I was dubious when my husband, Peter, brought it up
last spring: "We should enter the Blackpot cook-off!" he said.
I'd been looking
forward to Blackpot for a year — it was the cook-offpart I was unsure about.
We'd heard about The Blackpot Music Festival
last year at a Chicago concert by the Red Stick Ramblers, the Lafayette,
La.-based Cajun band that started the festival. The Ramblers encouraged
everyone to attend, and
we were tempted. But the 2007 festival was less than a month away, so we made plans for 2008.
Five years ago we'd vacationed in southwestern
Louisiana and fallen in love with Cajun country: its unique culture —
the people and their French language with its Cajun patois, food, music,
dancing and pervasive joie
I was hesitant for several reasons, but deciding what
to make wasn't one of them. The competition had three categories:
(fried pork rinds or belly), and gravy (sauce or gumbo). I wasn't
"sauce" encompassed, but if competing, I'd be making gumbo.
I'm proud of my gumbo, which I developed from
classic recipes. I've made it for years, demonstrated it in numerous
cooking classes, and everyone loves it. My concerns were:1) What we were getting into?
"Don't you think
it'd be a good idea to case things out first and enter the next year?" I asked Peter. 2) The effort involved. We'd be camping at the festival, but
hadn't planned on cooking much. To compete, we'd need to bring Peter's elaborate camping kitchen and additional heavy cast-iron, because entries had to be made in "Black Pots."We'd have to unpack everything at our campsite, repack and move to the competition area, repack after the competition, etc. There'd also be a lot of advance prep and planning. 3) Lastly: wasn't it presumptuous to compete against locals with Cajun cooking in their blood?
But I didn't have the heart to squelch Peter's enthusiasm. He loves music festivals and has long desired to be a festival food vendor. More importantly, Peter's past support of my many wacky projects made me want to reciprocate.
We arrived in Acadiana a day early to procure
indigenous ingredients so our gumbo would be as authentic as possible, and
also to feast on local specialties. The andouille (a spicy smoked pork
sausage similar to Polish)
came from Breaux Bridge. In New Iberia we purchased rice at Konriko's Rice Mill, then enjoyed world-class fried chicken and smothered cabbage. In Abbeville, closer to the Gulf, we devoured platters of freshly shucked
oysters, washed down with Abita beer. Next came our most important search: fresh shrimp with heads and shells to flavor the stock. There had been lots of signs for fresh-caught shrimp, but we were looking for a place we'd discovered on our last trip. Following a crudely made poster down a crumbling road to a dirt driveway lined with wrecked pickups, dilapidated trailersand rusting junk heaps, we'd found shrimp/crab/crawfish nirvana. This time, we had a general idea of the location, but had lost the address and had no idea if it even still existed. After hours of searching, we were ready to give up when Peter spotted it. The place was exactly as we remembered — even the rusty junk piles looked the same. We got our shrimp — and the biggest, meatiest soft-shell crabs we'd had since our last visit.
Cook-off day dawned bright and chilly. But the sun was
hot, and Peter was sweating by the time everything was set up. We
immediately began shelling shrimp — the stock would need to cook for
a couple hours to maximize flavor. Folks bond quickly in festival
campgrounds, and Monica, one of our neighbors, showed up to offer help. A
steady stream of people stopped
by throughout the day, asking what we were making, and chatting. We were busy, but weren't rushed.
Then I began making roux. "You're the only
ones here making your own roux," our campground friends said. Roux is
a cornerstone of Cajun cooking. It's commercially available there in
different strengths/colors, but not here in central Illinois, and I found
that surprising. By the time I started my second batch (I made three
batches, just in case), a crowd had gathered to watch — including the
guys who'd won last year's competition. "You're the
only ones using seafood!" our newfound
buddies reported. "You're the only ones not using pre-made spice mixes."
When it came time to hand out samples, lots of people
said they'd been told to visit us because we had the best gumbo. Just
like home, everyone seemed to love it. My goal had been to not embarrass
myself, but now I began
to think we might actually win.
We lost. This year's winners took first place
with smoked turkey neck gumbo; last year the same brothers had won with
quail and squirrel gumbo. Afterwards a man asked how we'd done. He
shrugged, "Your gumbo was great, but I thought you wouldn't
win. 'Round here they don't mix seafood and meat in gumbo.
I'm from New Orleans, and we make gumbo that way, but my wife's
from here. I keep asking her, but she refuses to make it with seafood and meat." Oh….
In retrospect, there'd been clues. When told our recipe contained shrimp, andouille and chicken, several people said, "That's . . . interesting." We also realized that even local restaurants that offered different gumbos didn't mixed surf and turf.
I was slightly miffed about losing. But I was happy that there are still places that have and adhere to local culinary traditions. And Peter had been right — being in the cook-off gave us the chance to meet and interact with local folks in a special way. Yes, we lost, but we sure had fun.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLACK ROUX GUMBO WITH SHRIMP, ANDOUILLE, AND CHICKEN
More about Cajun roux and gumbo can be found in my 2/7/08 column, "Brown is
Beautiful," on the IT website,
6 c. low sodium chicken stock
Shells from 1 lb. shrimp, or crawfish shells or crab shells and legs,
or a combination
2 whole bay leaves
2 c. chopped onions.
1 1/2 c. chopped bell peppers, red, yellow, orange, green, or a
1 c. chopped celery
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne, or to taste
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. vegetable oil
1 T. minced garlic
1 lb. small to medium shrimp, shelled and deveined, shells saved for stock, as above. Cut larger shrimp in
half lengthwise OR substitute 1 lb. shelled crawfish tails (shell
before weighing and saving the heads and shells for stock as above OR
use frozen crawfish tails)
1 lb. andouille sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces OR substitute other
garlicky smoked sausage such as Polish
2 c. cooked chopped chicken
Minced scallions, optional
Combine the stock, seafood shells, and bay leaves in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for at least an hour and up to two hours. Strain out the shells and bay leaves and measure the stock to be
sure you have at least 6 cups; adding additional water if necessary. Combine the onions, peppers and celery in a bowl and set aside. Combine the salt, peppers, thyme and oregano and set aside.
Put the oil in a large heavy skillet and whisk in the
flour until no lumps remain. Place the skillet over high heat, whisking
constantly. Cook until the roux is very dark brown — about the color
of dark chocolate. This
takes attention. It scorches easily if not stirred constantly. When it's the right color, add half the onion/pepper/celery mixture, stirring
constantly. The roux will immediately turn black, but the vegetables will not burn. Cook about two minutes, then add the remaining vegetables. Cook a couple minutes more, then add the spice/herb mixture. Cook a couple
minutes, add the garlic and cook a minute longer. Remove from the heat.
Bring the stock to a boil and whisk in the roux
mixture. Bring to a simmer. Add the andouille and chicken. Simmer for about
20 minutes. Add the shrimp or crawfish and simmer for another minute.
Remove from the heat
and let stand for 15 minutes, then remove the oil on the surface by blotting with a paper towel. To serve, place a mound of cooked rice in the center of each bowl, then spoon the gumbo over it. Sprinkle with minced scallion, if
Serves 8 as an entrée, 12-16 as an appetizer.