Once upon a time, there was a Pulizer Prize-winning author, a woman who drank Jack Daniels, shot ducks and wore diamonds with equal nonchalance. Her name is Shirley Ann Grau and she was my magical guide around New Orleans a few years back.
"I'm quite a dull, conventional person," she warned. This was a lie.
She picked me up in a long maroon car which in burnished memory was a Cadillac, treated me to a fancy lunch (I don't recall the food, I do recall the wine, the warm glow of chardonnay in the glass) and showed me the sights, including New Orleans' system of pumping stations and levees. They lacked her glamour and talent to fascinate but, she said, "One of these guys breaks and it's all over." This, which she told me six months before Hurricane Katrina, turned out to be true.
Grau, now shy of 80, had lived by herself in the French Quarter in her 20s. After her 1955 debut story collection, The Black Prince, the Klan burned a cross on her yard. Or tried to. "They had forgotten to bring a shovel," and her hard-packed ground would not yield. "They had to lay it down," she recalled. "It was kind of silly."
In 1965, she won the Pulitzer for The Keepers of the House, a novel confronting race in a way genteel white women weren't supposed to do. She'd stared down every hurricane of her life by staying put, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a shotgun by her side. Until Katrina.
Shirley waited until mandatory evacuation, then loaded her dogs into the car and took off for Houston, where her daughter lives. When we spoke shortly thereafter, she reported her house was ruined, the manuscript she'd been writing was lost. On the upside, her dogs were fine, she had a new wardrobe since she'd fled like a refugee without so much as a change of clothing, the weather in Houston was lovely and she had plans to see Eugene Onegin.
"It isn't my favorite opera, but what the heck, it's civilization." She sounded close to her tough, resolute self but before we hung up, she confided she felt "like hell."
After that, she took off like the character Baby in her 1994 novel Roadwalkers. She vanished, or seemed to. I'm hoping she's back in New Orleans or has set down roots in Houston. I'm hoping this gumbo can call her to the table from wherever she is.
Gumbo is a dish rich in tradition and soul and everyone thinks they make the best. Some add file' (sassafras powder) as a thickener, some add okra, many eschew both. I don't see how you can make an okraless gumbo, since gumbo gets its name from the Bantu word nkombo, meaning okra. With a bit of acid (lemon juice or vinegar), okra has no slime factor. It's rich in folate, fiber and vitamin A.
I added a pound of collards because they're growing out of control in my garden. You can add the same amount of duck, shrimp, andouiille or crawfish. It's pretty nervy of this Miami girl to make gumbo for Shirley, but she'll appreciate the nerve, if not the gumbo. She'd no doubt add crab, duck or even squirrel she'd bagged herself, and if that's what you like, I'll show you how to do it. Still, I hope this vegan version sums up her spirit. Serve over rice. Keep the Tabasco handy. Also the Jack Daniels.
1/4 cup unbleached flour
1/4 cup canola oil
3 onions, chopped
3 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, chopped
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 pound okra
juice of 1 lemon
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped fine
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teasoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
6 cups vegetable stock
1 pound of collards, stems removed, sliced into thin ribbons or a pound duck meat (cooked) or seafood or sausage of your choosing
First step's making your roux -- this is key. Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium-high. Stir in flour. Keep stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or so until the mixture turns the color of an old penny. Do not saunter off. You risk roux burn. When this happens, there's no way back but to start over. You don't want this to happen to you.
From here on in, things ease up. Add the onions, celery, garlic, carrots and green pepper to the roux, stirring well so the vegetables are coated. Reduce heat to medium and allow vegetables to cook until softened, about 10 minutes. If you're sausaging, add it now, and let it brown.
Meanwhile, rinse okra well and blot dry. Slice into bite-sized bits and squeeze lemon juice over them. Then add the okra to the soup pot. Stir in well, then add vegetable stock, parsley and spices. Bring to boil, then cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour and a half.
At this point, if you're me, you add chopped collards. If you're Shirley or indeed most other people, this is the point where you add duck or seafood. Cook another 10 minutes and you're good to go.