Seattle chef Greg Atkinson recalls Mom and gumbo
"For a moment everything was so wonderfully normal that I could almost forget that she was fading away, that she couldn't sleep at night, wandered through her home of more than 40 years wondering where she was."
"WHAT ARE you makin,' son?" asked my mother, and I could almost hear myself asking, "What are you making, Mama?" as I know I must have surely asked a thousand times, standing in that same kitchen by the same round table where she was sitting now.
"We're making gumbo, Mama." I already had some chicken thighs simmering on the back of the stove, and the meat and the stock would eventually be incorporated into the stew. I was pouring oil and measuring flour into her heaviest pot to prepare the roux.
Mom swallowed and tried to look brave. "You'll have to tell me what to do," she said. "I'm going to make the roux," I said, "and you can cut up some peppers and onions and celery."
She rested both hands, palms down, on the table in front of her and sat up very straight. For just an instant I caught a glimpse of the woman she had been when she wore her hair in a bun behind her head and kept it dyed a dark brown. Now it was cut short and had gone from silvery gray to ghostly white. Her poise and confidence had given way, too, leaving a kind of fretful nervousness in their wake.
I got out the vegetables and a cutting board, the same one I remember using when I was barely big enough to manage a knife. I decided against the big stainless-steel blade I would have used, and gave her a smaller knife with a wooden handle.
"How do you want these cut?" asked my mother, holding the knife in one hand and a green bell pepper in the other.
"Just the regular old way," I said. I wasn't sure if a phrase like "half-inch dice" would mean anything to her at this point. As I started stirring flour and oil in a deep kettle at the stove, my mother set earnestly about the task of cutting up the peppers and onions. Her hands remembered what to do. The peppers were reduced to small dice with the seeds and cores off to one side, the onion was stripped of its skin and chopped, too.
For a moment everything was so wonderfully normal that I could almost forget that she was fading away, that she couldn't sleep at night, wandered through her home of more than 40 years wondering where she was. She grew unreasonable and belligerent, demanding that my father take her home — even though she was home. But as she chopped the vegetables and I stirred the roux, everything was as it had always been, and I took comfort in knowing that somehow, it would always be this way.
That was, in fact, the last time I would ever cook with my mother. Before too very long, I would be making gumbo with the turkey left over from the reception that followed her funeral. But even then, and even now, when I stir up a roux or cut the vegetables or dish up a bowl of that stew-like soup that represents so much of my heritage, Mom is with me at the stove, guiding my hand, warming my heart, teaching me things about what it means to be human.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Chicken and Oyster Gumbo
Most gumbo recipes call for either okra or filé powder, which is made of sassafras bark, an old folk remedy that reduces fever and gives stews a thick, stringy character. It was not unusual in my family to use both okra and filé in the same batch of stew.
4 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
8 cups water
2 tablespoons salt
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup peanut or corn oil
1/2 cup flour
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 green pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
2 teaspoons thyme, divided
1 teaspoon black pepper, divided
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided
2 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes
4 cups sliced okra (frozen okra is fine if fresh is not available)
2 (3-ounce) cans smoked oysters
8 ounces lump crabmeat, optional
1 tablespoon filé powder
Cooked long-grain rice, as an accompaniment
1. To cook the chicken and make the stock, cover the chicken thighs with the water and stir in the salt and bay leaves. Cook over medium-high heat until the water begins to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 1 hour. Lift the chicken thighs out of the simmering liquid with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a plate to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones and set it aside. Pile the bones and skin back into the broth. Allow it to simmer while you proceed.
2. To make the roux, cook the oil and flour in a large soup pot with a heavy base over medium heat, stirring constantly until the roux is deep brown, about 20 minutes. Watch the roux closely to prevent burning. Add the onion, chopped pepper and celery and cook until vegetables are soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, 1 teaspoon of the thyme leaves along with half of the black and cayenne pepper. Strain the chicken broth directly into the vegetable and roux mixture, stirring to prevent lumps from forming.
3. Stir in the reserved chicken meat, tomatoes and okra, and when the soup is boiling once again, reduce the heat to low. Allow the gumbo to simmer for half an hour, or for as long as it takes to cook a batch of rice in a separate pot.
4. To finish the gumbo, stir in the smoked oysters and the crabmeat along with the remaining seasonings (the rest of the thyme and the black and red pepper). Cook until the seafood is heated through, about 10 minutes. Just before serving, stir the filé powder into the gumbo, and stir until it forms long threads when the spoon or ladle is lifted from the pot.
Greg Atkinson, 2011