In LITTLE GALE GUMBO, there’s a scene where Camille shows Ben how to cook gumbo. Like Ben, I learned how to make the famous New Orleans dish from a reliable source: my husband Ian, who is a native New Orleanian and an incredible cook.
I thought it would be fun to have him share a bit of his experience growing up around so much great food.
Tell us about yourself. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my roots in Louisiana run far back on both sides of my family. My great-grandmother grew up in Houma, Louisiana and spoke only French until she was fifteen when the family moved to New Orleans. One of my favorite stories of hers was how she became Episcopalian which was very unusual for a Cajun. Her family lived so remotely that when my great-great grandfather became gravely ill, the only priest who ventured into the swamp to console him was the Episcopal priest, so when my great-great-grandfather recovered, he switched to the Episcopal Church.
Why do you think food is such a central part of New Orleans culturally? I think it’s a pervasive part of all cultures to have food at special gatherings of family and friends, so New Orleans isn’t unique that way. The difference with New Orleanians is that food is the special occasion and they don’t need the excuse of a holiday or some other big event to eat extravagantly. The vast majority of family gatherings I remember as a kid were because my grandfather got 40 pounds of crawfish or someone gave him a bunch of blue crabs or oysters or whatever was in season at the time.
What are some of your earliest memories of food? My grandparents always made huge vats of gumbo and froze it, so they would always have a bowl of gumbo waiting for me when I came to visit, chock full of blue crab bodies still in the shell.
Crawfish boils were also a big part of growing up. My grandfather would cook the crawfish in these huge tin wash bins and I have very distinct memories of watching him and being amazed at the amount of cayenne pepper and salt he would pour into these boils. Whole jars of cayenne. Then when they were done cooking, he’d dump the steaming crawfish out onto three picnic tables lined up end-to-end and my cousins and I would sit around them and it was always a race to peel the crawfish before they were all gone.
Your grandfather was a shrimper in Lake Pontchartrain for many years. Did you ever get to go with him? Lots of times. What I remember most was getting up at three in morning and getting out on the water and it would be completely dark. While we were trawling, I can remember sitting under the bulkhead and I couldn’t see anything—all I could feel was these big waves hitting the hull and I remember being certain we were going to sink. Then by the time light came, we’d be finished trawling and my job would be to pick the crabs and the fish out of the shrimp. You had to watch out for the small crabs because their pinch was the worst.
Tell us something people may not know about New Orleans food. New Orleanians are not purists when it comes to their food. I remember my grandfather started putting his etouffee over pasta instead of the traditional rice and it became quite popular among his fellow shrimpers.
What’s your favorite New Orleans dish to cook and your favorite to eat? Definitely gumbo. To me, it’s the one dish I most associate with growing up in New Orleans. But I miss those blue crabs.
* * * *
When Ian isn’t teaching his wife how to make traditional New Orleans dishes, he’s teaching Biology and Anatomy.