Local Food Journal: Massachusetts Woman Makes Gumbo, Fails

The "local" ingredient in this article screws up a beloved Super Bowl Weekend staple.

Usually this space trumpets some amazing local food or drink triumph I've either discovered, cooked, or sipped.  This column, however, is about failure.  I mean abject, hours-over-the-stove, disappointed-face, I-hope-dessert-is-way-better failure. 

I suppose the only "local" angle here is me.  Born and raised in Lowell, educated in Worcester, and now ensconced in Chelmsford, I'm about as local as you get.  My food failure, however, was related to a more southern dish:  While reading the Sunday paper last week, I saw a delicious-sounding recipe for "Game Day" gumbo and thought, "Cool, since the Super Bowl's in New Orleans, I'll make a New Orleans-type recipe the day before the big game."  I'm not going to fault the big-name chef whose recipe I followed; I've used a couple of his recipes in the past, and BAM! They came out just fine.  It suddenly occurs to me, though, that although he's a Southerner now, he--like me--was born in the Bay State.

All my ingredients were in place:  Nothing exotic, just chicken, sausage, peppers and onions, and assorted spices.  The technique was the key, directing me to boil the chicken in aromatics until done, shred the chicken, then use the resulting broth to flesh out the stew-like consistency.  The other specific technique, which I've seen done on cooking shows a hundred times but never done, is the making of the dark roux.  Equal parts of vegetable oil and white flour are cooked for nearly a half-hour, stirring constantly, until the resulting mixture is thick, brown, and smells toasted yet not burned.

I followed the directions exactly, cooking the roux to the exact moment of what they call "chocolate roux" doneness.  Those of you who know me won't be surprised to learn that I looked up a bunch of gumbo recipes on the Web, viewed some pictures of correctly made roux, and even found that even though Creole-type gumbo includes seafood, Cajun-type gumbo never mixes seafood with chicken.  Since my husband's family is Acadian (French-Canadians, some of whom moved south and became "Cajuns"), I decided to go Cajun and leave out the shrimp.

Stir, stir, stir, simmer for an hour, add more ingredients, simmer another hour, finish by adding meat and scallions, serve in a soup bowl with a scoop of white rice in the middle.  By the time we sat down to eat, I'd invested over 3 1/2 hours on this recipe.  We were all hungry and eager to try this famed food.  We all dug in.  The flavor was alien, toasted, heavy.  I added some hot sauce.  It was a little better, at least giving a spark of acid to the strongly flavored yet strangely bland bowl.  We ate slowly, saying nothing.  At last The Girl broke the awkward silence.  "It's OK," she said.  "But I wouldn't be sad if you never made it again."  Leave it to the 9-year-old to say what we were all thinking.  I was thinking a few other things as well, but I'll let you fill in the blankety-blanks on that one.

What went wrong?  I'm a fairly experienced cook.  I regularly tackle complicated dishes from far-flung places like France, Korea, Bulgaria, and India.  All of the eaters in my family are great about accepting new flavors.  We frequent ethnic restaurants as much as those serving "typical American" food.  Maybe I over-toasted the roux.  Maybe the sausage was underseasoned.  Or perhaps we just don't like gumbo.  I feel weirdly unpatriotic, telling a gumbo-failure tale on Super Bowl Weekend.  Maybe I'll try jambalaya next.  Or maybe not.   

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Alice J February 04, 2013 at 12:42 PM
I've been writing on my Facebook about failing at gumbo, too, using the exact same recipe. I'm an experienced cook as well and who knows, maybe I burned the roux or something but ... yuck. I'm throwing the leftovers out.
Lisa Daigle February 04, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Hi, Alice. Hmmm, based on the feedback I'm getting from some other people whose cooking acumen and taste buds I trust, I think we may have to face this fact: We may not have failed. We may simply not like the heavily toasted taste of the gumbo gravy. Exact same recipe--that's funny. And yes, I threw out the leftovers as well.
Alice J February 04, 2013 at 03:50 PM
Lisa, I love your daughter's assessment. My son picked out the sausage and didn't eat any of the rest of it. I thought there was way too much salt in the recipe, and just strange, bland flavor. I'm not a hot sauce gal so didn't even consider that option. I will tell you this, I am probably not ever going to make gumbo again. I mean, why go out of your way to make something that requires 1.5 cups of oil and all that time, for heaven's sake! Unhealthy and undelicious. I tossed the recipe in the recycling this morning ...
Anna Bucciarelli February 04, 2013 at 07:43 PM
Ah, girlees, maybe not the recipe at all, maybe just not a taste for Gumbo. I don't have it, tried a recipe for it once a while back and have sworn off of it since. It is a bit complicated and really not worth the effort. But, then, I could be wrong ... I just am not a great fan of crazy, mixed-up things and like simpler food that tastes great with little effort. I too am an experienced cook and don't have many failures, but this was definitely one for me too, tho probably a different recipe. Pat yourselves on the back for even giving it a try.
Lisa Daigle February 04, 2013 at 10:32 PM
Hi, Anna--thanks for the comment. Not to sound like a braggy cook, but I think the fault wasn't with the recipe or the execution, but rather--like you and Alice--that we just don't have a taste for it. Crossed that one off the list. No need to repeat!


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