Have you ever noticed when there’s a gumbo on the stovetop made with a homemade roux, the whole house cannot escape the enchanting, and well unique smell, of almost burnt flour and butter? (Side note: I admit a good Savoie’s, Champagne’s, Kary’s, or Rox roux works just as well – don’t forget Guidry’s for your holy trinity and to sprinkle in copious amounts of TABASCO®). Once the andouille sausage or tasso goes in the pot, your mouth begins to water and only moments later, a host of eager bellies want to know if it’s ready to serve.
Smells are closely associated with memories and perhaps that’s why so many strong, fond, and joyful memories are awakened each time the ingredients of a gumbo are being tossed together. I often feel much closer to home and family when a gumbo is involved. It reminds me of high school football Friday’s with post game victory gumbo gatherings, of cold Mardi Gras seasons where gumbo was served along the parade routes amidst the blare of a marching band, and of Christmas Eves where nothing was more fitting than a warm fire, Christmas carols, and a spicy gumbo.
Perhaps South Louisiana is special because its culture evolves around the interconnection of food and family – quite literally. Gatherings among friends and family often include chatter in the kitchen or around a barbecue pit or crawfish pot. Our food-centric lifestyle is not just about the food; it’s about breaking bread with one another and joining in the good company of our neighbors. And well, gumbo recipes cannot be made for a party of one – usually the recipe proportion amasses to the teens in number.
The sharing of time tested family recipes is a rite of passage for Louisiana folks.
My mom still recreates the Sunday dinner hailing from Acadia Parish that her grandmother fixed many decades ago – a good old baked chicken, rice and gravy, peas, and whatever seasonal vegetables have arrived at the farmers market that week – she frequents Gotreaux Family Farms and the Acadiana Farmer’s Market on Foreman Dr. each week. There’s also the bbq chicken Sunday dinner variety which includes sides of sensation salad, rice O’Brien, baked beans, and garlic bread. In my husband’s Sicilian family, the making of the rice balls (an arancini) is being passed on to our generation. The delectable meat, cheese, and rice balls are fried and served at most holiday meals. A far cry from my Acadia Parish cooking upbringing, these Marcellos bring the Sicilian flare all the way from DeRidder and trace back even further to Corleone, Sicily. I have also enjoyed many a Thanksgiving and Christmas meal of homemade spaghetti and meatballs – oh my!
Then there’s that Cajun cookbook entitled Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?
All very important questions when determining which of an acquaintance’s family member that you do actually know, and if they should be on your recipe swap list and invited to your next cookout. Do we really size people up by the taste and flavor of their gumbo? Their jampbayla? Their red beans and rice? Why yes we do, and that’s only fitting when “mama” is known in the area as the best chef – beating out most Cajun restaurants any day.
There are plenty of cookoffs and festivals to prove one’s cooking worth too. There are more gumbo cookoffs than I could name for fundraisers and to simply “pass a good time.” South Louisiana does not need a reason to celebrate, but we sure have made up many reasons to do just that in the form of festivals. From Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, to International Rice Festival in Crowley, and every other food and produce we can find within our boot-shaped borders, it’s well known that we pay homage to the fruits of our soil and lands that feed our tables by Festival’in. For what is a gumbo without rice or an etouffe without crawfish!?
As we enter into the holiday season, I’m reminded of how fortunate we are for the culture we grew up in; a culture that celebrates, uplifts, encourages, and at times mourns together. We enjoy the joie de vivre both in our private gatherings at home and our public festivals and tailgates too! In Acadiana, we share life’s journey very intimately with our friends and family and we often do so with a casserole dish or a gumbo pot. So when you smell that gumbo, I hope you are reminded of all your fondest memories and take time to share a meal with your closest of kin or your newest neighbor.