Some of my earliest memories take place in the kitchen. Not just any kitchen. A Cajun kitchen. No dirt floor or hand pumped water. Like most kitchens, this one had a stove, fridge and sink. It had cabinets with doors and a window over the sink looking out over the yard.
This is where the similarities stop. For one thing, the kitchen window didn't look out over the neighbor's yard, but the barnyard, filled with guineas, chickens and ducks. This was my grandmother's kitchen. It had a pantry stocked with canned homegrown vegetables. Red peppers, tomatoes, pickles, corn and any number of other veggies sat in mason jars on the shelves of her pantry. Next to these would be the ball of string my grandmother collected in case we needed to tie packages or make toys for the numerous barn cats to chase. These toys were simply a button tied to one end of the string and dangled just out of said kitty's reach. Washed used plastic wrap, aluminum foil and folded grocery bags resided in her pantry, as well, until they were needed.
While this is not common in today's kitchen, I'm sure the canned good from the garden and the saved bits were not uncommon in kitchens around the world in the mid-seventies. The language was. My grandmother and grandfather spoke fluent French. In Cajun dialect. I grew up knowing instinctively that "Chere" was a term of endearment. And other terms that were less loving and more colorful.
I grew up knowing the joys of the two things that make Cajun country most famous, Mardi Gras and the food. Of course, our Mardi Gras was a far cry from the spectacle in New Orleans. Theirs is more Parisian while ours is akin to the rural French countryside celebration. Men on horseback, wearing masks and drinking beer. The Captain would ride alone down our driveway and request permission for his men to come play music and dance for us in return for a chicken or some rice. My mother usually had a bag of rice waiting and would give it to the Captain, but declined to be entertained. Such a disappointment to me as a child.
Our food, now there are books that could be written about the food. Suffice to say, it's important to note that there is a world of difference between Creole and Cajun. We love cayenne pepper and will eat parts of animals you won't find in the grocery store coolers. Many of the foods share the same names in Creole and Cajun, such as gumbo and boudin.
What makes them different is more a matter of preparation than name or even ingredients. Gumbo where I grew up was a thicker, darker soup than what I've eaten in creole restaurants and homes.
The Cajun kitchen is a place of noise: laughter, talk and music. My grandfather played fiddle and sang Cajun music. Many weekends, house parties were held at my grandparents' house. Friends and neighbors would gather with plenty of food and beer to dance to the music my grandfather and his bandmates played. The sound was lively and heartbreaking. Fiddle, accordion, guitar and unusual instruments such as spoons and washboards combined to fill the air with this unique music. Over this music, my grandfather's vocals rang out in the lyrical French of the Cajun people.
In the house, the women prepared food. Outside, the grill sizzled with steak, chicken, sausage, hot dogs for the kids and whatever else they felt like cooking. Beer flowed freely, as did laughter. Couples two-stepped and jitter-bugged to the songs, while children ran around with the dogs and played in the trees and the dirt. Often, a young child would stand on a parent's feet, learning the two-step, feeling grown up.
These parties lasted until the musicians tired and the last guests left. The women cleaned up inside while the men cleaned up outside. Everyone went to bed with full hearts and full stomachs.
Anything less than a full stomach is unacceptable in a Cajun kitchen. In honor of that tradition, the following gumbo recipe is offered for your edification:
Gumbo is an Afrikkan word for "soup". However, Spanish, French and Native American influences have shaped it's current incarnation which varies from area to area, but this is the one I grew up with in central Louisiana.
- 3 heaping tablespoons Roux
- 1 medium Onion
- 1 pkg. boneless, skinless chicken breasts **
- 1 pkg. smoked sausage (the more smoked the better)
- Red pepper (cayenne)to taste
- 2 cups rice
(The chicken and sausage can be substituted with seafood such as shrimp and oysters. I am unsure of cooking times, but the rule of thumb is that the longer a gumbo cooks the better!)
To make the Roux, which is the base for the gumbo, put 1 cup flour in a saucepan (preferably cast iron, but not required) over medium high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon until the flour starts to turn a light brown. Slowly add 1 cup of cooking oil. Continue stirring until the mixture is a bit darker than a penny. Let it cool, drain the excess oil.
Using a 5 quart or larger pot, fill it a bit more than halfway with water over a medium high heat. Add the Roux. Stir until the roux has dissolved and the water is a solid tan color. Lower to medium heat. Add seasoned chicken. Let this cook on a low boil for approximately 20 minutes.
*We have a wives tale that if the gumbo pot overflows, it guarantees a good gumbo. This is not necessarily true, but it does guarantee a mess*
After 20 minutes, add the slices of sausage. Stir and allow to cook on a low boil for another 20 to 30 minutes. Unless you let the water boil out, you cannot overcook a gumbo.
While the gumbo boils, cook the two cups of rice in a separate pot. If you are not sure how to do this, the instructions are usually on the package. I do not recommend Uncle Ben's or Minute Rice for this dish. It's just not the same as good, medium grain white or brown rice. When the rice is cooked, spoon some into a deep bowl, submerge it in gumbo and enjoy.
** I recommend using the boneless, skinless chicken for easy preparation and lower fat content. You can use any chicken pieces, but may need to skim the fat off the top of the gumbo before serving. Us Cajuns are also known to throw in such chicken pieces as gizzard and heart. But that is a matter of preference.
** Gumbo keeps well by freezing in a sealed container. It is excellent reheated.
If you try this recipe and like it, let me know. Bon Apetit!