Yes, yes. I know. I spelled it incorrectly. It just looks more…let’s say, exotic, spelled like that.
Gumbo. It is its own food group. That is if you live anywhere on the northern Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Pascagoula. And no matter how many folks you ask about their gumbo recipe, you are always going to get the same answer: mine is the best, or no one could make it like Aunt Jane, or even more common, no one can make it like my grandmother did.
Well…here’s the deal. Gumbo, by definition, is a thick stew or soup. The only required ingredient is okra. I’ll talk about that in a minute. The other definition of gumbo is, “a French-based patois spoken by some Black and Creole people in Louisiana.” My question would then be, “Which one came first? The soup or the patois?
While I can write all day about similarities of the lifestyles of people who inhabit the Coastal regions and those poor souls who are landlocked, I could take all of tomorrow and pen words about how us beach rats think differently when it comes to everyday cooking.
Growing up in Ocean Springs as a fifth-generation Beaugez, I ate on a daily basis, what is now considered, gourmet food. We had red beans, or baby lima beans, once a week, seasoned with bacon and ham, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf. We ate blue crabs, cooked alive once we got home from catching them on hot, lazy, summer mornings off of the old railroad bridge. When the tide and the moon were just right, we’d go to Front Beach and pick up soft-shell crabs with our hands.
In summer, Daddy would get home from his job at Ingalls Shipyard, change from his blue-collar shirt to shorts and a t-shirt, and head to East or Front Beach with his cast net to catch a mess o’ mullet for our supper. On the weekends, Daddy fished in the Bayou, or “out front” (the Biloxi Bay) and beyond Deer Island. He’d catch white trout and speckled trout, redfish, red snapper, lemon fish, a.k.a. cobia. When the tide was low on dark, moonless nights, he’d take a kerosene lantern, gig, and bucket, and come home with those sweet, white-fleshed flounders, the very ones with an eye on each side of their funny-looking heads. Daddy would buy sacks of oysters off of boats in the harbor but only in months with “r” at the end. And, when in season, he bought shrimp off the boats of men he knew and trusted. He had to know when they’d been caught and how long they’d been on ice.
And we grew tall okra in our backyard, which was not fifty yards from the harbor. Mama fried it and boiled it, too. But, its major use was to make gumbo. It’s what the Creole people who started the whole gumbeaux movement used to thicken the liquid used in the stew, most likely water, but possibly chicken stock.
The only thing we didn’t have farm-to-table were onions, white and green, and bell pepper. Usually, my Uncle Alvin grew those. I’m not sure where mama got the garlic, but we ALWAYS had garlic.
Now, back to the gumbeax. If you take a little of all the above, sometimes add a little chicken or andouille sausage, throw it in a pot after you make a roux with flour and oil, you’ve got gumbo. I don’t literally mean all the seafood that I mentioned, but maybe you get my drift (pun intended).
Gumbo, or gumbeaux, is just like the people who make up this northern Gulf coast region—simply as different as any two people can be. Every pot of gumbo stands alone. We are proud that our gumbo is as much a melting pot of ingredients as our region is made up of unique individuals from all over the world.