Gumbo Weather: Winter Warmup, Cajun-style

There is a time -- even in the lush tropical swamps of south Louisiana -- that can be accurately described as "winter." It's a couple of months around the holidays when huge oak trees shed their brittle brown leaves and stand naked against dreary gray skies. The rural back roads are clogged with field tractors crawling to sugar mills, which belch steam round-the-clock as they grind this year's cane harvest. Weekend hunters spend their workdays fantasizing about trips to remote, marshy duck camps and their long weeknights quacking in their sleep.

It's also the time that food-crazy Cajuns lovingly refer to as "gumbo weather." The first frigid north winds trigger a communal urge for huge bowls filled with the cold-weather favorite -- a magical middle ground between stew and soup that reflects the land's bounty and fertile culinary culture. Whether it's chunky with chicken and smoked pork sausage or laced with halved blue crabs and plump Gulf shrimp, hot gumbo counts as the only true antidote for a wetland winter and one of French Louisiana's primary food groups.

In its broadest sense, gumbo is a spicy, full-bodied soup/stew traditionally served (like most of the Cajun repertoire) over starchy steamed rice. The primary ingredients -- which can include products from the sea, land, and air -- vary from cook to cook and pot to pot. Close to the coast, you can find gumbos teeming with all kinds of aquatic beasties, while a bit further north, prairie-bred Cajuns turn to their barnyard and smokehouse traditions for inspiration. There are even season-specific variants that spring from other festive occasions, such as the Turkey Bone gumbo that usually follows the annual Thanksgiving feast. In short, a gumbo can be made with any ingredient that's fresh and plentiful.

The distinctively thick texture that separates gumbo from the broth-based soup family comes from the use of various thickening agents. The most common method is the roux, a culinary technique with roots in the Cajuns' French background. Put simply, a roux is flour that's been slow-cooked in a medium of liquid fat (oil or grease) until deeply browned. Also used as the starting point for stews, fricassees, and smothered dishes, roux gives these Cajun foods a characteristic richness and deep, nutty flavor. Alternately, gumbos can get their thickness from cooked okra or the late addition of filé (FEE-lay), a fine powder of crushed sassafras leaves. Each technique has its adherents, with some cooks opting to use combinations of the three (roux and okra, filé and roux).

Done right, gumbo is an infinitely flexible art form with countless variations, each reflecting an individual cook's influences, ingredients, and imagination. Traditions and techniques often get passed down along family lines, with each student developing his or her own favorite. (I learned my gumbo basics from Michael Vidallier of Kaplan, Louisiana, a multi-talented friend who can stir a roux while playing guitar Hendrix-style.) For most Louisiana cooks, one's gumbo expresses personal style and can be as identifiable as a thumbprint.

If you're lucky enough to be in south Louisiana when the cold winds blow, you're likely to get your fill of every conceivable permutation of gumbo -- from the green-hued shrimp-and-okra to a prairie-style chicken-and-sausage fortified with oysters from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Or depending on the luck of the hunt, you may get invited for a crack at a bowl made from freshly cleaned duck with smoked venison sausage.

But regardless of the specific ingredients or style, it is the collective nature of gumbo that makes it a uniquely Cajun celebration of the cold months. Proper preparation requires a slow flame and BIG POT -- all the better to heat the house and feed the masses. A perfect batch of gumbo requires long hours of simmering and provides more insulation from winter storms than a truckload of fluffy pink Fiberglas. With a slow gumbo burbling on the stovetop, even the draftiest frame house is thoroughly winterized.

"C'mon over, and bring the kids. I'm making a gumbo." Big batches also lend themselves quite nicely to impromptu gatherings that routinely ignore guest list limitations. (If more friends fall by, you can always make another pot of rice ...) A hot pot of gumbo can make any blustery day a chance to welcome family, friends, and neighbors for a spur-of-the-moment feast. Since most gumbo recipes are measured in pounds and gallons, it's difficult to imagine the experience without a full table of hearty eaters warding off the cold from the inside out. It's the antithesis of synthetic, single-serving "microwave entrees." An improvised gumbo gathering, preferably at a warm kitchen table, is the collective culinary impulse at its finest.

Bowls and spoons are set out on the countertop. Rice is put on to boil. A few loaves of soft French bread are laid out, ready to be torn into individual-sized pieces. And as the guests start arriving, they belly up to the stove and ladle themselves bowl after steaming bowl of the fragrant ambrosia. The always-expected "unexpected guests" knock on the back door. Nothing's fancy, but everything's warm, cozy, and magical.

After the party's over, maybe there's a bit left in the bottom of the pot. There's usually at least a quart left, which quickly goes into the fridge for tomorrow's lunch or into the "extra freezer" for long-term storage. (In south Louisiana, there's no such thing as adequate freezer space.) Odds are pretty good that one of your guests -- one of the weekend hunters -- may stop by with a few frozen quail or some frozen shrimp from their last fishing trip. And so the cycle feeds itself -- both figuratively and literally.

When the guests are all gone and the dishes are in the drainer, you find yourself checking the forecast for another cold front. Because come summertime, when the same friends are cursing the hundred-degree heat and cracking boiled crabs, you'll remember the warmth you can only get during a good spell of gumbo weather. -- Pableaux Johnson

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