Greenling has delivered okra! Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking tells us that “Okra comes from the annual plant Hibiscus (Abelmoschus) esculentus, a member of the hibiscus family and a relative of roselle and cotton. It originated in either southwest Asia or eastern Africa, and came to the southern United States with the slave trade.” History flows through and around the food we eat, the cuisine we cook, and often it’s a story full of human suffering and determination to survive. This is one reason that cooking is a ritual staking us to the past and offering respect–a sacred moment.
The above is an 1885 Louisiana cookbook by Lafcadio Hearn (a fascinating study in himself, a Greek-Irishman who wrote extensively about New Orleans and Japan). This is the deep history of stirring a pot, a reminder that American Southern cuisine begins with bone-breaking work and slow cooking by those in the fields. Below, an African-American woman stirs in a plantation yard and in so doing defines the hearth, the essential task of a home (she could be Hestia), and the human work with heat and water of transforming vegetables and animals into food. This grounds ever single one of us. [Photo courtesy of the Georgetown County Library Collection.]
Whenever I have my hands on okra, I think gumbo. With West African, Choctaw and French influences gumbo brings together and celebrates three continental cuisines and produce. A Senegalese ancestor of our gumbo is soupoukandia, featuring palm oil, eggplant and Habaneros–a fiery ancestor. A recipce can be found in John Connor’s article in Saveur, Senegal: A Feast For All. Here culture, food, history and research all meet, and this is a reason why I’m cooking the essence of Southern cuisine tonight while I write about teaching a class on food this fall at The Honors College, University of Houston. A reality capping a two-year journey into quite literally the bellies of beasts. My conversion to the sustainability side of life began when I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His immediate, well-crafted sentences revealed the matrix of corn, the complete and subtle importance of fertile soil, and along the way, introduced me to such farmer-philosophers as Joel Salatin and reminded me of the wisdom of Wendell Berry. I’ve read the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, the oft-cited, oft-quoted An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, and the witty cooking and dining essays of M.F.K Fisher. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations allowed me into the minds of Dave Chang, Magnus Nilsson René Redzepi; and then, there were the movies: Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Food, Inc, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and Tampopo. What stirs everything around is my time in the kitchen cooking for family and friends. I melt duck fat or pour several gluts of oil and begin to slowly transform onions, carrots and celery–from a mirepoix I can turn in so many directions; or Gabriela buying a whole chicken from our nearby farmer’s market and I stuff it with herbs from our garden and then roast it for a few hours; or maybe I light some wood-coals and smoke that chicken until is dark-red and incredibly juicy. Through the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef, I’ve worked on my stocks and sauces, and I always, always sharpen the knife.
Back to the gumbo. First, let’s melt some butter, add flour and then heat until it turns saffron. Hovering over a slowly darkening roux certainly must be one of the great pleasures of life. The 1961 Larousse Gastronomique states, “It is made by cooking flour in clarified-butter in the oven, gently and for a long time, stirring frequently.” I’m using the stove-top and gently and frequently stirring. The Professional Chef states, ‘Cooking flour in fat inactivates an enzyme that, if not destroyed by high heat, interferes with flour’s thickening ability. Cooking flour also changes the flour’s raw cereal taste to a toasty or nutty flavor. Both the flavor and the color become deeper the longer the roux cooks.” Amen.
So, now the class–Eat, Drink, Argue, Heal: The Poetics and Performance of Food. As advertised this class attempts to chart the “food” constellation.
You invite friends over for dinner. Calamari, avocado, a smoked chicken and chocolate pudding with freshly whipped cream. Throughout the meal you alternate bites of food with gossip, diatribes, medical advice, consolation and glasses of your favorite beverage. Civilization. Eat, Drink, Argue, Heal: The Poetics and Performance of Food explores the culinary world of debate, cure, philosophy and sustenance. Through texts ranging from antiquity to our contemporary world, our class will explore dining tables, hospitals, kitchens, farms, cuisines, empires, laboratories, and restaurants for who we have been, who we are, and who we will become when we pare a carrot, grill a hamburger, toss a salad and open our mouths. Our chefs will include Athenaeus, Andre Gregory, Hippocrates, Harold McGee, Plato, Michael Pollan, Brillat-Savarin and many more. Besides the readings, students are required to explore and research local engagements with food throughout Houston, whether that is BBQ and storytelling in the Third Ward, shrimp boats in the Gulf Coast, or the cultures and traditions moving back and forth between Texas and Mexico. Students will also participate in creating a banquet for invited guests at the end of the semester. And, of course, we’ll spend time in the kitchen cooking, tasting, and laughing.
Time to stir the roux again.
Saffron-color achieved. I’ve also started to brown one of my favorite sausages, cotechino–made with pork, fatback and rind.
It has a crunch and seductive texture and taste.
Now I’ve added cut okra–a dark, fresh, vegetal aroma fills the air. Next, the Holy Southern Trinity of Cooking: onions, bell peppers and celery!
Ah, the garden fragrance in the air! Also, a reminder of the strong Catholic background of Louisiana. I’ve combined the southern mirepoix, okra and sausage, now it’s time for the stock–what about the stock? Chicken, lamb, kombu, parsley, and sweet potato greens have all gone into this stock. Yes, umami and more. Everything simmers together, which means it’s time for the Rancho Gordo California Wild Rice–their web site tells me this is more of an “aquatic seed!” I’m looking for something earthy and nutty, so this might just work. The first aroma is of black tea, then it moves to leaves and cashews–fascinating. The rice is ready, so it’s time to put in my plucky little shrimp friends. Harvested off the Texas coast, the heads and shells of these beauties will also let me extend the life of my stock.
The pot bubbles away with it’s now light goldenrod broth. I smell, taste, play Minecraft with Demian, and then it’s time to plate.
And plate again.
My son and I sit down to a taste of our terroir and the history of centuries reaching back across the Atlantic Ocean. Gabriela is at capoeria class, so we’re supposed to save some for her; if there is any left to save! Over the next few months I’ll post what my college class eats, drinks, argues and probably heals. Bon Appétit.