It’s comfort food, holiday food and, most of all, family food.
The meat gets cooked up first, then the vegetables are added. Okra goes in at the end so it won’t get slimy.
Then, it gets poured over rice, and family and friends dig in.
Peter Trosclair, owner of Biscuits and Blues, learned his gumbo-making skills from his father. The recipe was handed down from generation to generation in his family. When Peter Trosclair’s father was young, his father died, so he learned to take care of the family.
He grew a garden and sold vegetables, and he told his customers the best way to cook them.
Later on, he cooked for his wife and nine children, making mostly Creole dishes.
“He’d cook a huge pot of gumbo, and we’d eat on that for days,” Trosclair said.
Creating a masterpiece
Mary Russell, a cook in Trosclair’s kitchen, has been making gumbo for 18 years, and she worked for Trosclair’s father before she started at Biscuits and Blues.
First, she sautés chopped onion, bell pepper and green onion in a huge pot. After that, seasonings and Worcestershire sauce go in.
Russell doesn’t touch a measuring cup through the whole process.
“Measuring’s not required,” she said. “When you’ve been cooking it long enough, you just add things and know it’s right.”
After that, she adds garlic, filet and rue. She makes gumbo at home much the same way, she said.
Chicken leg quarters get boiled for about an hour, after which she de-bones them and adds cans of okra.
The end result is about five gallons of savory Cajun goodness served over rice.
Gumbo in Natchez
When Trosclair’s father moved from his Louisiana home to Natchez, he opened a bakery and delicatessen.
Trosclair started working in his father’s restaurant when he was 11 years old.
“We all worked,” he said. “The girls ran the cash register, and we helped in the kitchen.”
And, Trosclair said, his father made the dish popular in Natchez.
“When Dad moved here in the ’40s, people didn’t eat much gumbo,” Trosclair said.
Now they can’t get enough of it.
Trosclair sells up to 15 gallons of gumbo a week — in the middle of summer.
Gumbo is more than just combining ingredients. The cook has to make the rue, a mixture of toasted flour and oil, and then add ingredients in a certain order — such as the okra.
There are some tricks to making good gumbo, too. For example, you have to stir the rue to keep the oil from floating on top, he said.
“And you have to use cast iron or stainless steel to cook it,” he said. “If you use aluminum, it turns the gumbo a different color.”
Trosclair’s gumbo, and many others’, gets its color and much of its distinctive flavor from fillet, powdered sassafras leaves. Other spices, such as black and cayenne pepper, are added, too.
The three main types of gumbo are chicken and sausage, seafood and duck, he said. He uses chicken and andouille, a spiced sausage, for meat at his restaurant.
One of a kind
Very few gumbo recipes are the same, said Doug Hosford, chef and co-owner of High Cotton Catering.
“Most dishes that originate from the South are called one-pot dishes,” Hosford said.
Everything was put in one pot. People left them on the stove all day long and added what they had.
“That’s why there’s so many variations,” he said. “That’s why everybody thinks their grandmother’s is the best gumbo. It’s regional.”
The meal originated in Louisiana Cajun country, and it is unique, even when compared to dishes around the globe.
“It’s one of the true local cuisines,” Hosford said. “By that, I mean that you don’t see anything else like this in the rest of the world.”
A family tradition
For Natchez resident Donnie Holloway, the making and eating of gumbo is a strong family tradition.
Growing up near the coast, Holloway’s parents made gumbo every Christmas. The often 30-gallon batch of Cajun gumbo would often take three to four days of work.
“It wasn’t a one-day deal,” Holloway said. “It was a tradition. Every Christmas, we always had gumbo. If you went to a neighbor’s house, everybody had gumbo.”
His parents would fry up the meat and create the work of art on a stove in the shed out back.
Everyone has his or her own way of making gumbo, Holloway said. His mother came from a French family, and his father’s side had a Scotch-Irish ancestry.
“When they got married, they combined their two gumbos, I guess,” he said.
But it wasn’t always a smooth process with two cooks in the kitchen.
“They would discuss how much (of an ingredient) to put in,” Holloway said. “One would sneak in and put something in, and the other would find out.”
Once it was finished, 30 gallons of gumbo would feed his brothers and sisters, along with friends and family who dropped in. And what was true then is still true today.
“How long it lasts is according to who comes to the house,” he said.
With some family along the coast and some in the Miss-Lou, Holloway is now the one in charge of his Natchez family’s Christmas gumbo.
He still follows his parent’s recipe as closely as he can.