Church bells and chopping okra
Fri, Oct 10, 2008
Where we're staying, the Home Coming Center, is right next to St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Across the street is the local Roman Catholic church, St. Dominic's.
Every morning at 8:00 am, the bells in the St. Dominic bell tower begin to ring. At first there's just one or two, and it's hard to hear them above the traffic and trucks going down Harrison street. Slowly they get louder and before long all the bells are ringing together in raucous celebration, and you can't hear anything else.
Gradually, they get quieter again and before long there's just one or two ringing that are hard to hear above the traffic.
I like hearing the bells of St. Dominic in the morning.
Since today is a massive cooking day, I need to stock up on some ingredients. Our Den Mother, Kathy, takes me out shopping. (Kathy is really our infrastructure person. She makes sure we have snacks. She does our laundry. She buys beer. She ferries people to work sites and back as required. If we didn't have Kathy, we'd be hungry, dirty and sober at the end of a hard day of work. Thank you, Jesus, for Kathy.)
I am bound and determined to find some damn tofu to use in the gumbo. Actually, I'm looking for "tempe" which is like tofu only different and can be substituted for sausage. Apparently, trying to use raw tofu is like trying to make bread by starting with a bushel of wheat--a lot of trouble that won't turn out well. But the tempe will be in the same department as the tofu, so I've learned to ask for tofu and see where they point me.
We stop at the local Winn Dixie (although since the "n," the "i" and the "e" are still missing from the sign, it's really the "Win Dxi"). While Kathy waits in the car, I run in and ask for tofu. After a brief consultation, it's decided that somebody needs to "check in the back foah it."
I'm tempted to ask why they would put something they're trying to sell in the back, but then I remember I'm in New Orleans and they're not really trying to sell tofu. ("Why would you want tofu when we have a meat depahment?").
After five minutes, the guy returns to report that, nope, they don't have any tofu hidden in the back, either.
We stop at Rause's (a local grocery store). These guys at least have tofu on display (although the first person has to take me to a second person who actually knows what tofu is and where they keep it). But it's the raw tofu, not the finished product that I need.
A Whole Foods! Surely they'll have it! Sure enough, I ask the first guy I see and he leads me way and the hell across the store to a back corner (and yes, it does feel like a drug deal), but they have an entire Vegetarian Department! It's about 1/4 the size of the tofu section at QFC on Mercer Island, but it's about 10 billion times larger than anyplace else in New Orleans.
When I explain what I'm using the tempe for (substituting for sausage) Mr. Helpful Sales Clerk (by the way, Laura, I told him he could stay with us when he visits Seattle) suggested that I buy one of the sausage shaped and flavored tofu substances. Cool!
We stop by Rause's on the way back, since they had all sorts of signs saying "Louisiana Owned and Proud of it," plus a ton of stuff. Both Kathy and I have realized that our time here is running short, so we're trying to get just enough to get by.
It's still $100 worth of groceries, but it only fills one cart, so it doesn't seem like that much.
Okay, here's how you make gumbo. First take a bunch of chicken parts (chicken thighs on sale at Rause's for $1 a pound!) and boil them. Then boil them some more. Keep boiling while you eat lunch and read a few chapters of a book. After an hour, quit boiling them and set them to one side. But hang onto the chicken water, because you'll need it after a while.
Start cutting okra, which is like a small cucumber only with flat sides and hollow in the center, but it is green and sorta fuzzy. The okra helps thicken the gumbo.
Keep cutting gumbo. Gumbo for 17 people needs about three pounds of okra, which is about 7,200,400 okra seed pods. Start doubling up the okra, so you're cutting three or four at a time.
While you're cutting the okra, you can also brown up a bunch of andouilles sausages (pronounced an-DO-yah). This at least gives you kind of a break from looking at green things.
Swear to God that if you have to cut one more goddamn okra, you will slit your throat.
Now that all the freaking okra are cut, you fry them up in a pan. And keep frying. And fry some more. But at least you're not cutting the suckers.
Okay, now you're ready to make a roux! Melt butter in a pan until it's hot and then add some flour and keep cooking it until it gets nice and golden brown. That's all there is to it, but it sounds much more sophisticated if you call it a "roux."
Now you toss in the chicken water, the freaking okra, the sausage, some canned tomatoes, chopped bell pepper (which are a breeze to chop after the tedious okra), celery (ha, by now you could chop that with your eyes closed). Toss in some garlic, a bay leaf, thyme, basil, cayenne pepper and black pepper. Oh and toss in some of that chicken water to make like a soupy concoction.
This is also the point where you start a separate pan for the vegetarians. You toss in all the same stuff, but you use the fake sausages and you omit the chicken water (although there's plenty of extra and the chickens are already dead so it's not like it makes any difference, but it's their choice so you should at least respect it).
Good chemist that I am, I use separate spoons for the meat and non-meat versions to avoid cross-contamination (I use an orange colored spoon for the unleaded pan).
Now everything simmers for an hour and a half, while you try and erase the images of okra from your retina. Yikes!
Now you get your special stash of magic voodoo powder--it's called "filé gumbo" powder, and there's an accent on the "e" in "file," so it's pronounced "fee-lay" and it's ground sassafras root (the same stuff that root beer is made from). It's green and it thickens up the gumbo (and turns it green), but you have to be careful not to heat it up too much or it turns all stringy.
It's also a major pain to find filé gumbo powder in the Seattle area. (And if you think I was going to make filé gumbo for the first time while in New Orleans, you're crazier than I am. I made it for the first time a couple of weeks ago.) You can buy a two pound bottle of it at Cash-n-Carry, but that's a lifetime supply (you only use two teaspoons worth for 17 people). There's a store called "World Spice" near the Pike Place market, which is where we found it, and you can buy it by the ounce. You can also get it from a Mexican store over in Renton (the only place in the area that sells crawfish).
Anyway, you mix in this magic powder and let it simmer. Then you start up the rice and the bread pudding and whip together a rum sauce for the bread pudding.
And, just as you're ready to serve dinner, you find out that the crew chiefs (the young folks that have been leading the rebuilding effort) aren't going to arrive until six. We want them to join us for dinner, because they've been pretty cool and they're getting paid a stipend and hardly ever have get to go out (we've been there!). And there's a ton of gumbo that we'll never be able to get through.
Ken, who has lived in New Orleans most of his life (not lives in the Seattle area), is ready to start driving home. I persuade him to have a bowl. He ends up scraping the bottom of the bowl to get the last drops.
It's the best possible compliment on my New Orleans cooking.
The crew chiefs had a meeting and it lasted long, so they won't be here for a while more.
They finally arrive and it was worth the wait. They're young and full of energy (AND there's a vegetarian among them, so there's two people to eat the tofu gumbo). They appreciate the free food and beer and pretty soon there's a whole table full of young folks and old folks laughing and talking and laughing and sucking down gumbo and the food is doing exactly what it should be doing.
Plus it tastes dang good.
In the course of the evening, we hear an interesting story about some of our younger folks (there's three young ladies in their 20's on the trip) managed to actually get thrown out of a bar on this trip. In New Orleans.
One of them, Tiffany the vegetarian, was talking to somebody explaining our mission down here to help rebuild the area and in the middle of it, she turns around to find one of the other young ladies engaging in a robust political argument with one of the local folks that leads to them being 86'd from the bar. In New Orleans.
This is news to all of us, and frankly is pretty funny. It apparently involved the executive experience of one of the vice-presidential candidates.
Kids these days.
It turns out (at least according to bunkhouse rumor) that Den Mother Kathy got a speeding ticket today. "I don't know about this church group," says one of the ladies, "Getting tossed out of bars, speeding tickets..."
That's it for today. Tomorrow is a day off, so I'll see what I can come up with to amuse myself in New Orleans. With any luck, it won't involve getting tossed out of a bar.