A signature dish for your holiday table!
By Ari Weinzweig
As you consider what to do for your holiday dinners this year, give some thought to this rich and really good seafood gumbo from the Roadhouse. It’s one of the featured offers on the restaurant’s take-home holiday menu this year (along with a couple other main course options—Arkansas Peppered Ham or Beef Short Ribs). My friend Sara Roahen, who lived for many years in New Orleans and who wrote extensively on the subject in her great little book, Gumbo Tales, reminded me that gumbo is, indeed, a special occasion meal. It’s what many families in New Orleans eat for holidays, which this time of year, most definitely might include either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Many, Sara said, including the great Leah Chase from Dooky Chase restaurant, would serve gumbo as the first course, followed later by another main dish. You, of course, can you do as you like! You also don’t have to wait till Santa comes to town—Bob and the Roadhouse folks have gumbo on the menu for carryout (since there’s no dining-in right now) all month.
The origin of Gumbo.
Most everyone seems to agree that the name gumbo is derived from the from African kingombo, (or ngombo or achingombo) meaning okra, a common gumbo ingredient. Beyond that, the only thing you’ll get most Cajun cooks to agree on is that a well-made gumbo is very, very good. There is, to be clear, no singular gumbo recipe to which we all have to conform. To the contrary, while there’s a shared list of basics, every family in Louisiana seems to have added its own tiny creative twist. Gene Bourg, whose Cajun ancestors have lived in Louisiana for over two centuries, wrote in Saveur that “There are as many gumbos (in Cajun country) as there are cooks.” What exactly goes in and when is up for discussion.
How we make Gumbo at the Roadhouse.
The Roadhouse gumbo starts with a four-hour roux (this is why I rarely make it at home)—flour and butter slowly cooked together to become the thickening agent. The longer you cook it, the darker and more flavorful it gets—roux is a Louisiana specialty and perhaps the single most critical component of a good gumbo. Add celery, onions and peppers (known as the Holy Trinity in Cajun cooking), fresh oysters, Andouille sausage, lots of okra, oak-smoked chicken from the pit and plenty of spices. Garnish with gumbo file (dried sassafras powder) and serve over Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills (organic, field ripened).
Why Gumbo is so good!
If you do get the gumbo for dinner, I encourage you to take in the tiny creative complexities of flavor and texture. In its homeland it’s something of a spiritual activity. As New Orleans-native and (and longtime friend), Lolis Eric Elie says, “Gumbo has earned reverence in a way that few dishes have. It is the signature culinary achievement of one of the world’s great culinary capitals. It is as much at home on a family’s holiday dinner table as it is on the menus of the city’s finest restaurants. It embodies Africa, Europe and Native America with a seamless perfection.” With all that in mind, gumbo just might be the perfect way to bring this year to a calm, comforting close. As the wonderful writer Eugene Walter once said, “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo.”
PS: For more learning on the disparate perspectives and family histories that surround gumbo, check out Southern Foodways Alliance.