The Soapbox: Gumbo Police — Fraud in that pot

Brandi Chambless

In the winter of 1988, the historic clash of neighborly basketball rivals made for one of my most memorable high school basketball games. It was homecoming night and after securing a “W”, two Lady Eagles traded the locker room for a neighboring homecoming dance. My friend Tammy and I helped each other get ourselves as post-game pretty as possible and then met our dates Jacques and Jean-Louis. In the French-influenced region of Louisiana, we all danced the night away in the same gymnasium where my parents attended high school.

Some 20 years later and even unto this very day, every time I swing through the little town I consider to be my own oyster, I pay a visit to the local artisan butcher shop Jacques inherited known as T-Jims Grocery. One particular visit near the time of the 20-year reunion mark, I walked into T-Jims and asked the butcher if Jacques was there. The butcher said – “Brandi, it’s me!” in heavy Cajun dialect and standing in the crafty shoes in which his father once stood.

In search of a link of steamed boudin, I usually grab and go, then picnic on some porch somewhere, for we are all neighbors in a place where fences are rare and impromptu visits are common. If Jacques is there, he will hook me up with boudin, a hog-head cheese molded in the shape of L-S-U, and a T-shirt sized small that reads, “T-Jim’s Grocery – Killin’ Hogs Since 1964.” It is no secret that pork is a mainstay of the Cajun diet.

I found that upon returning to my home as an adult in Texas and blogging about those normal things specific to that way of my childhood, readers flocked to it like it was some sort of novelty. Egg knocking at Easter (Pacquing, Pokking), hosting a boucherie, attending a Christmas cochon-du-lait, or just eating Granny’s blackberry pie were things people asked me to write about more and more through the years. So I did. And still do.

Since my time of doing this early blogging about life on the proverbial bayou, a young generation has grown up in the decades behind me. With three guys in particular going through difficult seasons of life, they found themselves taking solace at “the camp.” Notably, just about everyone in Louisiana has a place called “the camp” to get out into the woods.

Instead of blogging my old way, the guys of this young generation would hunt for dinner, cook it in a rich gravy, and then use Snapchat to show friends in “the parish” what was going on at the camp. This nightly occurrence soon took root and rivaled the demand of a television mini-series in which people searched social media to see how the hunt went or what was for dinner. If it was “gumbo weather,” that was even better. Everyone wanted to know what the guys had in that pot.

Today, the three guys have over 50,000 followers on Facebook who provide their own submissions. Writing in and requesting whether a Mexican dish would be ok was an early observation that people wanted to expand beyond wild game and other Cajun delicacies. They also wanted to play at this game too. Something had changed. Now it was what was in the peoples’ pots that was the star attraction rather than what was in the pot at the camp.

In the recent years, a new phenomenon has, once again, changed the focus of the page. In the sentiments of “I’m just here for the comments,” many lurkers follow the page just to be entertained by the opinions of others as to whether a dish is a winner or a loser or whether a poster will take the bait of an offense. Many newbies have learned the hard way by posting their “first gumbo” without being forewarned that in South Louisiana culture, there is no “bless their heart.” Any dish is susceptible, but none so much as gumbo, to provoke a face value response for which many are unprepared; neither are they prepared to fully understand the heart of authentic gumbo and what it means to the culture. A true Cajun can always spot a gumbo that began without a bone-based or shell-driven, rich stock.

There have been countless postings of imposter gumbos containing wieners, cheese, corn and the like. These culinary fraudmongers are proud of their creations and will host counterfeit arguments such as whether the sour cream goes on the side or in the middle, while true Cajuns want to send them back over some border somewhere because sour cream garnishes are for something called soup. A recent post by one rookie with a “rouxless” gumbo led to comments like the call to remove the so-called White Christmas Gumbo and other educational observations by the general public. Comments translated into Texan: Bless their heart. But the holy grail of bad comments for un-gumbo or other losing dishes is when you see French-speaking followers throw out a “Pauvre bête” or “Cher Bon Dieu.” No need to translate those literally—they are Cajun colloquialisms for it’s so bad I don’t even know where to begin, the Cajun version of “bless her heart.” The only unwritten netiquette for the page is If you don’t have anything nice to say, then say it in French…didn’t your mama raise you right?

The truth is, the world is fascinated with what is in the Louisiana pot. But, if you don’t want utter honesty, don’t say you haven’t been forewarned if you decide to ask a Louisiana cook a question like, “Do tomatoes belong in gumbo?” or “I’m allergic to seafood, do you have any other recipes?” Just stop now while you are ahead. For as particular as the French are about the language, so are French cooks about the dish.

The gumbo police are out there everywhere and even they know that while everybody’s mama does it a little bit differently, a low percentage of those may be a dead ringer for the real thing. The best way to find the secret to avoiding citations by the gumbo police is to remain in the underground for about 40 years while studying the best of the best before ever letting it be known what you truly got in that pot.

Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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