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Contest Wed Nov 13 2013

Gapers Block Does Gumbo @ Frontier This Sunday

20131117gumbocooksmall.jpg As one of the most vocal writers, if not the only on Cajun/Creole food in Chicago, and someone who has personally called out local chefs for falling short on the signature dish of gumbo (yeah, I have balls and they are made of andouille), when I saw Frontier's Chef vs. Amateur Gumbo Cook-Off event in my Facebook newsfeed, my first reaction was a "Hell yeah" followed by a belly dropping "Oh shit." I knew that if any amateur were to enter, it undoubtedly had to be me. But competing against chefs in a chef worshiping town? Ballsy.

I hemmed and hawed. I made my first pot of the season, burning the top of my left hand in the process. I scoured the butcher shops looking for the proper smoked sausage with the right flavor. Each time I threw raw onions into a hot roux, that familiar smell rising from the sizzle, I transported myself back to my mother's kitchen, to my grandfather's storytelling mannerisms. True to the saying, it takes a six pack of beer to make a proper roux, I drank a lot of beer -- porter to be exact, which is not a good pairing for gumbo, FYI.

Yet, to enter into a gumbo contest as someone straight "from the bayou" and not properly represent -- or worse, be judged by palates that might not know what gumbo should taste like and who risked being being wooed over by creative chef interpretations -- could be the death of my crusade to educate Chicago on why there's a difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine and why the distinction matters. Deep down, though, I knew I had to pony up and do it. This was finally my opportunity to represent Cajun cuisine outside of the shadows of the New Orleans Creole marketing and media machine and give it a voice in a culinary community that has combined Creole and Cajun into one category. (While Cajun and Creole culture and cuisine share similarities, to experience them separately, especially the food, is to know that comparing the two is like comparing Mexican food with Puerto Rican food. The big culinary difference: Creole uses tomato, Cajun mostly doesn't.)

It would be a huge responsibility, a logistical nightmare (5 gallons of gumbo!). I half-heartedly submitted my recipe, knowing that if I got in, it was go big or go home.

I got in.

So I did what every Cajun girl would do. I called my mom.

"Better book a flight, Mom. It just got real."


The Meaning of Culture

I didn't grow up on lasagna and meatloaf, roasted chicken or apple pie. I grew up on red beans and rice and smothered rice and gravy (which is more like an au jus than what the name denotes), snap beans with potatoes, black-eye peas, smothered eggplant; grits and cornbread. We had crawfish boils, not grill-outs. Weekends were spent on a lake, in a houseboat. We have carports (from the French "porte-cochère"), and camps (which have nothing to do with traditional camping). To not have a can of Tony's seasoning in your pantry and a bottle of Tabasco in your refrigerator was sacrilegious. We laugh a little harder, take life a little lighter, live up the joie de vivre (joy of life). When we dance the Cajun two step or the zydeco, we bend our knees a little more, put more sway in our backs. Those steeped in the culture say things like, "Mais, I'm gonna go make groceries, save the clothes, then I'm gonna make the roux for the gumbo, me," making the signature Cajun dialect --- the translation of the French language combined with the English language -- every reporter's syntactical nightmare.

And we have gumbo.

You don't realize you are passionate about something until you have to start defending and fighting for it. Cajun culture is nothing like I have come across in this county. It is one rooted in exile and struggle, poverty and defeat. It is survived by tradition, held together by strong commitments to family, community, music, dancing, language and of course, food. While that may sound like every other culture that makes up the melting pot of America, there is something different about it. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but it, the people, the experience, never leaves you.

Apparently, nearly 15 years and two states later, with a Chicago accent creeping up on my a's and a Cajun accent that only creeps out on certain occasions, it hasn't left me.


First You Start With a Roux

Every gumbo is like a snowflake; no two are alike. On paper, it is the simplest dish; in reality, it may be one of the hardest. The right temperature, a pot that evenly distributes heat, the correct flour to fat ratio, vegetables that have just the right amount of water content, can make or break it. The chemistry of going from roux to gumbo is a lesson in magic. A recipe is only a roadmap, for a gumbo is something you have to feel your way through. At minimum, from start to finish, it should take you at least three hours. If a recipe calls for a slow cooker, you are cooking soup my friend.

seafood-gumbo.jpgThe standard varieties are chicken and sausage, seafood (pictured above) or okra gumbo. It looks somewhat like a soup, has a viscosity similar to watered down stew, but it is neither. It should have a slightly thick, brothy base, the thickness coming from the flour in the roux. Too thick and you're getting into gravy territory, too thin and it's a soup. (For reference, the gumbo pictured is more on the thicker side.) The participating ingredients should take a supporting role to the roux, not center stage. Darker doesn't necessarily mean better, it just means different. It shouldn't be bitter nor pasty, but should lightly coat your tongue, flavors of salt, pepper and garlic dancing in your mouth, a pinch of cayenne hitting the back of your palate. It should never resemble gravy and it should never be served on a plate or with a fork; a simple scoop of rice is all you need. Where a Creole gumbo might be all frills, a Cajun gumbo is humble and rustic. Where a Creole gumbo might use tomato as a thickener, a tomato has never seen the pot of a Cajun's gumbo. (And if it did, you'd best not tell anybody.) It is always better the next day, brought to a boil and simmered lightly for half an hour.

A gumbo is practiced yet never perfected. It is the centerpiece and glue of families. It warms the soul, invites neighbors in, opens up conversation over warm bowls, cold potato salad the color of egg yolk and crusty garlic french bread. To hear someone say, "Mais cher, you cooked a good gumbo, yeah," is a culinary badge of honor. (Cher, by the way, is French for "my dear.")

When I first started this process, it was about putting my money where my mouth was; a challenge to show'em how we do it. Several practice gumbos and conversations with my family later to prepare for this cook-off have shown me, however, that it has little to do with the competition (okay, maybe a little) and everything to do with legacy, tradition and being an accurate voice to a culture and ethnic group that doesn't get one outside of its geographic boundaries. Like the culture, the gumbo runs through my blood. On some level, it represents an identity.

This Sunday, chefs from Frontier, Takito, Red Door and Trenchermen to name a few, as well as six bold amateurs, myself included, will be gathering at Frontier, ladling samples of gumbo and nibbling on po' boys and red beans and rice during the Saints game. Admission is free and winners are by public vote, with the grand winner taking home a $500 prize.

Part and parcel to how strong community is down home, my mother and my aunt are coming to Chicago to support me. I know they are doing it partly because they are just as competitive as me, but I also know they are doing it because they are proud Cajun women who are protective of their heritage. At the end of the day, however, no matter how my gumbo turns out, it will pale in comparison to the memory I am about to create this weekend chopping onions and bell pepper, making roux, sharing stories and perfecting the taste of gumbo with the two most important women in my life. And that is worth more than any prize.

Chicago, however, may never be the same.

Frontier's 1st Annual New Orleans Style Chef vs. Amateur Gumbo Cook-Off
November 17, 2013
Event time: 2pm
Winner announced at 6pm
1072 North Milwaukee

(PS. If you are interested in learning more about the Cajun culture, the Lafayette tourism page offers a quick backstory on the subject.)

Special thanks to Black Rock Pub and Kitchen for their sponsorship.

Photo Credit: Lafayette Travel

 
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Bryan G / November 14, 2013 11:11 AM

I agree.. Chicago sucks at Gumbo. I almost joined this event too, but decided against it when they said it has to be portioned for 200. Good luck! Sounds like you know what you're doing. Hopefully this judgeing is legit and not just a popularity contest.

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