By Clay Purdy
Chicagoan Ken Wells has invented an alternate form of autobiography: a memoir with recipes. Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou is 250 pages of nothing but gumbo—history, memories and instructions. It’s based on Wells’ life as a Cajun kid and his world travels as a journalist.
Wells grew up in the Cajun bastion of Bayou Black in southern Louisiana where gumbo was everyday food and an important part of the culinary culture. He begins with a history of southern Louisiana and the influences of different cultures on the origins and evolution of gumbo. There were, of course, the Cajun refugees who were cruelly thrown out of the Maritime Provinces by the British and settled in southern Louisiana; what is now referred to as the “Gumbo Belt.” The Creole population (a complex mixed race of European and African with Caribbean roots), African slaves, Germans, Spaniards, French and Native Americans all contributed to the cultural melting pot that gumbo has become. According to Wells, the only thing that can be agreed upon about gumbo is that a proper gumbo contains the holy trinity of onion, bell peppers and celery. After that, it’s wide open.
One of the major considerations when making a gumbo is whether or not it has a roux base. Roux is simply a combination of flour and some kind of fat or oil that is stirred together, browned and stirred for a long time, until it serves as a rich base for gumbo. There is a big debate as to whether a gumbo made without roux is actually a gumbo or not.
Wells says, “Indeed, roux is so ingrained among Cajun cooks that my mother had no concept of a gumbo without one.”
But Wells does provide a number of recipes for roux-less gumbos. (Depending on the part of Louisiana where the gumbo is being made, okra or filé powder can be substitutes for roux. Or some cooks will use a combination.) Another debate is whether or not it is permissible to combine fin and fowl in one gumbo. Purists say no; it’s either fish or seafood or it’s some sort of meat, which can range from coon to chicken to andouille sausage; or any combination of them. There are endless possibilities, as Wells’ recipes demonstrate.
Wells is well-traveled. He left Louisiana to work for the Wall Street Journal in New York, traveled internationally and now lives on Chicago’s Gold Coast while spending summers in Maine. Through all his travels he has sought out good gumbo…and usually found it. He reminisces about the importance of gumbo as a comfort food and reminder of his youth growing up in Louisiana. He also discusses the role of celebrity chefs like Paul Prudhomme in building the awareness, interest and popularity of gumbo and other Cajun and Creole cuisine.
The book offers up 10 gumbo recipes. One look at the recipes and you immediately see the myriad variations on gumbo. In that sense it’s like chili. Some of the recipes contain exotic and/or obscure ingredients. I made “Mr. B’s Bistro Gumbo Ya-Ya” because Wells says that of all the gumbos he’s had, this one stuck with him. And I will say it was delicious. Incredibly flavorful, just the right amount of spice and heat and pretty simple to make. But it does make a lot!
Wells does a masterful job of weaving a history and cultural context for the popularity and endless variations of gumbo today. I highly recommend trying the following recipe. If you love it and want to learn everything about this dish, its history and endless variations, pick up a copy of the book. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers for $17 to $27.
Mr. B’s Bistro Gumbo Ya-Ya (It makes six quarts—more than enough for a gang of friends; freezes well.)
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter
3 cups flour
2 red bell peppers, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
2 medium onions, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1-1/4 gallons (20 cups) chicken stock
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons Mr. B’s Creole Seasoning (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons kosher salt plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 bay leaves
One 3-1/2 pound chicken, roasted and boned
Hot sauce to taste
Hot white rice for serving
- Melt the butter in a 12-quart stockpot over low heat. Gradually add 1 cup of flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, and cook for 30 seconds. Add another cup of the flour and stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add the remaining cup of flour and stir constantly for 30 seconds. Continue to cook the roux, stirring constantly, until it is the color of dark mahogany, 45 to 60 minutes.
- Add the red and green bell pepper and stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add the onion and celery and stir constantly for 30 seconds. Gradually add the stock to the roux, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps.
- Add the andouille, Creole Seasoning, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, chili powder, thyme, garlic and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered, for 45 minutes, skimming off any fat and stirring occasionally.
- Add the chicken and summer for 15 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and hot sauce. Serve over rice.
MR. B’S CREOLE SEASONING
Combine 1-1/2 cups paprika, 3/4 cup ground black pepper, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 1/3 cup granulated garlic, 1/3 cup dried thyme, 1/3 cup dried oregano, 1/3 cup dried basil, 1/4 cup granulated onion, 1/4 cup cayenne. Keep in an airtight container.
Clay Purdy is the president of Canteen Co, a life-long advertising executive and a writer who loves to dabble in the kitchen making everything from pizza to osso bucco.