Every year around this time I dig through my cookbook cabinet for two worn-out, grease-spattered pages that I left somewhere in a book or buried in the pile of papers and notes that tend to collect there. It’s a recipe for gumbo that a friend typed out for me one brutally cold February about 25 years ago, with annotations like “prepare to use every pot in the kitchen” and “disable the smoke alarms.” I’ve lost a lot of other things in the course of that time, but I’ve hung on to that recipe.
It came to me at a time of life that seems a little misty now. I lived in Denver, was newly married, and had bought an old bungalow to fix up on a block where lots of other people my age were also getting started. Nobody had enough money for real entertainment so we entertained one another. Summer evenings we carried plates of food up and down the street and grilled in each other’s backyards, or we gathered in the blueing dusk with lawn chairs and boxed wine to watch the bats wheeling in the treetops.
In my memory, that stretch of time is sealed in its own capsule, an eternal August of youth and promise that somehow lives on without me. But of course it did end, or at least it changed. People moved or drifted away. My marriage came undone. And one day in the depths of a dreadful, solitary winter around that time, when it seemed the people of the earth had been vanquished by a long frozen siege, the phone rang. “I’ve made food and almost set the house on fire,” the voice said. It was a friend down the street, Janet. She had Labradors named after baseball players and a gleefully acerbic view of the world, and she was a damn fine cook. “Come over,” she said.
When I arrived, the house was crowded with people. (Was this where everyone had gone?) Janet handed over a bowl of something steaming and beguiling, with chicken and sausage and shrimp and enough spice to bring sweat to your face, and some other, deeper flavors as warm and good as a hearth fire. I ate and ate more, like a starving man. Here was the cure for whatever ague had settled in me.
I do not have a shred of Louisiana in me, neither by heritage nor proximity. I had lived in Colorado pretty much all my life. But some dishes transcend geography, and it was that — along with the fact that everyone there that day seemed to be falling over themselves to say how good it was — that made me ask her for the recipe. I wasn’t much of a cook then, but, as lonely as I was, the prospect of having this friend-winning, gratitude-inducing formula in my possession was a little intoxicating.
I made it the following winter, in a full, frenzied day of flinging chopped onions and bits of blackened roux into impossible corners of the kitchen and, as Janet had warned, dealing with the smoke alarms. I threw my own party, with decent enough results. The year after that, I did it again, after moving across the country to Boston and needing a way to find new friends. It became an annual event that people looked forward to and would ask about. It produced some memorable evenings, such as one in which a drunken guest ignited a small fire during an enthusiastic, flour-engulfed effort to make beignets.
In time, I became a better cook and learned both that the recipe was not as complicated as it had first seemed and that it had an order to it, a methodical layering of flavor. Rendering chicken rubbed all over with Cajun herbs and spices in smoking hot oil made the first layer. Browning andouille in the same oil added smoky, piquant goodness to the fat. The amber, aromatic liquid that remained was the foundation for the roux. Cooked with flour until caramel-colored, fortified with more spices and aromatics and stirred again in the screaming cast iron until nearly black, it became something celestial — toasty, spicy, earthy, with a slight, coffee-like bitterness. This was the source of the deep, firelight flavor that had bewitched me those years before.
I became enchanted, too, with the recipe’s roots. Versions of gumbo — a staple of Mardi Gras feasting before the austerity of Lent — are as varied as theories about its origins. It may have been brought from West Africa on slave ships, although some claim it came from French cuisine, with later contributions from Native Americans. Some pots are thickened with okra; some with ground sassafras leaves, or gumbo filé; some with cooked flour. There are sharp, but not always clear, lines between Cajun and Creole styles. This gumbo, gumbo Hazel, is the one that the recipe’s author, Paul Prudhomme, remembered his mother making. And I imagined as I cooked that I was invoking what the famous New Orleans chef had intended, the memory of his own Cajun childhood. It lent a certain mythology to my ritual, and I allowed that invented memory to mingle with my own.
There came a time when the big midwinter parties waned. But after so long making the stuff, I kept at it. Year in, year out. It occurred to me that traditions are not traditions when we start them; we do that unknowingly and only discover them for what they are later, when they have already acquired history and possibly also meaning. Then, we have the choice of clinging stubbornly to them, or not.
Since my first rendering of gumbo Hazel, I have grown into middle age, made friendships that seemed they would be for life, lost them, come into new ones. I’ve grieved the deaths of pets. I lost the use of my kidneys and accepted the gift of a new one from my brother. I found, after a long road, enduring love. These days, when the time of deep winter rolls around, I spend a few hours in the kitchen with the familiar labor and smells and piles of dishes, then pack up what I’ve made to drive an hour north of the city for an annual visit with an old college friend and his family. Their eldest was born around the time I started making this dish. One way or another, they were there for most all of my gumbo gatherings.
Whether for Mardi Gras on Feb. 28, or just as a salve to the lasting dark of February, I urge you to try your hand at this gumbo. I hang on to the tradition. I have the result with boiled rice and cold beer and whatever else may come.Steven Wilmsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @swilmsen.