I’ve been talking a lot about cooking here lately, haven’t I? I don’t know if it’s the season, or reminiscing about my mom (an excellent cook, says my biased opinion), or it’s just a subject I haven’t worn out yet. But I do spend a good deal of time each week cooking, and I do enjoy it, so hey, let’s roll with it.
Today, for instance, I spent several hours working on what I call “false gumbo.” Now I must emphasize the word “false” — this is not something that a native of the Louisiana bayous would consider anything but a malicious Yankee misrepresentation of the dish. Generic smoked sausage in place of andouille, no crawfish, no okra, no Cayenne pepper … I’m pretty sure that Father Martins, my old Anglican rector (who went to Tulane University in New Orleans), would be appalled by it. But I like it, and it’s not so spicy that my family won’t eat it. So there’s that.
As it was simmering, I started thinking about the whole mindset behind gumbo.
The impression I get about gumbo — and I haven’t studied up on this, so correct me if I’m wrong — was that it started out as a way to use up a lot of leftovers. Just throw it all in the pot, boil it, spice it, and pour it over rice. Kind of like cioppino (pronounced “chip-EEN-o”), the Italian dish invented by fishermen who at the end of a workday would each “chip in” a little of their catch into the communal cauldron, it was originally a melange of this, that and whatever. Only later did it get codified, written up as a recipe, and the details argued about among chefs.
That clean-out-the-fridge concept is how I started making it too. Every so often on our Friday shopping trips, we grab a twin-pack of whole chickens for roasting in the over. One chicken is usually enough protein for two family dinners and a brown-bag (well, Tupperware) lunch for Nina, with some left over. Trying to figure out what to do with the “some left over,” I started boiling the carcass to knock the meat off, and between the meat and the created broth I had a good soup base to work with. When I got bored with making chicken soup and/or I also needed to use up some sausages or shrimp, gumbo was the logical next move.
And while it may be a false gumbo, it’s still mighty tasty. The aforementioned chicken, sausage and shrimp, various vegetables (diced tomatoes are the one constant here) and spices (heavy on the garlic salt and garlic powder, light on the black pepper) all go into our big spaghetti pot, and get gently boiled for as many hours as can be spared. Then all I have to do is boil up a little rice for Nina and Charlotte (I’m still on a low-carb diet) and we’ve got dinners and lunches for a couple of days. (I’m not including a recipe with this one, because I honestly don’t know how much of each ingredient I use — and in the case of the veggies, the ingredients change too. It’s improv each time I do it.)
Nonetheless, it’s kind of interesting how something great can be created out of dribs and drabs and od combinations, especially combined with a stubborn refusal to throw things away. A lot of dishes are like that — gumbo, cioppino, chicken Marengo (made out of what Napoleon’s soldiers had been able to forage on a particular day) and various kinds of hash. Dim sum, those wonderful Chinese steamed buns, basically began as “leftovers wrapped in dough” and have now evolved into a culinary art form. There are probably hundreds of examples to be cited of this phenomenon.
Not just in cooking, either. Some very good novels have been built around a few separate ideas an author liked but couldn’t figure out how to develop by themselves (I think that may have been a method Robert Heinlein used on occasion). The whole concept of a collage in art is “throw a lot of stuff on the canvas and see if a theme emerges.”
And let’s face it — life often works that way. We all have our plans, dreams, goals … but as the old soldier said, battle plans never survive contact with the enemy. Most of us have to cobble our lives together from the pieces we have left when things don’t work out. I know I have.
But it’s okay. Not ideal, but okay. Out of what Frederick Buechner once called “a faintly comic sense of making do” can come surprising joy and peace. Once you’ve gone through the umpteenth crisis holding things together with Scotch tape and old baling wire, crises lose much of their power to frighten. When you’ve managed to get by in so many areas with less than you thought you needed, you become confident that you can get by in pretty much any situation. (As I’ve said before, my life is an object lesson in how if you’re willing, you can get used to anything.) Pretty soon, it can even become fun — you can laugh in the midst of situations rather than just after they’ve passed.
And laughter is good medicine.
So I’m thankful to God, not just for gumbo, but for the gumbo mentality that says things can be more than the sum of their parts. That combining the seemingly random flavors of life’s experiences can make quite a tasty treat. It doesn’t always work out well, of course — but it sure is a beautiful thing when it does.