False gumbo, or, the joy of leftovers

At my daughter Charlotte’s request, last night I made up a big pot of my “false gumbo.”

I call it that because I’ve had real, honest-to-goodness, Cajun-style Louisiana gumbo — and mine isn’t.  My family won’t eat really spicy food, and I’m not that fond of it either except once in a while.  Which means no andouille sausage, no Cayenne pepper, no okra.  Also no crawdads, since in northern California they’re not real easy to find.  Instead, I go with ingredients more friendly to a fragile palate.

So it isn’t real gumbo, it’s false gumbo.  But it’s mighty tasty.  It’s not just my family that thinks so — my wife Nina (the Supermodel) was volunteering at our son Sean’s school yesterday and told his teacher what I was making.  He expressed interest, so this morning I brought him a small Rubbermaid container of it to sample.  He loved it.  So there you have it — rave reviews!

I’ll tack on a rough recipe (rough because I don’t measure out ingredients precisely — consider all amounts approximate) at the end of this post, in case you want to try it for yourself.  But as I was in the process of making it, it got me to thinking …

… have you ever thought about the value and power of leftovers?

Let’s face it, if you like eating (and I do — that’s how I ended up weighing 260 pounds!), you like leftovers.  The extra meatloaf for sandwiches, a slice of last night’s quiche for breakfast the next day, the browning bananas baked into bread or blended into a smoothie.  Cold pizza is the traditional breakfast of American college boys and young bachelors.  And Thanksgiving — oh my.  Every American family seems to not only have Thanksgiving traditions, but also Thanksgiving leftovers traditions!  My grandmother Ingersoll (rest in peace) served pumpkin pie for breakfast the next day, and packed us hand-sliced turkey sandwiches for the trip home.  My mom would whip up turkey soup and pumpkin cheesecake.  And my own specialty — scrambled eggs & stuffing (don’t laugh, try it!) — is surpassed only by Nina’s angelic turkey tetrazzini.

But if you think about it, much of what we now consider to be fine dining — especially ethnic delicacies — started out as an attempt to answer the questions, “what do we do with this leftover _______ before it spoils?” or “how can we make a meal out of _______, _______, _______ and a little bit of _______?”  People had to ask those questions, since there wasn’t much in the way of refrigeration available until the last century.  You HAD to find a way to use up everything you weren’t going to eat immediately, or find some trick to keep it from going rancid on you.  Otherwise, it was lost, and pretty quickly.  There wasn’t any Tupperware, Saran Wrap or aluminum foil, let alone Frigidaires.  You could throw stuff together and hope it worked (for summer eating), or use what methods you had to make sure it didn’t rot (to get you through the winter).

Chicken Marengo (thank you to James Burke, who used it as an example on an episode of his series Connections) is a classic example of the throw-stuff-together-and-see-what-you-get method.  After the battle of Marengo, Italy in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte told Dunand, his personal chef, that he needed something to eat, and pronto.  Dunand knew Napoleon well, and preferred standing on the ground to being below it, so he got to it.  Problem was, all he had to work with was what some of the soldiers had been able to forage when they weren’t fighting: a chicken, some eggs, tomatoes, onions, crayfish, a few herbs and spices, and some olive oil.  Well, he said (and I imagine a classic Gallic shrug here), one must go with what one has.  And with the above ingredients (plus, reportedly, a dash of the Emperor’s favorite cognac), he created a dish that is still made today.

There are a lot of wondrous dishes like that, of which gumbo is just one.  In fact, that’s one reason why I started making mine — I had roasted a couple of chickens, we had eaten most of the easy-to-reach parts, and I didn’t want to waste the carcasses.  (We save money however we can around here.)  Instead, I boiled the chicken remainders for a couple of hours until the meat fell off the bones, stripped out the bones, and then used all that chicken meat, and the broth created in the process, as the foundation for what would become my false gumbo.  Everyone liked it, and the rest is family history.

As far as the keep-it-from-rotting method, let me use an example.  You’re living in the pre-refrigeration days, and you’re rich enough that you own herds of animals.  Your family is hungry, so you kill a cow and have a big ol’ barbecue.  But there’s no way you can eat that entire beast in one sitting — you’re left with a lot of beef on hand, and you need to keep it from going to the  flies and the maggots.  Whatcha gonna do?

Different cultures came up with different methods for coping with all that leftover meat.  In Italy, they ground it up, mixed it with salt and spices, encased and dried the result, and developed those great Italian sausages — salami, pepperoni, bologna and the like.  Likewise in Portugal with linguica, and in Germany with their array of Wurste and Sausischen.  In the British Isles, they stuck with unground pepper and came up with corned beef.  In China, they chopped it small, cooked it, wrapped it in dough and steamed it into dim sum.  Russians did something similar, only in larger chunks, and created the piroshki.  (Poland, smartly, borrowed from both east — pierogis — and west — kielbasa.  Don’t ever believe that Poles are dumb!)  Native Americans cut it into strips and dried it for jerky, while turning the fat into pemmican.  And the French … well, they let the meat spoil, then covered up the taste by developing all those lovely sauces.  (I wish I were kidding about that last part, but it’s straight from historian William Manchester, and he’s documented it.)

There is value in leftovers — great value.  We ignore that to our loss.  Leftover food … or leftover people.

That’s also something that struck me as I was stirring my false gumbo and wondering how Charlotte had talked me into slaving over a hot stove on a 95-degree day.  Look at what the God of the Bible does with leftover people — the marginalized, the despised, the outcast, the weird.  Abraham was pulled out of the great cultural centers of his day and ended up wandering from pillar to post most of his life.  Moses and David were both Public Enemy #1 at one point.  Solomon was the son of an adulterous affair, and way down in the line of succession besides.  Samuel was dropped off by his parents at the temple as a toddler, and saw them maybe once a year after that.  Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t the most popular dudes.  Daniel was kidnapped from his home as a teen or preteen, and probably neutered (do note that his direct supervisor was the chief eunuch).  Mary and Joseph were a teenage bride and her working-class fiancee in a place that could probably be described as the Alliance, Nebraska of the Roman Empire.  None of them started out in the seat of power, in the middle of the action, in the spotlight.  Didn’t stop God from using them.

And Jesus’ disciples?  Please.  A bunch of fisherman and their friends, a tax collector, a wannabe revolutionary, assorted riffraff.  You may have seen a humorous letter purporting to be from a management consulting company that Jesus retains to run background checks on the Twelve.  In the letter, they have nothing but negative things to say about his choices — Peter is impulsive and has a bad temper, James and John have too much ambition, the Greater Galilee Better Business Bureau gives Matthew bad marks, and so on.  Only one of the group seems up to snuff, so the consultants recommend he keep Judas Iscariot and dump the rest.

But God had other ideas, as you know:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,  so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

He actually seems to prefer the leftovers for his recipes.  And just as He used leftovers in all the centuries before us, He uses flawed, screwed-up, beaten-down, cast-aside and bashed-in people now.  He doesn’t need us to be skilled, smart, strong, pretty or charming (though those things can be useful … sometimes).  He just needs us to be in His icebox and His cupboard until it’s time for Him to get cooking.  And then He’ll use us to make something great.

So hang in there, and keep following Him — because you never know when he’s gonna whip up a gumbo.

= = = =

Speaking of which:

Ray’s False Gumbo

  • 5-6 cups chicken meat, pre-cooked (I won’t make you boil and strip carcasses if you don’t want to)
  • 1 lb. kielbasa or smoked sausage, sliced
  • 1 lb. shrimp (medium or large, not the little canned ones)
  • 5-7 carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 bunch celery (leaves and stalks), sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, also diced
  • 1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 14-oz. or 16 oz. can chicken broth
  • Garlic salt, garlic powder, basil and thyme (in liberal quantities)
  • 6-8 bay leaves
  • Pepper (use sparingly)

Combine all ingredients in a 5-quart Dutch oven or other cauldron.  Put lid on receptacle and bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hours, adding water if needed.

Serve hot in winter or room temperature in summer, over rice or noodles (some crusty French bread on the side is nice too), or by itself if you’re carb-conscious.  Serves 8-12, depending on their appetites.

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