“You know most people think of sausage as being an integral part of a lot of gumbos, but in my household if a shadow of a sausage passed over the gumbo pot, that gumbo was spoiled in my dad’s imagination." – John Laudun
John Laudun grew up primarily in Baton Rouge, eating a sausage-free, medium-dark-roux, seafood gumbo that his father prepared in a style typical of St. Mary’s Parish. Or was it? After tens and hundreds of years of cultural mingling in Louisiana, are particular gumbo styles still tied to particular places? Is there an absolute holy trinity of seasoning vegetables, like the celery-green-pepper-onion gumbo starter used by so many New Orleans Creole cooks? But what about the greater emphasis on green onions and filé in the Cane River region? And what about garlic, so important to the Bayou Teche area? These are the sorts of questions that a folklorist specializing in material folk culture enjoys pondering on a Thursday morning in Lafayette while a deluge makes a lake of his backyard. Laudun was deep into gumbo research prior to the hurricanes of 2005, the complex aftermath of which drove him to table a book project. He had devoted many days to fieldwork, conducting interviews with gumbo cooks all around the state. While his manuscript-in-progress sits on a shelf for now, he has not abandoned the topic. Obviously. The following interview (in its entirety) could inspire a curriculum for a graduate course on Louisiana gumbo traditions.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: John Laudun
Date: September 13, 2007
Location: Lafayette, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen:This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Thursday, September 13, 2007. I’m in Lafayette, Louisiana, with Mr. John Laudun. If I could get you to say your name—yourself—and your birth date, we’ll get started.
John Laudun: My name is John Laudun, and I was born February 11, 1965 here in Lafayette, Louisiana, at the old Lafayette Sanitarium. It’s about a stone’s throw from here.
And have you lived here your whole life?
No, Let’s see, I lived here until I was one year old, and my father and mother moved down to Franklin where I grew up—‘til about seven—and then they moved from there to Baton Rouge, in part ‘cause my dad in fact didn’t want us growing up speaking English with a Cajun accent, or with a South Louisiana accent. Cajun and Creole were not yet cool, as the line goes, so he wanted us to—to grow up with city urban accents, so he moved us to Baton Rouge. And that’s where I spent most of my years and in fact went to LSU for my undergraduate degree.
Did your father speak with an accent?
No. Well the family still has a legacy because the family came through New Orleans. ‘Cause my family—as I said earlier—has a longer history and arrived in New Orleans, you know 200 years ago in the wake of the slave rebellion. There are still sort of carry-overs that are kind of—well, typically we call them Ninth Ward or a Yat accent, but really probably reflect the kind of larger urban phenomena of an urban Irish accent. So my father actually has a slightly—slight New Orleans accent when he speaks. I don’t know what—exactly how he [and] the family held onto that accent, but he did. And in fact I remember when I lived in Upstate New York, and my father would call and leave messages, everybody thought he was from the Bronx. John, this is your father; I’m just calling to see how you’re doing.[Mimics Father] But it’s, you know, it’s an urban Irish accent ‘cause that’s just where the family lived. And that’s how the—the family name isn’t pronounced Lu-dan or Lo-dan [with a French sound]; it’s pronounced Lo-din.
Who would do the [crawfish] boiling in your house? Was it your mom or your dad?
[Laughs] Those are always dads. Those—that’s you know, crawfish boils, like barbeques, are a moment in which men perform their—their culinary expertise very proudly. In fact, my dad was also the one who made gumbo with much [Laughs]—with much pomp and circumstance. I’m cooking. Look out, I’m cooking here. I’m making the gumbo.
What kind of gumbo would he make?
My dad—seafood gumbo is still the high-water mark in my life. He was an extraordinary seafood gumbo maker. My mom was—was a pretty good cook, but my dad’s gumbo was a pretty remarkable thing. I’ve made one gumbo that came close to his gumbos, and now it—I don’t really remember eating that much chicken gumbo at home. We ate mostly—mostly seafood gumbos. But we were from St. Mary’s Parish, so seafood is more of a tradition there. I can say this: you know most people think of sausage as being an integral part of a lot of gumbos, but in my household if a shadow of a sausage passed over the gumbo pot, that gumbo was spoiled in my dad’s imagination. And it’s something that happens in some of those coastal areas where—where sausage comes later. So there’s still a lot of people who think, Sausage —what’s wrong with you? Why would you put sausage in a gumbo and spoil it?
What do you think you did right when you made that one pot of gumbo that approached your father’s?
Oh what I did right was I bought fresh that morning, down in Dulac, a dozen boiled crabs by these local guys [Laughs]. I don’t even know what they do actually for a living, but they had—they were boiling crabs, and so I got some—some medium boiled crabs and brought them back and put them into the gumbo. So they were—the crabs were already seasoned, and it was just terrific. It was absolutely beautiful gumbo.
And what kind of seafood would your dad put in there, crab?
Crab and shrimp—crab, shrimp, and oysters, that’s it.
It was a roux gumbo?
In my family, yes, gumbos always start with a roux. And unlike other parts of Louisiana, you do everything in one pot, so you start with your roux. You get your roux just right; you already have your seasoning vegetables prepared, and your roux is—is just the right color you want. You throw your seasoning vegetables in there; they absorb a lot of the heat. They—they stop the roux from cooking anymore. They then begin to cook down themselves, and you slowly add your water in and dissolve your gumbo and your vegetables and all that together, and then you can add your meat in. Of course we know seafood cooks very quickly, so it’s very different from, say, what happens in—in St. Landry and Acadia Parishes, where you often brown your meat first and then add your water to that pot and—or you add your—you have your water already boiling and you brown your meat separately, and you add your meat to your pot and you’ve already made your roux separately.
In fact tradition in some parts of St. Landry and Acadia Parishes, they actually make a big batch of roux for the month, and they keep it in a bowl with waxed paper over it, and you would take a scoop out of that and add it to your pot. And then you slowly dissolve your roux in your water—very different from St. Mary’s Parish, where you begin with your roux and add your water to it, and slowly add water dissolving the roux and the water together. And in St. Landry and Acadia parishes, often what you do is dissolve the roux into the water, not the water into the roux. It’s a very different process. And that—that I think is the reason why, if you go to the grocery store and see the jarred rouxs, you’ll notice they come from the northern part of Acadiana.
You didn’t have that in your household growing up, the jarred roux?
I don’t think they had jarred roux anywhere. I think jarred roux is, I want to say, the last 10 years, since the ‘90s—so maybe the last 20 years, but no. I don’t—. I know for sure we didn’t have it in our household, and I want to say that nobody I knew before I left for graduate school in 1987 was using jarred roux. It wasn’t on the shelves.
I wonder if it’s just a convenience thing or—? I don’t know if it was born of some—for some other reason.
Well you know it’s—it’s like I said, it’s one of those cases where there was a tradition of having your roux pre-made, you know. And so you know it’s—you know Marcelle Bienvenu has gotten famous for saying you know, First you make a roux. But that’s not really the case. You know, like a lot of famous chefs and some writers and even folklorists like myself—people often begin with the assumption that the gumbo they grew up with is the gumbo. And it’s simply not the case; so it’s simply not the case that first you make a roux. For, you know, people in St. Landry Parish and Acadia Parish, first you brown your meat. In fact really what is essential to gumbo is not the roux, but browning something. You must brown something unless you’re making a gumbo des herbes. So if you—if you take gumbo des herbes, the green gumbos, out of the picture, the—the engine of gumbo is not roux but browning something. That—the engine really for much of South Louisiana cuisine—South Louisiana cuisine is essentially rice and gravy.
Yeah, but it’s you know—so you—but brown is—browning is terribly—is a terribly interesting process. Two things happen: in vegetables like onions, browning caramelizes the sugars. So it takes the flavor of the onion and transforms it, so you have both the slight pepperiness and bite of the onion, but you also have a kind of rounded sugary flavor. What browning does with meat is something called the Maillard reaction—m-a-i-l-l-a-r-d. And what that does is, when meat comes into contact with high heat, a huge number of new compounds are produced. Now if the process goes too far, we call that burned. But up until the moment of burning you are producing dozens, if not hundreds, of new flavors and colors, which is what produces the browning in meat. And so what you’re doing is you’re—is you’re adding flavor to a dish. You’re adding flavor from the ingredients you already have. And so what browning does is it gives you both the chicken and the brown chicken, both the onion and the caramelized onion. So you’re really getting double duty if not triple, quadruple, whatever duty out of your ingredients, which is part of what any, you know, peasant cuisine aspires to do, which is take a little bit of food and stretch it a long way. And in South Louisiana, not only do you take an old chicken or an old cow or an old whatever and stretch it a long way, but you—you stretch the ingredients in terms of their flavor. You know how much—I mean it’s almost like the mindset in Louisiana is, How much flavor can I get out of this? I can get the chicken flavor, sure, but if I brown it I get something more.
Do you have any theories—or I mean facts is fine too—but any ideas about why in this group of people, you know, which historically have not been real wealthy people…Why do you think these people were focused on flavor?
Well for—for one thing, you have the heavy African influence in South Louisiana and an African population that’s constantly getting refreshed. You know as Gwendolyn Midlo Hall points out in her Colonial—Africans in Colonial Louisiana—I mean it’s a constant refreshing, so the African influence is particularly strong in South Louisiana. That gets even more emphasized by the fact that you have all those Creoles and—and free people of color and others coming up during the Haitian slave rebellion, and the population of New Orleans practically doubled overnight. And it goes from, I think like 10,000 to 20,000 over a decade, which is pretty phenomenal growth for a city, and so they’re bringing with them a heavily Africanized cuisine as well. Truth be known, I think you know a lot of what we think of as being Cajun cuisine is really Cajuns adapting to these African—Franco-African or Afro-French innovations that were taking place here in Louisiana, and then holding onto them longer than others. But the Cajuns were also you know, part of the process, part of the innovation.
You know, we know that the word gumbo first appears in print around 1803, but what was happening beforehand? Did it—did it occur with the Creoles? Did—was it already happening with the Cajuns? It’s not quite clear. Generally, you know, it takes 10 to 20 years for something to have an impact, so I suspect the Creoles came into an environment in which they probably maybe—maybe already had a dish called gumbo, and they were met with a dish that was called gumbo, and some sort of the merging of the dishes took place. But you have a convergence where you have three groups who already have a mastery of browning for flavor. You have the Europeans arriving with roasting, so in European tradition you—you do one of two things with meat in particular. You either roast it or you boil it. Roasting is—is labor intensive because you have to watch it, be there all the time, but it does produce an amazing flavor. The Africans arrived with, as I said, fried. That was one of their traditions and of getting flavor out that way. And then you also have the browning that the Native Americans did. I mean we have notes from—what’s his name? Jean Pierre Bossu. What’s his first—I don’t remember his first name, but Bossu ,who is traveling with the—oh which—I want to say it’s maybe one of the tribes in Arkansas, but I—it could be the Choctaw. I don’t quite remember now, but he talks about them carrying around with them in bags—leather pouches—browned ground corn. And when they’re on the hunting path or on the warpath, this is what they use to eat, so they are—they are parching corn. They are browning a starch—not a long-standing tradition in other cookeries, really. Not clear to me—there might have been something going on in Southern France, but I don’t know how much the Southern French traditions would have influenced Louisiana, but this notion of—of browning a starch to get a different flavor out of it is pretty amazing and is the basis for the brown rouxs of Louisiana.
Well you just brought a lot of things together for me that I’ve been hearing—you know hearing bits and pieces about so I—that’s fascinating. I appreciate it. What about in your family, what is the ideal shade for a roux?
[Laughs] Well of course St. Mary Parish is not known for its strong rouxs. So I mean, so again you know you’ve got that notion of first you make a roux. So all right, well what color is the roux, and how much roux to the rest of the gumbo, you know? Are you going to use a lot of roux or a little bit of roux? Is it a thin gumbo or is it a thick gumbo? My family kind of shoots the middle. It—like a lot of St. Mary Parish and Iberia Parish rouxs, the—the gumbo will wind up being more of a kind of gray-green color than a kind of distinct, you know, thick brown color like you encounter in Breaux Bridge and in parts of Lafayette where they’ve got a very dark roux. It’s kind of a medium-brown roux. You know, slightly darker than peanut butter I would say, but not the kind of coffee-brown that some people in Lafayette aspire to. What’s interesting is, I grew up with that tradition, but as I lived in Lafayette now for seven, eight years, I’ve come to really like and almost prefer the darker brown rouxs. But growing up it was, you know—medium-brown color. You know I almost wish now when I was doing my interview work I had a color wheel. [Laughs] So we could say, okay, either you—if you make the roux or you point out the color brown you want, so we could have like a Pantone chart to have better specificity to it. And you—you would use a couple tablespoons of flour and a couple tablespoons of oil to you know, a four-quart pot, and that would be about the right consistency of—of what a gumbo was supposed to be like.
For the record, I’m—can you tell me what filé does to a gumbo?
Some people believe it thickens it a little bit, and I’m sure that happens to some degree, just ‘cause you’re adding more fiber that can absorb moisture. A lot of it has to do with the flavor. You know, it definitely makes it greener, so you’ll see that—that gray-green tinge I was talking about along the lower Bayou Teche, I think, is a function of the filé being put in there. Mostly the flavor I think—a little bit of thickening, you know. Again, it’s interesting: filé is one of the trinity for Creoles of Cane River, and there is this common notion in South Louisiana—it’s just like gumbo—of the trinity. But what people mean by the trinity is very different, you know. [Laughs] John Folse is very fond of saying the trinity, and by that he means, I think—does he mean onions, garlic, and bell pepper? I forget what Folse calls the trinity, you know. In parts of the Bayou Teche the trinity is bell pepper, onions, and celery. In the Cane River and Isle Brevelle the trinity is red pepper, filé, and maybe okra. I forget what they call their trinity. I don’t—off the top of my head I can’t remember. So there’s the notion of the trinity, which is kind of interesting. There is of course the Trinity with the capital T, but this—this notion of the smaller case t-trinity, which is a food, and the idea of course is that this is true for all dishes in a—in a cookery, in a cuisine, which of course it isn’t. I mean, but the idea is there—is that this trinity is something we put in all our dishes. So it’s kind of like the larger trinity in that it’s supposed to be true all the time, but in fact if you actually talk to people about the dishes they make, the trinity may be true of their gumbo, which is often what people take to be the kind of primary dish, and that’s partly a function of what scholars and food writers have done you know. We have taken an early focus on gumbo, and so therefore people really focus on their gumbo. But if you talk to them about how they make their—their crab stew or their shrimp stew, or you know their pork steak stew, the trinity may not necessarily be a part of it.
Do you think that in, you know, the average household in this part of Louisiana—and even in New Orleans—gumbo is put on a pedestal like academics and food writers might do, or is that something that we’ve purely imposed?
I don’t know. I mean it’s interesting. There are certainly dishes that get made more often, you know: stews, rice and gravies. Like I said, those are really the—the stuff of everyday cuisine. Once upon a time people might have made more gumbo more often. I—a lot of people I know these days, you know, make plenty of gumbos. Right now in fact, the weather is cooling off and all I can think of is, okay this is it; this is my chance to have gumbo before it heats up again, you know, for the rest of September. So I’ll make a gumbo probably tomorrow night. And—and gumbo has become a kind of important dish. You know when I was talking to people they didn’t necessarily prioritize gumbo amongst the dishes they made, but in their—you know, thinking back on their childhoods in the earlier part of the 20th century, I didn’t get the sense that it was a particularly special dish. I think thanks to scholars and—and travel writers and foodways writers—you know scholars sort of led the way by focusing on gumbo or crawfish or whatever, and that gets picked up on by writers, and that gets picked up on by marketers and advertisers, and so it becomes a part of a packaging and people can’t help but be influenced by that packaging, you know. If that’s what’s being sold—if you drive along I-49, St. Landry Parish has a big billboard that says St. Landry Parish—It’s Gumbo for Your Soul, you know.
And do you look at that as a positive or a negative, that packaging?
I look at it as simply a function of our modern lives. We—you know I consider it a dangerous—and then I worry that we—if we package ourselves too much for the consumption by others we’ll wind up only consuming ourselves in that same way. I mean gumbo is important to me, as I think it was important to my father, in that it connected me with others, so that when I get out my pot—it could be an old cast iron pot, it could be a Le Creuset pot, you know. It’s really nice having that porcelain finish; it cleans up really easily. When I get out that pot to make a gumbo and I smell the flour—I’m going to make that roux and that slightly smoky smell and I feel the heat on my forearms, I can’t help but think of my mother who—well my father made terrific gumbos; my mother was the everyday cook. And I can’t help but think of my grandmother, and in that moment I’m connected to them, you know. And even now when my wife comes home—and my wife is from Kentucky—but if she walks in the house and I’ve been making gumbo she’s like, Oh…You know, so it’s part of how I make home and now my wife, you know, thinks of home as being this place with this smoky smell.
I was just in the Alsace with a—visiting my friend of mine, and I made her a jambalaya, and you know she was off doing something. She came upstairs, and I’m sure it was the first time her kitchen—you know here it is in Northeastern France and it had that much smoke in it [Laughs], or that smoky smell in it. It sort of hangs. I mean it’s—it’s that—it’s a smoky smell. It’s a product of oil at a very high point—high temperature, which means it’s a smoky smell that sticks around in the—in the air for a while. But it’s part of how I imagine home, so it’s a highly resonate process for me. But if I only ever eat gumbo in restaurants, that resonance—part of that resonance is lost. So it is in fact to my mind—this is me speaking as a native of Louisiana, not necessarily as a folklorist—it’s a thinner dish. It’s—it’s a poor experience for not having, you know, not having the memory of being in the kitchen with my mother or grandmother as they stirred that roux very carefully in that pot, making that smell, and cut up those vegetables—those onions and celery and bell pepper—ready to get them to go into the pot to keep—to get that roux when it’s just right. You know all that smell is part of my memory, so that when I make a gumbo it’s part of it, and I worry that if we’re all buying pre-packaged gumbos, you know we’re missing out. We’re missing out on—on being connected with each other, and you know that’s part of what happens in modernity. People are less connected to each other; just simply part of what we call modernity, but I don’t have to like it.
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