I made Gumbo New Year’s Eve. The first time I made it was while we were living on the Eastern Shore. I had what I thought was a great recipe in a cookbook titled “One of a Kind: Recipes from the Junior League of Mobile.” It was a wedding gift. I was making the Gumbo for our Mardi Gras Party at a colleague’s house. A group of us decided to bring Mardi Gras to us. Being the only true southerner, I volunteered to make the Gumbo.
I took my cookbook to my husband’s aunt, Tommie. She was a New Orleans native and true Cajun (her father was from Paris and her mother, African American). She was known for her Gumbo recipe which she guarded like a state secret. She took the book and crossed out (with great emotion) some of listed the ingredients and added no new ones. I did not know that really good gumbo is simple. She did not use crab meat, chicken or the gumbo file. It’s just good Andouille sausage and lots of shrimp. The secret is the roux and the cooking time. The best okra is frozen and do not cook it long. Add the shrimp and do not overcook. It only takes a few minutes if the gumbo is hot.
We always purchased the shrimp in Baltimore at Lexington Market for years. That meant, we always had an ice chest in the trunk and we have transported shrimp as far as Chattanooga, Tennessee. I always tried to get the sausage there too. One year, we almost did not find the sausage. Well the Gumbo was the hit of that party and many more. Over the years I have made it so many times and it never fails to impress. I have had to toss out a couple of bad batches of roux.
What is unfortunate is that our beloved aunt has Alzheimer’s. I always made sure we talked for hours when we visited her in Baltimore. So I know a great deal of family secrets. She lived two row houses down from my mother-in law. The two of them were more like sisters than sister-in-laws. My mother-in-law passed first. Tommie was heart-broken. We cleared the house together. When she started showing signs of memory loss and became more difficult to manage: Roy and I would visit, take her to lunch at her favorite place, the “Cheese Cake Factory, and then to church. We also would take her to the mall and to visit friends and relatives. Roy had a calming effect on her. He would drive and talk to her. She had taken care of him when his mother was working. He always made her laugh.
I made the Gumbo a few years before we lost Tommie’s husband. It was the year Christmas Eve was on a Friday. When I told them I was making it, they all reminisced about Tommie’s Gumbo and told such sweet stories. Well, when I told them I was using her recipe they were in disbelief. They asked how I had been so lucky and I told them. That was a special pot of Gumbo and I was so proud to make it. It was downed with love. We had leftovers for Christmas dinner. They all said it was indeed her recipe. It was also the year after we lost our great hostess, Sylvia. She was the wife of Tommie’s son Jack. Jack is like my husband’s baby brother. Sylvia was the one who put together all the holiday dinners. So that pot of Gumbo was in honor of two great ladies.
I can’t help but speak of Tommie in the past tense. That is what Alzheimer’s does. It robs you of the person and leaves just the body. The woman I knew is not here but I did take her to lunch right before she had a turn for the worse. We had a great time. We may have even gone to church. She would have been wearing a mink stole or her Persian lamb jacket and I would have been wearing Josephine’s coat (also Persian lamb). Both of the coats are over 50 years old.
New Year’s is a time of reflection. My New Year’s commitment is to catchup with old friends and colleagues. I want to put the past year behind me. I do plan to stay vigilant but that is for the next post.
Happy New Year!