The First (and Probably Last) Time I Took on Real Deal New Orleans Cooking

Last Saturday around 11:45 p.m. I got bored. And my fridge had no food in it. Seriously… look at it:

So I decided to make a late night visit to the club. And by club I mean the 24-hour Kroger. Because any time I can escape to the grocery store with no kids in tow it feels like a party.

In the produce section I grabbed a bell pepper and I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming urge to make gumbo. Authentic, homemade New Orleans style gumbo. The kind that made Emeril famous. And this guy, for the old school PBS lovers.

I whipped out my phone and pulled up this authentic looking recipe handed down from generations to total strangers like me. And thus my journey began.

In the store I truly thought my experience would be fun and whimsical and slightly spontaneous. Like the "makin' bacon pancakes" scene in Adventure Time.

I was wrong. It was not like Adventure Time.

Now let me offer a little background. First, I’m Southern, but I’m from Tennessee and I live in Georgia. I'm expected to know how to cook, but Louisiana is three states away. There’s not a Louisiana bone in my body. But I’ve been there. I know people from there. I used to like eating at Copeland’s. And I can follow a recipe. How hard could it be? Creole it is.

Second, and probably most importantly, this isn’t technically my first time making gumbo. About 17 years ago I was on a weight loss kick and I had lost over 50 pounds. I invited a cute boy over who was clearly into me and decided to try a healthy lowfat gumbo recipe for the first time. I wish instead of words like “healthy and lowfat” they called this gumbo “slimy and flavorless” because that was the truth. He ate it politely. He left. He never called me again. Yes. It was that bad. I wasn’t even mad. A girl who serves a meal like that doesn’t deserve to date a nice young man from a good family. So I already have a record of horrible gumbo making that I never wanted to revisit.

But it’s been a few years and now my cooking skills are on point. I knew it would take longer than my usual 30-minute meals but hey, it was Sunday. I had leisurely time. Plus fall season is here and who doesn’t love a bowl of warm comfort food, even though it’s still 90 degrees outside?

My first mistake was thinking I could just grab these ingredients as I went along. After all, it’s past midnight, and this recipe has 25 ingredients, some of which seem foreign. Have you ever tried to find file powder? Have you ever Googled “where does Kroger keep file powder?” I have. It wasn’t where they said. Just as I was about to give up on the spice aisle, the Zatarain’s section and the international aisle, I walked past a tiny display in the seafood section and saw it. I’m pretty sure my guardian angel guided me to it because there’s no other possible way. File powder is what makes gumbo the real deal. SCORE! And it only took me 30 minutes and 17 strange stares from midnight stocking boys to find it.

So I got it all – andouille sausage, 3 pounds of shrimp, lump crab, okra, creole seasoning, and more. This was going to be some good eating. Goodt. With the t. Goodt.

And then came my second mistake. I took a Sunday nap. I call it a Sunday nap because Sunday naps are in their own category. Sunday naps are leisurely. No time limit. They occur at any time with no warning and everyone loves them. I knew it would take a few hours to make, but my Sunday nape made me start at 5 p.m. On a school night. It took me 20 minutes just to get the ingredients all in the right spot on the counter. Checking the clock, I abandoned all plans and whipped up my old tried and true Ghanaian fish stew for dinner while my husband and sons suspiciously eyed the numerous ingredients piled on the counter, waiting deliciously.

Those of you who have ever made gumbo know I’ve made a critical error here. Gumbo takes 4 hours to make. Minimum. I started at 8 p.m., so I already know it’s going to be a late night. The roux alone takes 30 minutes of constant whisking. And if you burn it even a little you have to start over. So you best not burn that roux.

Can I remind you I’ve never actually done this before?

I chopped up my veggies first. Aren’t they pretty?

 The holy trinity of Creole cooking - celery, onion, bell pepper, plus garlic cuz I like it.

The holy trinity of Creole cooking - celery, onion, bell pepper, plus garlic cuz I like it.

And then I cooked an entire pack of bacon so I’d have enough bacon grease for the roux (I still had to add half a stick of butter don't you dare judge me). I chopped up the andouille sausage and let my 8 year old stir them while I got my toddler off to bed. Cast iron is the way to go here, people. And there’s no better helper than an 8 year old boy who likes to steal - I mean taste test - sausage when you’re not looking.

A few minutes later, the boys are down. The house is quiet. It’s 9 p.m.

Roux time.

It started off simple enough. This ain’t my first rodeo. But did you know a gumbo roux is supposed to look like chocolate? I didn’t realize it takes 30 minutes of constant whisking and stirring to get a roux to its chocolate color. I am foolish to start this at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. I should be on Facebook watching cat videos or flirting with the hubs.

Too late for regrets. There is only roux.

Roux transformations are a thing of beauty. It’s just bacon grease and flour but it looks like magic.

Minute 1:

Minute 12:

Minute 22:

Now we’re gonna cook the veggies right in that chocolately looking roux. Then add the sausage my son cooked.

At this point, things are getting serious. I've been stirring constantly for nearly an hour. I’m using a heavy cast iron skillet to mix together tons of veggies and meat and roux. I’ve got 3 quarts of beef broth boiling on the stove. I haven’t even started on all these ingredients still left on the counter yet, and this doesn’t include the shrimp and the okra!

Dear Baby Jesus, what was I thinking?! I’m hot. It's late and I'm ready for bed. I don’t even think I like gumbo. You know my kids are going to see the okra in here, gag and go on a hunger strike. I’m not even Creole!

That was when I had my Scarlett O’Hara moment. I looked up and thought of the grandmothers of old who made this for their families. I wiped my brow (notice the real live bead of sweat on my forehead from stirring the world’s thickest roux). Keep it going gal.

Alright. Roux is going into the pot of broth. Okra is being seared off in vinegar (ah, THAT is what reduces the slime – this would have been good to know, oh, say, 17 years ago). Emeril ain’t got nothing on this. I am the BUSINESS. I am a CHEF. I make magic with ingredients. These hands are the truth.

Somewhere around this time, I’m starting to see how much food is in the pot. Mistake three has reared its ugly head. I never checked how much I was actually making. Rookie cook 101. I pull up the recipe. 20 servings!!! I’m making 20 servings for a family of 3.5. We’re going to be eating gumbo until Thanksgiving. I bet I can hide some of it in other dishes. Gumbo tacos anyone? How about gumbo tuna salad? Gumbo flavored spaghetti? Anyone?

It’s too late. The show must go on.

Everything is in the pot at this point. Shrimp. Okra. Sausage. Veggies. Spices. Tomatoes. That blessed file powder. The simmer is on. And since it’s past midnight, I’ve gotta live with the suspense of wondering whether anyone will like it but me.

I text my sisters and offer free gumbo to them and their families. I have no confidence my boys will eat it. May as well give it away. I could give it all away and still have fiftyleven servings leftover.

The moment of truth has arrived. It's Monday night. The worst night of the week. My 8 year old is shouting, “ARE WE HAVING JUMBO TONIGHT?!” I feel a secret shame that my children cannot pronounce gumbo because they have never had it. My husband informs me that he has a board dinner at work, so his bowl goes back to the cabinet. The drama has begun and dinner hasn’t started yet.

The moment of truth is here. My mama always said we eat with our eyes first. So feast your eyes on this beauty!

SHUT UP YES I MADE THAT! Now that’s pro level cooking there. If I can do this, anyone can do this. But in this moment, I am the best cook in the world. I am a provider. I am woman. The ancestors have passed their skills to me. I must have Creole blood in my veins. I cannot wait to eat!

In the end, the 8 year old gobble down two bowls like a caveman, the toddler immediately rejected it (but ate it all after a bit of coaxing), and the husband not only ate it the next 3 nights, he also heated up the portion I was going to freeze. Success.

It was yummy by the way. Slightly spicy with a depth of flavor you can only get from the roux that requires the patience of Job. No slime. Lots of veggies. Fluffy rice. Food just doesn’t get much better than that.

Making my first authentic pot of gumbo was a tasty adventure, but I’m not sure it will ever be on the menu again. It’s expensive and time consuming and the roux made me sweat. I’m a $10 30-minute meal type of gal, so I keep it simple. And even though it tasted perfect, a dish that takes four hours to make should taste like golden fried angel wings.

There’s a tiny bit left in my fridge. Want some?