IT TAKES OKRA. This Sunday, April 15, Mike Warr has asked me to help judge the gumbo cookoff at the City Auto Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival, the annual mudbug throwdown to benefit Porter-Leath. Mike started this party when he was at the helm of Captain Bilbo’s 23 years ago, initially ordering 600 pounds of crawfish. Now he heads Porter-Leath, and this year some 20,000 people will be picking away at 16,000 pounds of the little critters.
The revelry will shut down Riverside from Union to Beale and up above on Wagner, and Mike says it might just be the largest crawfish event in the country. Since I get to sample 24 gumbos, who am I to argue?
So, facing this awesome responsibility, I’ve been thinking about gumbo.
I recently heard a radio interviewer ask the owner of Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi one of those esoteric questions, something along the lines of what is the essence, the raison d’être, of gumbo? “You know what gumbo means?” came the reply. “It means okra, it’s an African word for okra.”
No okra, no gumbo.
A grand mixture of this and that, wild and domestic, fresh and frozen, seasoned by long-held secrets and out-front flavor. The humblest of origins and the richest of finishes, shared at table. From quiet and subtle to loud and fiery, according to taste. Always inventive, and served warm. African-American soul and survival, Southern heart and heartbreak, everything together in a pot, always close to boiling over, always interesting. Like gospel and blues. Like R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Like new ways to see, to feel, to dance. Like risk and reward. Like Memphis.
That’s a lot to put in a bowl, but there’s a lot to gumbo.
When Mark Norris, Curry Todd and the kitchen crew up in Nashville legislate to isolate, stirring up public education fear, cooking up laws to separate suburban communities one from the other and all from the city, they’re not making greater Memphis gumbo, they’re making a stew of things. When they make laws requiring photo ID, unnecessarily spending our tax money to limit, if not eliminate, large groups of voters who might not like their recipe, they’re leaving out the key ingredient, the soul of the whole dish.
There’s no okra in there.
I offer page 67 of the 1982 edition of the Les Passees cookbook, “Well Seasoned.” At the top, is a recipe for “Easy Shrimp and Crabmeat Gumbo” from Mrs. Dan Conaway (lovely woman, great taste in men). At the bottom, is one for “Chicken Gumbo” from Mrs. S.R. Pooley, Sr. Mrs. Conaway calls for bacon grease, no roux, and plenty of okra. Mrs. Pooley requires no bacon grease, does require a roux, and there’s no okra in there anywhere.
By definition, Mrs. Conaway is making gumbo. Mrs. Pooley is making something else.
Increasingly, the cooks in Nashville are circumventing the key ingredients that give the whole Memphis area its genuine flavor, and attempting to make something else altogether.
I’m a Memphian, and that leaves a bad taste.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.