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Mastering the Art of Gumbo

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The wedding is perfect. It’s a crystalline day in New Orleans and the breeze is cool, with none of that coastal humidity that clings to your skin. Two hundred people arrive at City Park in various states of dressing up—women in funny hats and feather boas, as requested by the bride, my friend Jenny. Dave, her groom, is in a Sergeant Pepper frock coat. This is, after all, a city that’s not shy about putting on costumes and partying. (I once found myself at a Mardi Gras parade wearing a hot-pink nylon wig and begging for cheap plastic beads from a man on a float dressed as a pig.) In the park there’s the smell of spicy New Orleans food, of jambalaya and gumbo. The music plays, and though Jenny and her family lost pretty much everything in Katrina, today there’s a real feeling of rebirth.

I fell in love with New Orleans only a couple of years ago, when I went down to work on a documentary about the storm’s aftermath. It was a tiny piece of a city then—hardly more than 110,000 people, instead of the 450,000 it had been. Much of it was trashed, most of the stoplights were not working, houses without gas or electricity. Still, I could visit some parts of the city, could see the glorious architecture of the French Quarter and Garden District, and I could imagine, even in its emptiness, the place it had been.

I read the history and the literature, and I came back again and again. I heard Kermit Ruffins play the trumpet on his regular Thursday night at Vaughan’s, and I listened to Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor. I ate beignets and drank coffee and chicory at Café Du Monde. I went to my first Mardi Gras. And I regretted terribly that I hadn’t known the city before.

Somehow I’d always thought of New Orleans as a place for fraternity boys to party, a city where jazz—which I love—had long ago been theme-parked. I thought of it as a tourist town, which it was and is, of course, a tourist town in the style of New York or Venice, a great cosmopolitan bouillabaisse of art and commerce, religion and vice, and people of all different kinds—black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native.

But I fell in love with the city because of the way New Orleanians feel about it. They have this utter conviction that it’s the only place on earth worth living, a completely specific sense of place. It reminds me, of course, most of all, of my own New York. And I’ve come to love it in the same way I love my hometown. I first heard Ruffins sing the heartbreaking “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” on that first visit, and it keeps on running through my head every time I go back.

On that trip I also ate my first gumbo. There weren’t many places open, but at a little café at the edge of the French Quarter—I can’t even remember the name—I had a thick, slightly spicy stew (chicken and okra, I think) poured over rice. And I immediately understood why it’s the city’s comfort food. With its mix of ingredients and flavors, gumbo is the quintessential New Orleans dish. It’s not hard to see why it has come to be a metaphor for the city.

Gumbo originated in Louisiana, maybe as early as 1800, born out of the diversity of the area’s culinary traditions. People make it with seafood, poultry, or sausage; some use okra (gumbo being the Bantu word for okra) to thicken it, or filé powder, the dried and ground-up sassafras leaf they love here. Others just use a roux, that classic of French cooking, made basically of flour and fat.

“Gumbo is our Jesse Tree, the footprint of who we are and where we come from,” says chef John Besh, of the New Orleans restaurant August and currently the city’s top celebrity chef. “The Africans gave us the okra, the Native Americans the filé, the French the roux. The Spanish gave us the sofrito, or what we call the holy trinity of chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper. The Croatians gave us the oysters and shrimp, the Italians a little tomato, the Germans the Andouille sausage, and the Caribbeans our spices. And still today a newcomer will come and leave his impact on our beloved gumbo, and together we are all the better for it.”

The weekend I’m in New Orleans for Jenny’s wedding, I want to try making gumbo. Every cook has a recipe, so I ask Jenny, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, to suggest a chef. “Try Aaron Burgau. He makes the best gumbo I’ve ever tasted, and he’s a friend,” says Jenny, who like everybody in this city has an opinion about food in general and gumbo in particular—how to cook it, what to put in it, where to eat it.

Burgau, 34, has just opened Patois, his uptown restaurant near Audubon Park, and, like Jenny’s wedding, it seems a nice sign of new life. The chef comes with great credentials. A native of the city, he’s cooked with some of New Orleans’s best—Susan Spicer of Bayona, Gerard Maras at Gerard’s Downtown, and John Harris of Lillete—and he was executive chef at Bank Café. I go over to Patois and have a couple of sensational meals. Aaron makes everything, not just the boudin-stuffed smoked pork chops but also the boudin itself, as well as the biscuits, the terrines, and even the pickles.

And so, the day after the wedding, in Aaron’s kitchen, we prepare shrimp-and-okra gumbo—my favorite—peeling shrimp, tossing the heads, tails, and shells into a saucepan of water to make the stock. The shrimp get their particular taste because they come from brackish water, Aaron tells me. That’s water from a place where salt and fresh meet and mix, an estuary or a spot like Lake Charles. “It’s a great shrimp-farming environment,” says Aaron, whose dad was a big shrimp broker.

Salt water and fresh. Even as I try to avoid seeing everything in New Orleans as a metaphor—it’s just too easy—I find myself thinking about this: Down here, even the shrimp are of mixed provenance.

By now we’re working on the roux. “You have to use a spoon,” says Burgau. “This stuff can burn you right to the bone. That’s why we call it Cajun napalm.

“A roux can be light, blond, or dark. Mine is dark, a kind of nasty roux, like we say,” continues the chef, who like so many New Orleanians comes from a mixed background—white American, Filipino, French, and Sicilian. “Now, I call this a two-beer roux because that’s how long it takes to cook: same as the time it takes to drink two beers. You have to really watch you don’t burn it, though, or it will turn your gumbo bitter.”

Bitter gumbo, bitter times. Even two and a half years after the storm, New Orleans still feels empty, a half or a third of the population gone, depending on whose statistics you believe. Thinking about gumbo, about its vibrant mix, I can’t help but think of how the city must have been before. A heady, thrilling, sometimes vicious brew of people, food, and history. A city where a streetcar could be called Desire and one of the greatest of all American plays named for it. A city where jazz, that one wholly American art form, was born— as was Louis Armstrong, its greatest genius.

It’s hard to believe that this singular city has been largely written off. And it’s hard to convey the horror of the wreckage I saw when I first visited the Lower Ninth Ward just after the storm. The area looked like Hiro-shima after the bomb. (So did many other neighborhoods all over town, as well as huge swaths of the Gulf Coast.) Not much has changed. A few lone hammers echo, a few people try to rebuild.

The smashed houses remain. I find one that’s exactly as it was two and a half years ago, a limbless doll still tossed in what was a front yard, a car flipped on its back like a beached fish. Grass has grown up over some of the cement foundations, and much of the area looks as if it has been abandoned to nature—or to the developers who dream of golf courses and condos.

Sure, you go to the French Quarter or the Garden District or Uptown, the lovely places on high ground, and they’re as pretty as ever. And there are bright new spots like Patois. But there’s something empty, too, something sad. It’s pretty clear that if you make it impossible for so many people to come home, if you write so much of the city off, if you theme-park it like Las Vegas, it’s not New Orleans anymore.

Great cities are made up of a strange and elusive mix, none more so than New Orleans. Without that mix, you get a place that’s bland and flat. It’s like New York City without its immigrants. Would there be fewer problems? Who knows. But it wouldn’t be New York. You can’t experience New York in Disney on Broadway, and you can’t find New Orleans in a jazz theme park.

Back in the kitchen, the stock and roux and vegetables are ready, and Aaron puts the parts of the gumbo together. He steams up some rice, and we eat. I ask him about the storm. “Plenty of people suffered,” he says. “But you gotta keep on living. This is home.”

The stew has just the right heat, the shrimp is sublime, the okra perfectly cooked (if you let it go too long, it gets stringy). We drink a few cold beers, and I find it comforting that after all that’s gone on, you can still make and eat a great gumbo here. But it’s much more difficult to maintain the metaphor. How will this great city keep on boiling with so many of its ingredients missing?

And out in the Lower Ninth, Brad Pitt’s little pink tent city goes up. The canvas shapes represent the 150 houses Pitt is funding through his Make It Right organization. It looks like a Christo sculpture now, but it will be good for the city—homes that are environmentally sound, architecturally beautiful, affordable. They could be a model for new housing, I think, remembering what John Besh said about a newcomer making an impact and everyone’s being better off for it. But I wonder: Just 150 houses for all those tens of thousands that were washed away? For all those people who are never coming home.

Shrimp-and-Okra Gumbo

Makes 10 to 12 servings

For the Creole seasoning

2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp granulated garlic
For the roux
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour

For the gumbo

2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 medium onions, cut into small dice
2 green bell peppers, cut into small dice
1 red bell pepper, cut into small dice
3 ribs of celery, cut into small dice
1 tbsp garlic, minced
4 oz crushed or diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
2 lbs 21- to 25-count shrimp
3 qts shrimp stock
4 bay leaves
1 lb okra, trimmed and sliced
Crystal hot sauce, to taste

  1. Make the Creole seasoning: In a small bowl, combine all the herbs and spices and set aside.
  2. For the roux, heat the oil in a heavy-bottom pot and add flour. Stir constantly until the roux is dark. Do not burn; it will make the gumbo bitter.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the vegetable oil. Add onions, green and red bell peppers, celery, and garlic and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and roux. Add a 1/2 pound of shrimp. Add shrimp stock, Creole seasoning, and bay leaves and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to one hour. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, add okra and remaining shrimp. Season to taste with hot sauce.
  5. Serve over steamed rice, passing additional hot sauce at the table.

Patois is located at 6078 Laurel Street (504-895-9441;


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