Of Roux and Royalty
Far away, along languid bayou waters flowing by long fertile gardens, lived the gumbo queen, Clotilde. She lived in a quaint cypress Creole cottage, its galerie overlooking Bayou LaFourche, right alongside the “longest village street in the world”, also known as Louisiana highway one. Her “gumbo king”, Pierre, was a fisherman and shrimper and together they produced culinary delights prized both “up the bayou” and “down the bayou”. In fact, Clotilde really was the reigning gumbo queen, having won the Cajun gumbo cookoff for 25 years at the premiere festival of Larose, the French Food Festival.
Now, two things absolutely necessary for a good Cajun cook are the right pot and a lot of patience. Everything else is just a matter of imagination. One doesn’t just throw ingredients into a pot and hope for the best. Especially not Clotilde. As a new young Cajun bride my goal was to learn from the queen. So one morning I headed down the bayou to Clotilde’s cottage where I found her sitting out on the galerie.
“Bonjour, Madame Clotilde, comme etes-vous?”
“Tres bien, sha, how come you down de bayou today? Where’s your honey, Joseph? “
“Left today on de shrimp boat wit Gaston and Jean…gone down to de gulf a few days. Jus’ hoping dat you gonna make gumbo today. I could use lessons from de queen,” I said smiling.
She dismissed my compliment with a wave of her hand. “Sure, beb, Pierre caught plenty shrimp and crab dis week and dat’s gonna make a fine gumbo!”
Leaving the galerie, we passed Clotilde’s kitchen, going out the back door to her “backyard pantry”. “ De first ting you gotta do is make a garden by your kitchen…tomatoes, peppers, celery, shallots, garlic and all kinds of herbs.” She quickly harvests necessities for today’s gumbo pot.
Watching Clotilde make magic, I made mental notes. Backyard pantry. Bouquet garni and garlic hanging in the window. File’ and cayenne pepper on the shelf. Iron pots. Lots of patience to make the roux.
“Mmm, sa bonne!” I exclaimed admiringly, tasting from the pot.So began the first of many cooking lessons with the gumbo queen.
Soon the sugarcane harvest and cool evenings heralded fall’s arrival and October’s French Food Festival. The gumbo cookoff Saturday night ends with a scrumptious gumbo feast, along with jambalaya, etoufee, and many seafood delicacies.
Clotilde and Pierre arrived early with their gumbo pot and all the fixings. The competitors, including myself, were soon busy setting up cooking spaces. I noticed a larger number of younger cooks than in past years. Clotilde anxiously surveyed the group too, obviously not happy about the new competitors she faced.
The mayor of Larose announced the start of competition , “Let the roux making begin!” Tension filled the festival tent as participants stirred the oil and flour combination with their gumbo paddles slowly, carefully, patiently, watching for just the right hue to be proudly called roux. That not being attained, one might as well quit, for the gumbo would never be worthy of a prize.
At various times, competitors added fresh ingredients…vegetables, herbs, spices, then seafood. As each completed their masterpiece, they placed their gumbo paddle astride the gumbo pot. At 6PM sharp the ending bell sounded and fiddles and accordions sang their Cajun melodies, signaling judges to begin taste-testing.
“As mayor of Larose, after careful consideration of such wonderful entries, I’m pleased to announce winners of the annual Gumbo Cookoff…honorable mention goes to Alzina Thibodeaux… third place to Suzette LeBlanc…second place goes to Clotilde Boudreaux…”
There was a sudden hush under the big tent as Clotilde responded with a loud “HMPH!” , plopped right down into her chair, arms folded. No one believed it, most of all Clotilde.
“ First place is awarded to Michelle Angelette , our new Gumbo Queen!”
My jaw dropped, and walking past the dethroned queen, I heard another loud “HMPH!”
“Our grand prize is a trip to New Orleans with an appearance on Justin Wilson’s cooking show. Congratulations, Michelle!”
Amid thunderous applause, I knew what I had to do. “Tank you for dis honor, mayor. Would Clotilde Boudreaux join me on de stage?”
As she approached the stage, all the cooks waved gumbo paddles in her honor as the crowd stood to its feet.
“Mon ami, would you be my partner on Wilson’s TV show?”
“Hmmmm…” a smile spread across her face. “Mais oui, I tink we would make a good team.”
And de band played on.
1)Roux: brown sauce base for all Cajun gumbos and stews 2)Sha, beb: cajun terms of endearment, dear 3) All points of reference in bayou country are noted as up the bayou, down the bayou, or across the bayou 4) bonjour…comme ete-vous: good morning, how are you 5) tres bien:very good 6) sa bonne: it’s good 7) mon ami: my friend 8) mais oui: but yes 9)galerie: front porch
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