There's nothing like the combination of food, New Orleans, and other people's obsessions to inspire you. It was on a visit here that I encountered a little gem masquerading as a worn, blue hardback entitled Cooking in Old Creole Days. Published in 1903 by Celestine Eustis, it offered an incredible look into the methodology of Creole cooking and the attitude towards culinary arts in the previous centuries. Despite, or maybe in part due to, a remarkable overtly racist prologue ("as a race, we are certainly not gifted with culinary talent") by S. Weir Mitchell, the book is fascinating from start to finish.
I jotted down a recipe for the most basic dish in the Creole repertoire: okra gumbo. I wanted to see how the traditional elaboration compared to what comes out of my pseudo-New-Orleanian family kitchen. So I followed the "receipt" to the best of my abilities-the ambiguity of it I actually found to result in a fun cooking challenge, allowing me to fill in the gaps with my own knowledge and whims.
And...most importantly...the gumbo was delicious! Chip proclaimed it amazing, and I thought it tasted quite good as well. A fairly easy meal. I do have to say I like my dad's darker, more Cajun gumbo better, but that could just be due to another tradition that dates back hundreds of years: a strong loyalty to your own flesh and blood's roux.
Put into a saucepan a spoonful of pure lard* and one of flour. Stir it well until it is of a light brown. Chop an onion into small pieces and throw them in. Cut up a fat capon or chicken into small pieces and put it into the saucepan with the flour and lard. Stir it all the while until the chicken is nearly done. When the whole is well browned, add a slice of ham* cut up small. Throw in two or three pods of red pepper*, and salt to your taste. Then add a quart of boiling water, and leave it on the fire for two hours and a half.
During that time you take either a can of okra or the fresh okra, and chop it up a bit. Put it in a saucepan with a little water and let it simmer a quarter of an hour, stirring it all the time. Then add to it either six fresh tomatoes or half a can of tomatoes, and let it cook on a slow fire for an hour, uncovered.
When your gumbo has been on the fire the two hours and a half, you take it off to cool, and skim all the grease off. Then you put it back in the saucepan and add your okra and tomatoes and let it simmer slowly for an hour or until the okra is thoroughly cooked. Serve hot, and eat it with dry rice served in a separate dish.
-Mme. Eustis, Mére.
*for the lard, I used butter. for ham, I used andouille. for the red pepper, I used chile de arbol.