seafood gumbo at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse — but an interesting pattern emerged. The more I talked gumbo with gumbo people, the more I could see that they thought they were being wildly creative with gumbo. Louisiana sophistication came roaring through in these discussions, because little tweaks that most people might not even notice were huge differences to them.
“Well,” Brennan said, “you gotta let cuisine evolve. It’s good that a thousand chefs find a thousand little things to change about gumbo. But we have such basic respect for this dish that we wouldn’t want to change it too much. Once, at Commander’s Palace, we made gumbo for a while without roux. Mistake. Gumbo’s gotta have roux. It’s gotta be defined by something.″
“So what would you say,” I ask, “if a young, creative chef added miso, or garam masala, to his gumbo?”
Dickie sighs the sigh of wisdom and maturity.
“I’d say: DON’T CALL IT GUMBO!”
The future, I think, is secure.