“Goodness, I don’t know the last time I’ve made just two gallons of gumbo.” – Terryl Jackson
Terryl Jackson grew up in Houma, Louisiana eating his mother’s gumbo, a “collage” of turkey necks, ham bits, chicken, crab, shrimp, okra, and filé. That final ingredient, the cured and ground leaves of the sassafras tree, defines his mother’s gumbo, giving it an herbal-earthy flavor not unlike lemon verbena, as well as a greenish tint. The customers at Prejean’s Restaurant, where Terryl was executive chef at the time of this interview, tend to prefer more Cajun-styled gumbos, or gumbos wherein a dark roux is the prominent characteristic. Prejean’s daily menu offers at least three roux gumbos: a deep, dark smoked duck and andouille gumbo; a chicken gumbo made with smoked sausage; and a lighter-bodied seafood gumbo of crab, shrimp, crawfish, and oysters if you ask for them. In order to sample what Terryl calls Prejean’s “world-famous” pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo, you have to attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or one of the other festivals that Prejean’s frequents), for which they manufacture four tons of it. Terryl learned to cook from his mother and his grandmother, as well as from working in restaurants from the age of 16. He worked throughout the South, learning about different world cuisines, before settling back home—or close to home. He continues to identify most with his Creole, filé gumbo-making roots.
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: Terryl Jackson
Date: June 19, 2008
Location: Prejean’s Restaurant—Lafayette, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Thursday, June 19, 2008. I’m in Lafayette, Louisiana at Prejean’s Restaurant with Chef Terryl, who will tell us how he pronounces his name and give us his birth date—and please say what you do for a living.
Terryl Jackson: Chef Terryl Jackson. I am the Executive Chef here at Prejean’s Restaurant. My birth date is October 7, 1968.
Can you tell me where you were born in Louisiana, and where you grew up?
I grew up in Houma, Louisiana, down in Terrebonne Parish. It’s about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans.
And Houma, that’s not in Acadiana—is that correct?
No, not considered traditional Acadiana.
Do you—does your family identify as Creole?
Tell me a little bit about what gumbo was like in your house growing up.
Quite different than what we experience here in Acadiana. Gumbo—just a kind of history about gumbo—they used several different thickening agents, and one of those is filé, and so that was the common thickening agent that my mother used with her gumbo, so she pretty much made a filé gumbo. And that was, you know, what I grew up on but it was a real collage of a lot of different ingredients. She used seafood and turkey necks and ham bits, some chicken, a lot of different—it was a real mixture of different ingredients that she put into the gumbo, but not as thick or [as] much of a roux as you experience here in Acadiana. Like a lot lighter, but the filé was kind of the real presence of the gumbo.
Did she use a roux at all?
She did use, you know, some roux, but it really wasn’t—. Here in Acadiana roux is like the real bold presence in the gumbo, but across Houma and New Orleans it’s a combination between filé and okra that they use as a thickening agent for the gumbo.
And so tell me how she—and maybe how you—at what point filé would go into the gumbo.
My mother always put it at the very last, at the very end. A lot of restaurants leave it, and it’s kind of like--like salt on the table. But she actually puts it at the very end of the cooking process so it actually goes into the pot for her.
Can you describe for the record what filé tastes like?
It has this real herby feel to it. I guess that that’s probably the best way I can describe it. It’s real earthy and has a real earthy feel to it.
And when you were growing up, where would your mom buy the filé?
There was this man who—well, I say a man but he was actually my god-brother who was a--he delivered for UPS. But there was this place that was down in South Lafourche, down in Galliano, where he would actually go and pick it up. I don’t know exactly where it came from; I never got to go to the place where he’d get it, but she would get fresh ground filé from this guy out of Galliano and I don’t—really couldn’t tell you who he was or where the place is, but she swore by it.
How would you describe the consistency of your [mom’s] gumbo?
It kind of gives you almost the feel of--of okra without actually having that particular vegetable included, because it has that—not the taste but the texture of--of okra when you put it, you know, in the gumbo. So it’s like you said, it’s not really—it doesn’t really thicken it a whole lot, because here in Acadiana the gumbos are real thick and hearty, almost like a stew, but there around Houma it’s really closer to a soup style.
And she wouldn’t put okra in gumbo?
Well she made a separate okra gumbo, which is something altogether different. It didn’t even—it wasn’t even like a soup. It was much thicker; it really was a closer kin to like smothered okra, but she called it okra gumbo because of the way—the process in which she did it. She put sausage and--and chicken parts in it, so it—really awesome dish.
I’m going to pause for a minute because another gumbo just arrived. What one is this? Well actually, maybe you can tell me what it is and describe it.
This one is our duck and andouille gumbo. All of our other gumbos have sausage in it, but this one actually has andouille, as well as—as well as duck in the gumbo as well. This one is probably the most hearty of them all. It has more of a roux presence in this particular one than the chicken and sausage or the shrimp gumbo that you’ve sampled.
We have three gumbos on the table right now, and I just spilled on the tablecloth. I’m sorry. So there’s chicken and sausage, and that’s just a smoked sausage?
Yes, it’s just a smoked sausage done by a local sausage maker here out of Poche Bridge, and the real smoked flavor of the--the sausage is really the kind of the thing that’s prevalent in this one. In the seafood it’s just a seafood stock that’s there; the stock itself is not as hearty as the chicken and sausage and certainly not as the duck. But start with a basic seafood stock and then build, you know, from there.
I’d like you to tell me what you can about where you get the roux; who makes it. And then also, do you use the same shade of roux for all these three gumbos?
Yes, we do use the same shade of roux. It’s all a dark roux. Miss Eula Savoie, and Savoie’s Cajun meats and products, she makes our roux for us, and of course her roux is in pretty much all the stores in the area. But she makes a special blend or a special batch of roux for Prejean’s Restaurant.
Can you talk about the pot that she makes it in?
She has this—she’s got several cast iron pots that she makes the roux in, but she’s got this one special pot and it’s the only one that she does my particular roux in. And she won't ever let anyone else see the pot, so if anyone hears this and goes out and wants to go on a field trip to Savoie’s, she won't let you see it. I believe this particular pot is her baby, and of course rouxs are--are—she doesn’t like many people to see her process for preparing roux. And rightfully so. It’s—in my opinion it’s the most consistent product that’s out there. It’s always the same, never ever different, and she is a real big part of why we’re so consistent here at Prejean’s because if the roux is not consistent, then certainly you know the gumbos won't be consistent as well.
So are you saying she makes the roux?
No, she’s not. She doesn’t make the roux. Miss Eula, of course she—at this point she’s you know rather up in age and her health is somewhat deteriorating, but there was a time when she actually ran the plant where she is, but she—I still say that she’s responsible. She’s still the driving force there, you know at Savoie’s.
Let me just back up for a minute and ask you where you got your training.
I had this, you know, rather informal training. Of course I grew up in a family of people who cooked. My mother and grandmother cooked in schools back in Terrebonne Parish, as well as my mother cooked for the Houma-Thibodeaux Archdiocese, so cooking is kind of in my blood. I have since, I guess since age 16 I’ve been working in--in the food service business and have really kind of been a journeyman between here, you know, throughout the South between—mainly between here and Atlanta, Georgia, learning several different types of cuisines. I think the first thing I learned outside of just Creole and Cajun cuisine was Caribbean and then Italian, Asian, of course traditional French techniques, some German, and then I came back here.
My father got sick with Alzheimer’s and I came back to help my mother out with him, and so that’s how I got back to Louisiana, and I stayed in Houma for quite some time there and worked with the Copeland organization for a bit. And then moved here to Acadiana and started working here at Prejean’s Restaurant as their catering chef. And then I kind of fell into the position of being the executive chef here, so that’s pretty much where my training has been. Kind of the school of hard knocks, which most say that’s probably the best place to get it.
You traveled around a lot before you came to Lafayette, so [the food] probably wasn’t that weird.
Coming here, it really wasn’t that weird, and I still have to say that the food in--in Houma isn't all that different except for there is more of a presence of spice, you know, here in Acadiana as opposed to anywhere else in the state. You know the use of spices is really dominant here. When you go to New Orleans, you know they say it’s spicy, but it’s really the spice there is not the same is what it is here in Acadiana.
And by spice, do you mean hotness, or do you mean combinations of seasonings?
Both: the combination of seasonings as well the heat profile of the—of the spice itself. They use a lot more heat here in Acadiana, and it’s not just cayenne or red pepper that they use here. And--and one of the things where here at Prejean’s, what we use: we use three different types of peppers in most all of our dishes, which gives you more of an even spice—you know flavor profile—as opposed to just cayenne, which is just flat out hot.
And the other two peppers are?
Black and white, which—and all three peppers really attack different areas of the palate, so you get a smoother feel of spice, you know, across the palate as opposed to just one blaring—the cayenne, which commonly rests at the back of the--the tongue and throat.
Another gumbo arrived. What is that one?
This is our seafood gumbo. It has a combination of--of crab, shrimp and crawfish and we put oysters in on request.
Could you just sort of take me through, starting at the beginning the process, of how you would make a gumbo?
Most people believe that gumbo is a Cajun dish, but it’s actually Creole, and the gumbo implores the--the layering process. You know, everything doesn’t go in the pot all at one time, and for me, my process is--is a little different because, of course, my roux is already—you know Miss Eula does a great job of doing my roux, so it’s all ready, so I don’t go through the process of actually say physically making a roux. But the layering process for me starts with the sautéeing of the vegetables; starting there, and once they have gotten tender, the onions are transparent—using of course what we call the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery—and then I’ll add all of my dry spices, you know of my red peppers, black peppers, white peppers; sometimes some onion and garlic powder, and so the--the heat from the peppers and the oil that’s in the pot will allow the spices to release their flavors.
From there, that’s when I include the stock whether I’ve done a stock from poultry bones or pork and beef bones, or one that we’ve pre-purchased, you know, here at the restaurant. Then we incorporate the stock itself. Once the stock comes to a rolling boil, then we’ll add our roux. Adding the roux and waiting for the right consistency and color and allowing it to cook for about a minimum of 45 minutes, sometimes longer than that depending on, you know, who the Saints are playing on that particular Sunday, and waiting for all of those flavors to come together. And if it’s seafood, the seafood doesn’t go in until the very end. If it’s chicken and sausage, those will go in sometime midway through to where—or just after the 45-minute mark, to where that can then become tender.
Once we’ve got about 20 minutes left on it or so, then I add garlic, fresh garlic, and I add the fresh garlic on the back end because it has a--tends to give a lot bolder flavor when you put the garlic in on the end. I’ll add dried shrimp to mine as well, and then about two minutes to finish; then I’ll add the filé, and--and I like to allow it to sit uncovered to kind of marinate for about at least an hour before anyone touches it just so that all of the flavors can come together. And of course, you know, timing is the key, and one of the wonderful things about Creole and Cajun cuisine is that of all of the other cuisines that I’ve learned to cook, to prepare, and it’s the most difficult because of the timing that’s involved in it. You can learn all of the other cuisines by reading the cookbook, but this—it really has to be in your blood. You really can't just replicate this by, you know, reading a cookbook. We, as a matter of fact, have a cookbook here at Prejean’s Restaurant and the phone calls and the emails are countless with people who call back and say, You know we just didn’t get this quite right. So it’s really, really difficult to replicate doing it because of the timing and the layering of ingredients that’s involved in it.
The filé: Can you sort of give us an estimate of how much you would put in, I don’t know, two gallons of gumbo?
Goodness, I don’t know the last time I’ve made just two gallons of gumbo. [Laughs] But I--I guess you would probably put maybe a—my mother would probably put probably a half-cup to sometimes a cup of filé in her pot, which is probably about three and a half to four gallons of gumbo when she’d make it.
[Another gumbo arrives at the table.]
[This] one is the offering that we use that we offer annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It’s the one that we’re probably the most famous for. It’s our pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo. And it’s—this is our pretty much world-famous gumbo.
It’s one of the first things I ever ate at Jazz Fest and it’s unbelievable. How do you get away with not serving it regularly in the restaurant?
Oh we do constantly have people coming by to ask for this gumbo but it’s really a festival exclusive.
You mentioned earlier to me before we started recording how much you sell at Jazz Fest. Can you talk about that a little?
We go in preparing about four tons of gumbo, and of course we always have a good bit leftover, but that’s pretty much what our par is going into the Jazz Fest.
Do you prepare it here in the facility that I saw in back?
We did until about two years ago, but it’s actually prepared in New Orleans at a manufacturing plant there that we go and we actually—it probably takes us about three--four batches to actually get to the four-ton mark.
You mentioned earlier in this conversation something about making a gumbo while the Saints were playing. Can you talk a little bit about the communal aspect of gumbo?
It is actually, you know it’s the—it is the one thing I think that brings us altogether, the gumbo, and it doesn’t matter what type of event it is. Of course if it’s just Sunday morning watching the Saints, or you know any type of reason to get together—someone got pregnant and is having a baby shower, you know that’s a reason for us to get together and make a gumbo. There was a deer that was slaughtered so we’re going to make a gumbo. And it’s just not one particular reason but here in—all across the state, I believe that that’s the—you know, to make a gumbo is a reason to get together. And it’s something to be said about family and friends coming together and partaking really from the same pot. You know, community and just the fellowship of--of friends, I think really, and gumbo pretty much embodies really our culture because that’s what it is: it’s really just the coming together of a lot of different things, you know, a lot of different cultures and the cuisines from the Spanish influence to the Caribbean, West Indian, as well as the African influence. So you know that’s really what gumbo really is: just a coming together.
I’ve never heard of anybody saying that they were going to make gumbo for themselves.
No. It’s impossible to make gumbo just for yourself. That’s one of the things about gumbo, is that you make it; you’ve got to share it. You’ve got to share it.
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