“Howdy, folks. Welcome to New Orleans.” The wrinkles on the back of the man’s neck told a story of how long he had been greeting people. “What brings you to town?”
Patrick and I spoke simultaneously:
The man laughed and slapped his knee. “Well, you’re both in for a treat.” He wound the car through the narrow streets of the French Quarter past red brick buildings with wrought-iron balconies filled with gardenias. “If I’s was you, I’d head straight down for a bowl of gumbo.”
“That’s what we are here for.” Patrick was proud of his knowledge of local food.
The driver pushed back his silver-banded black hat on his shaved head and turned to us. “Now, what I do is order the gumbo with a bowl of potato salad and mix the two together.” He made a stirring action with his right hand; his left draped over the steering wheel. He must’ve know the streets of New Orleans well if he didn’t have to watch where he was going.
“That sounds great.” I could hear Patrick’s stomach grumbling already.
“It ain’t pretty, but it’s tasty.” The man finally glanced forward, but only for a second. His brown eyes locked on mine. “My wife don’t like it. She thinks it’s messy.” He did not break eye contact. “But I jus’ tell her, it’s because I’m a coon-ass and you ain’t.”
I laughed, that nervous laugh when I wasn’t sure if I should or not. After all, the man was using the derogatory slang about himself, and he was laughing. So, I did, too.
With such solid advice, we couldn’t help but make a bowl of gumbo our next mission. With hurricane rum drinks in hand, we followed the driver’s directions of where to find the best bowl in town. We strolled past moss-covered brick driveways, leading to two-story houses once used as slave quarters with tall jalousie shutters — the ugly truth behind the pretty façade. We stumbled into a dark and dingy bar to discover a fit and beautiful black man, sweating in the heat of the day and screaming into a microphone the purest sound of jazz. The trumpet player behind him blew out the notes with hurricane force. It was loud, raucous and invigorating.
From the grungy darkness, we spilled out onto the street, to the full light of day. A swing band had gathered a crowd. We pushed forward to watch a thin young flapper girl, with a bow pinning back her short, pageboy hair and stockings with a line up the back of her calf, be twirled through the air by her partner in suspenders and a fedora. Another trumpet blared to an entirely different beat.
Further down the street, a man sat on a fold-up chair on the street corner under the shade of a magnolia tree. He curled his tall frame over a steel guitar and plucked the notes of a blues song. His shiny black shoes tapped up and down in time to the music.
We rounded the corner to discover a boy of no more than 12-years-old, who could have been our taxi driver’s grandson. He, too, was blowing into a trumpet with bravura. The notes to “When the Saints Go Marching In” filled the air. His buddies behind him accompanied him with a trombone and tuba. When they lowered their instruments and sang, I reached into my pocket for a few loose bills to add to their college fund, as the hand-written sign propped up on the tuba case read.
By the time we sat down for that first bowl of gumbo, I had all but packed to move to this raw and dirty city with more charm and soul than any I’d been in recently. And, with the first bite of spicy, earthy seafood gumbo combined with the soft sweetness of the creamy potato salad, I couldn’t help but agree with the driver’s earlier words. Both New Orleans and the Cajun specialty in the bowl in front of me ain’t pretty, but they’re tasty.
NEW ORLEANS GUMBO
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
2 onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
3 bay leaves
8 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
? teaspoon cayenne
? teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 12-ounce bottle dark beer
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
12 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 pound andouille sausage
(or smoked sausage), cut in
half and sliced thinly
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled
24 oysters, shucked, liquid saved
1 pound crab claws
1 bunch green onions, green part sliced
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
3 cups potato salad
- In a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat, cook the oil and flour, stirring constantly until the flour turns from yellow to golden to light brown. (15-20 minutes). At this point, watch carefully and stir constantly as it is quick to turn from dark to burnt. When the flour turns the color of coffee, immediately add the onions and garlic to stop the flour from burning. This is called making a roux.
- Cook for 5 minutes until onions are soft and stir in the peppers, celery, bay leaves, thyme, chili powder, cayenne, white pepper, paprika and smoked paprika. Stir to distribute the flour evenly. Slowly, add the beer, clam juice and chicken stock, stirring constantly to thicken the liquid. Add the worcestershire sauce, sea salt and sausage.
- Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Taste the liquid and adjust the seasoning. This should be a highly flavorful, thick broth.
- Add the shrimp and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the oysters in their liquid and crab claws. Simmer for 5 minutes just to heat through.
- Taste again and stir in the green onions and Italian parsley.
- Serve with a side of potato salad or rice.