Gumbo Z'Herbes

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Every once in a while, you encounter a food that is utterly delicious, yet is completely unknown to you. Thirty five years ago this happened to me with my first pesto. Three years ago it happened to me again in New Orleans. The restaurant was Dooky Chase's and the dish was gumbo z'herbes. It was one of many, many items on Mrs. Chase's lunch buffet. I thought I was collards when I saw it, but when I moved the spoon, I discovered it was full of meat- unlike collards here, at least. Everything we had that day was delicious, but everyone at our table kept remarking about this unknown recipe. It was clearly, more than collards, although they are indeed in it. It really stopped me in my tracks. After lunch, I asked Mrs. Chase about it. Ordinarily she only served it on Holy Thursday. Why something so meat laden should be served at during Lent, I can't say, but Louisiana usually does like it wants. She said that tradition has it that an uneven number of greens should be used, sometimes 5, sometimes 7 etc. She included carrot tops in hers, and pepper grass,which is wild. (I knew exactly what that was. I remember picking it along the railroad track, when I was little.) I was amazed that I had neither tasted nor even heard of something that is so delicious.

It takes a lot of greens to make a decent batch of gumbo z'herbes. I used a half a case each of turnip greens and mustard greens in my first batch this winter. It's on the menu now because we are approaching Mardi Gras. I always like to feature the food of Louisiana whenever I can. Each batch will vary a little. Other ingredients might include collards, leeks, cabbage spinach and sorrel if mine has survived this cold snap.Whether I go out and gather pepper grass remains to be seen. The railroad line that parallels the bike trail between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is rich foraging ground. I'll just stop adding things on an odd number.

Mardi Gras always seems to come along just when we begin to tire of the more solid dishes of the dead of winter. Since people from Louisiana will eat anything that moves, the sky is the limit. Besides gumbo z'herbes, there'll be a traditional red gumbo with pork, chicken and seafood, some kind of Cajun mackerel that we're still working on and sorbet made from milk punch that I learned from Marcelle Bienvenu. If I have time I'll make a king cake, although they dry out so fast they're only good for one day and it may be time to trot out Louisiana Wiggle again.

This winter, Mrs. Chase reopened the take out part of her restaurant. Hopefully the dining rooms will quickly follow. She is 84 years old and one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. Her manner reminds me of one of those movie actresses from the thirties- well spoken, well bred, witty, courteous, and smart. She's worked really hard her whole life as well. Since Katrina. I've been going to New Orleans from time to time to help my colleagues there rescue their restaurants. On one trip I worked at Dooky Chase's, pulling out soggy sheet rock and dragging ruined stoves and fryers out to the street. It seems like forever since the storm so it is especially disheartening that such important restaurants are still not open.

I had the good fortune to visit New Orleans about a month before Katrina. It was the best trip ever, but because of that I felt the destruction of the city all the more. I returned a few months after the storm, and even the mess we all saw on television did not prepare me for what I found. A year later, there had been progress, but Mrs. Chase's neighborhood seemed pretty much the same. I doubt I'll be going back this spring. The projects we were working on are all but done, and my construction skills are truthfully, rather limited. I will resume my role as a tourist though, and I urge everyone to do the same.

One last thought on all this. The powers that be were paralysed after Katrina, but a friend of mine who lives in New Orleans told me that every weekend, his church fellowship hall filled up with volunteers with sleeping bags and knapsacks who had come to do whatever they were asked. The week I was at Dooky Chase's, a bus from Mississippi pulled up. In it were people from the Viking Range factory. They jumped out with mops and soap and brooms and gloves and went to work sorting what was salvageable from what was trash. Then they washed, packed and labeled what was good. When Mrs. Chase (above, in the blue baseball cap) is ready to open, all of those pots and dishes will be ready to go. As a restaurant person, I know what a great gift this was. Lots of people from this area volunteered and raised funds. Our county health inspectors used vacation time to go down and inspect wells and water treatment plants. I know people who ran in fund raising marathons and who collected musical instruments to replaced lost ones. It's nice to know about all this in these times when some people can seem so hateful.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:44 AM


Blogger cookingbachelorstyle said...

I love cooking, and I want to learn more about southern cooking. But what caught my attention in your blog is the help you mentioned following Katrina. We had busloads of volunteers from northern Pa. travel to the south to help however they could. Yes, in a world where you here so much of the bad it's nice to hear about the good too. Looking forward to visiting again.

May 13, 2008 10:03 AM  

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