"C'est un plaisir; c'est le dernier qu'on quitte.
Est-il éteint? bientȏt il ressuscite."
- Monsieur de Saint-Just 1807
Cruiser to couch surfer - there appears to be little difference at first glance, each passing through the lives and cultures of others. But they are not the same. As a cruiser, by bringing our floating home with us, we establish our own wandering biosphere with our private space, routines and time. We shop, engage, entertain and interact and thereby become, ever so slightly, part of the place, though not attached to it - epiphytes. As couch surfers (bums or hobos as my folks have so endearingly pointed out!) we hardly touch the surface, accompanying, observing, waiting, and peripherally joining in the lives of others. Setting no agenda, we blow through like autumn leaves.
Lexington to New Orleans, seven hundred and fifty miles, not so far, but farm and foxhunting to food and fringe festival is a long way. New Orleans is many things, but we are we are with Daisy and to her, now, it is about her friends, their lives, their appetites, their theatre, their music, the food they cook, the shows they plan. So we share, or at least we do in our waking hours that coincide.
There's probably more bad food served for good money in New Orleans than in any other city but underlying that is a unique and vibrant cuisine. Felipe, friend of Daisy and chef at Butcher, an artisanal charcuterie, delighted in recounting how he chides his New York friends for their assertions that they have the best of all food. "You have the best Ethiopian, the best Thai, the best French and the best Italian, but we have our own, developed here and only available here. In contrast you have nothing." He went on to riff on the wonders of Boudin, he plans to convert me from ambivalence to disciple. But Gumbo is as Creole as it gets. Here a few words borrowed from a 1962 essay in Gourmet magazine by Eugene Walter to spike your curiosity and make your mouth water.
This filé is a preparation of dried ground sassafras leaves that have been pounded in a mortar, sifted through a hair sieve, and bottled. It is a thickening agent and is used in many Southern variants of gumbo and jambalaya. It is always added just before serving and is never cooked. It is the ingredient often missed when these dishes are prepared away from the South. But there's no excuse for lacking gumbo file if you belong to the cult. The specialty food shops have it or can get it for you.
Okra is often used to impart to gumbos a special smoothness, a kind of figured-bass accompaniment to the piquant spices. Okra is the seed-pod of a plant belonging to the mallow or hibiscus family: the rose madder and marshmallow are its cousins. Sassafras is native, but okra was brought from Africa by slaves. Sometimes, to confuse things, okra is called gumbo (or gumbo plant) - both are African words. Gumbo means "everything together" - for example, gumbo ya-ya means "everybody talking at once." The most subtle gumbos employ okra and file."
"Well, that gives you an idea, doesn't it? People are always asking me what gumbo is. As you see, it's not a soup exactly, it's not a stew, not a ragout, it's uniquely and incomparably gumbo! It is dark and as thick as river mud, unctuous, spicy and satisfying."