Holiday Melting Pot

Our gumbo roots run deep along the Gulf Coast, and the time-honored dish is often a welcoming wintertime staple.

Leslie Baggett stirs a giant pot of seafood gumbo in preparation for the throngs of family and friends expected to pop in on Christmas. Her recipe is all in her head, her hands stirring and pinching ingredients with muscle memory like riding a bike or driving a car. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Of all the senses, taste and smell seem to be most powerfully connected to memories. Holidays naturally beckon nostalgia, and in many families, traditions become wrapped around cooking and eating the same dishes year after year.

For many on the Gulf Coast, gumbo is a natural fit for a holiday meal. It’s time-consuming enough for most cooks to save it for special occasions, but as a one-pot meal, it feeds a crowd while also making for easy cleanup. Its regional mystery and magic generate conversation for out-of-town guests, and just about everyone likes it.

“When my four kids were little, we would load them all up and go from house to house at Christmas time, ” says Leslie Baggett, a lifelong Mobilian. “We have a huge family, so that was a bunch of stops. So 11 years ago, I just made a big pot of gumbo, and we told everyone to come to our house. We’ve been doing it ever since.”

This year, Baggett expects to host 30 to 40 people on Christmas Day for dinner. She’ll start her Christmas Gumbo by making the roux the morning of Christmas Eve, combining a couple cups of bacon grease with about a cup of flour and stirring it over medium-high heat for at least an hour, adding more flour along the way, until the roux is a deep, dark brown.

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“It starts as a caramel color and just keeps getting darker and darker, ” she says. “I stir my roux constantly, so I’ve never had it burn. When you think the roux is dark enough, it’s probably not.”

Next, she sautés the vegetables — the Cajun trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery, along with okra — in bacon grease before combining them with the roux, spices and chicken broth. This will simmer all day Christmas Eve. Christmas Day, she’ll bring it back to a simmer and complete the gumbo with shrimp, crab claw meat and fingers, and oysters.

Baggett’s recipe, which she has never written down, has been evolving since her early 20s when she worked at a tiny Fairhope shop called Just Gumbo.

“I took that recipe and others I had used and combined them to make what I liked, ” she says. “I used to sell my gumbo, but now I just really enjoy cooking it for my family and friends. My 22-year-old has friends who have been coming to our house for this tradition since they were 11. It’s been fun to watch them grow up, and they all come home from college now and come over for gumbo on Christmas. I love how, with just the one pot, gumbo brings everyone together.”

Neno Ladd readies her crab traps in Point Clear. She prides herself on catching her own seafood, including pulling a shrimp net behind the boat herself, a feat few men and almost no women do today.

All About the Seafood

Over the Bay in Point Clear, another Gulf Coast cook carries on a gumbo tradition that began with her mother.

“I’m originally from Mobile, and my family had a beach house down in Gulf Shores, ” says Neno Ladd. “We always caught shrimp and crabs. My mother, Mary Hays, was an awesome cook and made the best gumbo with our fresh seafood. Gumbo is definitely a family tradition.”

Ladd, who has lived in her waterfront home on Mobile Bay for 24 years, still catches her own seafood and makes gumbo for her family. For her, the roux is essential; She echoes Baggett in encouraging beginners to keep going when they think the roux is dark enough. But Ladd is also particular about the seafood that goes into her gumbo.

“I have to plan ahead for gumbo, because I want my crab and shrimp fresh, ” she says. “My gumbo never has previously frozen seafood in it.”

Ladd doesn’t put entire crabs in the pot because she doesn’t want any shell remnants to end up in even one bite. Plus, she enjoys picking crabmeat. She also uses small shrimp.

“Some people think bigger shrimp are better, ” Ladd says. “But for gumbo, a small 35-count shrimp is perfect so that you can get a little of everything in one spoonful.”

For both of these women, and many more families along the Gulf Coast, gumbo is an essential tradition with distinct rituals, smells and flavors that seem to unite every member of the family, even if it’s just long enough to enjoy one bowl — or maybe two.

A Storied Dish

The origins of gumbo are as mysterious and complex as its flavor. Just as gumbo has many variations and styles, you’ll hear a different take on its history depending on who you ask.

We can know for certain that gumbo is a New World dish that developed as Native American, French, Spanish and West African cultures mixed together in southern Louisiana. Many people believe gumbo originated as a dish made by African slaves because okra is a key ingredient and the sole thickening agent in many gumbos — rouxs were not mentioned in recipes until many years after gumbo first began appearing in cookbooks in the early 1800s. Others claim it originated in Acadian culture as an evolution of a French bouillabaisse. And because of the use of filé powder (made from sassafras leaves) as a thickener in some recipes, some culinary historians trace its roots back to Native Americans.

It’s likely that gumbo’s true origin is a mix of these theories and other unknown stories. Gumbo is a reflection of the Gulf Coast’s rich cultural heritage, and because it is so easily changed and adjusted, it can gracefully absorb just about any culinary influence placed upon it.

1. In the beginning, creamy 2. Gaining color 3. Almost there, deep caramel 4. Final stage, dark chocolate

Perfecting Your Roux

It is tempting to reduce the heat too soon when making a gumbo roux in fear of scorching, but rookie cooks can follow these step-by-step photos to ensure that you reach the deepest color with depth of flavor to match.

Neno’s Seafood Gumbo

Recipe courtesy of Neno Ladd. She says the flavor will improve overnight, so serve the next day if possible. Always use the freshest seafood you can find!

1 cup bacon grease
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 sweet yellow onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
5 – 6 stalks celery, including leaves, chopped
2 habanero peppers, seeded and minced (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced
7 – 9 cups chicken broth or shrimp stock (if using shrimp stock, add 2 chicken bouillon cubes)
2 beef bouillon cubes
2 – 3 16-ounce cans diced tomatoes
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Crystal Hot Sauce, to taste
Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
2 – 3 pounds fresh okra, chopped
3 pounds 35-count shrimp, cleaned
2 pounds lump crabmeat (not jumbo, can use claw meat)
4 – 5 cups cooked white rice

1. In a large black iron skillet or pot, heat bacon grease over medium heat. Whisk in flour a little bit at a time, stirring frequently while browning, then stirring continuously toward the end, for about 45 minutes total.
2. When the roux turns dark brown (not red and not black), turn off heat and add onion, bell pepper, celery and habanero peppers. Turn heat to low and saute for about 4 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 2 minutes. Set aside.
3. In a large pot, bring broths, bouillon cubes, tomatoes, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and spices to a slow boil. Add roux to the pot in about 4 – 5 batches, stirring well after each addition. Simmer for 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
4. Add chopped okra to the pot and simmer  for another 30 minutes.
5. Add shrimp and crabmeat and return to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and allow to sit for a few minutes.
6. Remove bay leaves and serve over cooked white rice. Serves 15

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