"It’s gumbo weather."
If you hear that in south Louisiana, you know two things: it’s probably late into the football season and we’ve just recently had a "cold snap," which means we’ve finally had nights that dip into the 40s. It also means that a whole lot of natives just broke out the skillets (the better to make the roux), and green onions, shrimp and a ton of spices.
There are a wide variety of gumbos–most use a chicken stock as part of the base and add on from there. Shrimp and okra, sausage and chicken, the general throw-everything-in-the-pot seafood. Its stock is typically thinner than a stew and thicker than a soup, served over rice, and served with a condiment called filet (ground sassafras). (One tiny 1/4 teaspoonful per bowl is usually enough.)
Now, if your gumbo gravy is red, then you’ve got some other influences going on in there which are not south Louisiana; if there are hard boiled eggs in there, absorbing the gravy, then you’re probably eating gumbo in the Lafayette / Lake Charles area. [North Louisiana gumbo tends to be thinner and lighter as well.] [My husband completely freaked out the first time he fished an egg out of the gumbo pot. I think he thought he’d married into a bunch of crazy people. He was born in Alabama. We make allowances.]
When we’re developing characters and place in our stories, there’s one often-forgotten sensory experience left unexplored: tastes. But it’s one powerful connector to place, to the unique aspects of that place, which can orient a character there faster and more firmly than any mountain of prosaic description of landscape could ever manage.
For example, I know if someone mentioned crawfish etouffee,
[pronounced eh-too-fey] and its particular blend of spice, that they are familiar with south Louisiana.
I’m not sure if they’re familiar with the fact that one of our main crops is rice (which is one of the reasons why it’s so prevalent in many of our dishes), but if they can describe the particular creamy-roux-based taste, with a touch of tomato mixed with onions and butter, generally heavy cream (this is not cooking for the diet conscious), then I feel like they’ve captured a sense of the place. If, however, someone mentions boudin [boo-dan–that ‘n’ is barely pronounced, then I know they’re a bit more familiar with south Louisiana heritage. (Boudin is one of those foods, like sausage, where you really just do not want to go looking all that carefully at the ingredients, if you’re queasy about that sort of thing. It’s a finely chopped meat/uh, other stuff/rice/spice combination which is then stored in sausage casings. Think "spicy spicy spicy "dirty rice" and you’ll have some idea. A lot of field hands and hunters / trappers would take a string of boudin links with them out in the field–cutting off a link and squeezing out the rice combination to eat as they worked or hunted. Made for easy transportation of food. I’ve seen people who beg for hot Thai food tear up over boudin, if it’s made well.)
The common "po boy" which I understand has variations elsewhere as the "hoagie" or the "sub":
(I’m not 100% sure that’s redfish in the photo, but it was the best representation of what truly "blackened" means… those spices have been seared onto the fish, the fish is not at all burned.)
I know we commonly have beignets [bin-yays] here:
Whereas, elsewhere in the country, they might call them sopapillas:
Long before there was a Starbucks in south Louisiana, their coffee cropped up in places in fiction I’d read. (I honestly had no clue at first what a Starbucks was. The preferred coffee here is Community, usually Dark Roast, which will stand up and bitch slap you, it is so strong.) I’ve gotten a tremendous sense about who that character is from whether they cook mac and cheese from a box or a five course (possibly poisoned, if it’s a murder mystery) Italian meal. Or a fine, flaky dessert called baklava:
I don’t necessarily want a description of every meal–or even many meals, especially in thrillers or mysteries where too much description could slow the killer pace, but people eat and drink and noting regional favorites gives added… uh, flavor (sorry), to the work. Does the character know their way around a kitchen? or have they stockpiled take out menus (and if so, is their favorite Chinese? Thai? Italian? Russian? Do Russians have take out menus?) (I am now suddenly realizing that Bobbie Faye’s boss, who owns the Ce Ce’s Cajun Outfitter and Feng Shui Emporium will now also have to open a Russian-styled "home cooking" place because, well, she’s Ce Ce. And a little crazy.)
So what’s normally cooking in your area? Tell me about your regional favorites, especially the local variations on them. And is anyone else a Top Chef fanatic? Bueller? Bueller? hello?
(ps… happy birthday to my oldest son, Luke!)