(This is the final reflection from the 2018 Southern Foodways Symposium. As it goes up, the 2019 event is just hours away from the last meal and lots of goodbyes till next year. Till then, here’s my take on the last meal from 2018.)
I’m treading on dangerous ground here. This piece is about gumbo, and people are serious about gumbo. There are right ways and wrong ways to make gumbo, to eat gumbo, and maybe even to write about gumbo. There may be gumbo po-po lurking about, waiting to read this and tell me what I said wrong. The loophole, thankfully, is that while individual opinions are strong on this subject, those strong opinions also vary. Please be kind to the messenger.
I’m also about to take on a bit of a history of a man that I don’t know well enough. It’s a man I’ve heard about many times at Southern Foodways Alliance Symposia, though I was never really sure why. This past year, in fact, much ado was made about him – in fact, an entire album of music was written and performed for us by musician Paul Burch and friends, just before we were treated to the Lodge Cast Iron Supper: A Gumbo Fugue in Three Movements.
The chef for that dinner was Paul Fehribach from Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, which bills itself as being “Inspired by the People, Places, and History of The American South.” Chef Paul grew up in Indiana, and as far as I have been able to determine, has never actually lived below the Mason Dixon line, but takes great pains to shape the menu around historic Southern recipes. From where I sit, that sounds like someone who recognizes the importance of the Southern larder in the American culinary experience, and I can get behind that.
As for the man the evening was based around, we’re talking about Eugene Walter. I knew the name, but learned quite a bit more about him through the music and the menu. He was an actor, translator, cryptographer, poet, chef, food writer, raconteur, and more – all affirmed by le Pedia de Wiki. The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d had the chance to be in his circle; I get the feeling life was never dull around Eugene Walter.
It was his food writing – cookbooks in particular – that inspired Chef Paul. According to our guide to the evening (a menu of sorts, with more stories than ingredient lists), he read Walter’s “Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall”, which referenced an unpublished book called, “A Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo.” The mention of the book led the chef to an essay titled, “The Gumbo Cult”, and his delight in reading it resulted in a multi-gumbo menu representative of Walter’s life work.
The first platter to catch my attention was piled high with corn sticks, for dunking purposes. The cover of Walter’s “American Cooking: Southern Style” featured the same.
Green Gumbo with Vanishing Bread filled one enormous cast iron pot. This goes by another name you may have heard, gumbo z’herbes. Numerous references tell me that this one is usually full of greens, and was often served meatless during Lent – but Andouille sausage and such can always be added. As for the vanishing bread, at Big Jones it’s described as pecorino-crusted baguette. Ours were crouton-sized, which logically follows Walter’s reminiscing about North Alabamians putting croutons (or sippets, as he called them) over greens.
Gumbo the second was Crevettes et Crabe Bouillies with Okra and File’ over Creole Boiled Rice. This is where I got into trouble the last time I talked about gumbo, trying to differentiate between when okra and file’ were used. Well, this one had both, so figure that one out. (Gumbo is personal, y’all.) What was interesting, per Chef Paul’s description, was that his brother harvested the file’ himself from a sassafras tree in the woods of Southern Indiana. Crevettes, by the way, are large prawns cooked in the shell, and our “crabes” were crab claws placed along with prawns atop the gumbo.
I think the third was my favorite, and featured a tradition I was unaware of until that night. It was what you might call a traditional gumbo: a very dark roux with chicken and andouille. What threw me was the underpinning – it was served over Abruzzi potato salad. I’d never had gumbo served over anything but rice (except for that time I served a version of my own over grits.) But apparently it’s pretty common for potato salad to be served either with or in gumbo. Who knew? The Abruzzi recipe comes from Walter’s book, “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter” and has a splash of white wine in the ingredient list. Mr. Walter was quite fond of spirits, as I understand it.
That fondness also showed up in the dessert: Tipsy Parson with muscadines, a sort of parfait with sherry-soaked pound cake as the base. He called it “the grown-up cousin to banana pudding.”
As much as I enjoy gumbo, I don’t choose or make it near enough. But now that I know there are options, be it cheese-encrusted croutons on top or potato salad underneath, I may give this dish another whirl. I just hope I do it right.