I have taken a two week leave of absence from London and I have been getting my southern batteries recharged. Getting my Vitamin D. My humidity. My Wal Mart and my Popeyes. My walks through old neighbourhoods with cracked pavement and crumbling architecture. Mosquito bites. Gumbo. Beignets. Oysters. Ice cold Abita Amber beer.
I have also been remembering where I come from and how far it is from where I have landed, but how I am really just the very same person who grew up on a gravel road along a long forgotten bayou
Here’s where the story starts.
I grew up in Southern Louisiana. My mother was an anthropologist and my dad was, and is, an attorney. When they were in their late 20s they were living in an old house along the river on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. It would turn out later to have been built in the late 1700s but “modernised” through two centuries to be almost unrecognisably historic. It was part of a cluster of houses that made up Avery Plantation (Avery is a name that might sound familiar… the McIlhenny family, of Tabasco fame, lives on Avery Island). See, not all plantation homes were enormous columned structures – some were simply the house that the family who owned, and toiled the land, inhabited.
Around the time they realised the house they were living in had special roots and a long history, their landlord, Entergy, decided they needed the land for a plant expansion and terminated my parents lease. My parents responded with a letter stating that they would have the house declared a historic landmark, prohibiting any development. The company countered with the generous offer to give them the house.
Provided they could move it.
Within 30 days.
Which they did.
And you know what? I think that caused a sufficient amount of stress on my dad that he has not moved quickly to deadline since then. (I’m laughing out loud as I write this because I think it might really be true).
My dad found a remote plot of land on a windy gravel road along Bayou Manchac*, they cut the house in two, hoisted it onto two tractor trailers and off they went. The journey was only about 5 miles but it took several months to complete because after the first half of the house was put in place the winter rains came and made the path unpassable for a heavy load. The trailer holding the second half of the house had to take shelter on the River Road for a several months until the ground dried enough to withstand the weight. My dad likes to say the last time he moved he kept his clothes in the closet and moved the house.
That is the beginning of my life. I grew up walking on floor joists with no floorboards, in a house with no heat other than a single room with a wood burning oven and parents with a tremendous love of history and preservation. Their eclectic mix of friends gathered every weekend to help with the rebuilding of what was dubbed “The Sunshine House,” mixing replicas of centuries-old plaster (which was really mud packed with horsehair) in a rusty red wheelbarrow, cutting boards to make walls, running plumbing and electric, and sharing stories of love and life and opportunities on the horizon. Despite its remote location the house became a meeting point, a church if you will, for the various and sundry picked up along the way; Farmers, lawyers, students and family. Sadly the marriage died when I was two and I then moved to New Orleans with my mom but my dad remained in the house and my mom died 5 years ago still loving both him, and the house they saved. (As did my stepmom, which makes him a very lucky man. But more on that later…)
Now I live in Notting Hill and my children wear Hogwarts-style uniforms to school and I am a member of Soho House and The Whitney Museum in New York and I fly to Copenhagen for dinner and boy, isn’t it funny how life turns out? But no matter how far I go, no matter how life twists and turns and drops me upside down, my heart and soul were created when I was learning to walk, in a 250 year old house, with no floorboards and no heat with two older sisters who just about tolerated me and parents who loved me fiercely but did not quite know how to hold onto their relationship. And when I am in Notting HIll and lonely despite the buzz of incessant activity and when I feel disconnected from who I am inside, I turn, always to the kitchen.
Chicken & Sausage Gumbo, an Louisiana staple with Afro-Carribbean roots, finds its way into my kitchen and onto my dinner table just like it has for generations and generations before me. And it makes me feel like I am home. Wherever my home may be.
- 3/4 cup canola oil
- 3/4 cup flour
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 1 large chicken, cut into 12 pieces
- 2 tablespoons Creole spices (Tony Cachere's is preferable but any "Cajun spice" mixture will do)
- 2 pounds spicy smoked sausage, sliced 1/2-inch thick
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 quarts chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 ounces Andouille sausage, roughly chopped
- 2 cups sliced okra
- 1 tablespoon worcestershire
- Salt and pepper
- 6 cups cooked white rice
- green onions and filé powder for serving.
- First you make a roux.
- Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot fat. It will immediately begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and continue whisking until the roux turns a deep brown color, about 30 minutes. Add the onions, stirring them into the roux with a wooden spoon. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue stirring until the roux turns a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes. Be patient but determined. The best gumbos have a roux that is a bit darker than peanut butter, and only just lighter than milk chocolate.
- Season the chicken pieces with the Creole spices and add the chicken to the hot roux. Once the chicken is well-seared, add the smoked sausage and stir well. Then add the celery, bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. Raise the heat to medium-high, stir for another 3 minutes or so, then add the stock, thyme, and bay leaves.
- Bring the gumbo to a boil while stirring, then reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo (Chef Besh says that moving the pot half off the burner helps collect the impurities).
- Add the andouille sausage, okra, and Worcestershire, season well with Tabasco, salt, and pepper, and simmer for another 45 minutes. At this point, pull out the bones and any chicken skin from the gumbo using metal tongs. They will slide out of the chicken easily. It is fine to serve the gumbo with bones but easier for your guests if you remove all of the bones you can. Skim the gumbo before serving with the white rice.
- Top with finely chopped green onion and, if you can find it, filé powder which is ground sassafras leaves.