French Food Festival
Donald, Diana, Celeste, and Andre Larose, LA
“The biggest fights we ever have is how to cook anything – mainly gumbo. Because her sister makes it one way, and she makes it another way, and he makes it another way, and it’s like, Well I can come if I can bring my gumbo, but I don’t want your gumbo.” – Diane Uzee
“It’s almost the last of the dying breed in some ways because so many festivals have become commercialized and rent out space to restaurants or caterers or commercial food providers, and our festival is still 100-percent community driven. Every bit of food that’s produced at the festival is cooked by family, friends, members of the community, people who participate in the life of the community.” – Celeste Uzee
As is the case with many Louisiana families, the Uzees enjoy few pastimes more than gathering around the dining room table to critique one another’s gumbo-making methods. Their varied opinions on broth viscosity, roux shade, and oil preference do not, however, keep them from pulling together during the final weekend of October every year to make a seafood gumbo from a unvarying recipe for Larose’s French Food Festival. With Diana as the prep chef, Andre as “Mr. Roux,” Donald handling the water, Celeste fine-tuning the seasonings, and a staff of volunteers, they prepare and sell roughly 160 gallons of their gumbo over a three-day weekend, all to benefit Larose’s Bayou Civic Club and its exceptional regional park and community center. Donald Uzee calls theirs a non-traditional seafood gumbo, at least by Lafourche Parish standards, because besides shrimp, oysters, and crab claws, it includes sausage and ham. Andre makes the roux in its own heavy-bottomed pot on-site, which means beneath a gigantic circus tent that shelters the weekend’s festivities. On festival days, the Uzees sometimes begin their work before sunrise, but not before enjoying one of the festival’s other delicacies: a hogshead cheese sandwich.
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.
Subjects: Donald, Diana, Celeste, and Andre Uzee
Date: August 19, 2007
Location: Larose, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen:This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Sunday, August 19, 2007. I’m in Larose, Louisiana with the Uzee family. If I could get you all to introduce yourselves—just say your name and your birth date—I’d appreciate it.
Celeste Uzee: Celeste Uzee—1973.
Donald Uzee: Donald Uzee—1937.
Diana: Diana Uzee—ain’t none of your business. [Laughs]
That’s allowed. [Laughs] And we’re here to talk about gumbo because your family has been involved in the French Food Festival that’s here every year. And maybe you could just sort of tell me a little bit about the festival and how long you’ve been involved.
Celeste: Well the festival is a classic South Louisiana food festival. It’s a fundraising—large-scale, public fundraising event that supports the non-profit community center. And it’s almost the last of the dying breed in some ways because so many festivals have become commercialized and rent out space to restaurants or caterers or commercial food providers, and our festival is still 100-percent community driven. Every bit of food that’s produced at the festival iscooked by family, friends, members of the community, people who participate in the life of the community.
So there aren’t restaurant vendors there?
Donald: It’s all—it’s strictly as Celeste said—volunteers, family members and people in the various communities, not just Larose. We have Cut Off, Galliano, and people from the area who bring in their—their favorite dishes, and most of them prepare them under the—we have a large circus tent that is put up every year. And we’ve been playing this little game for, oh, the festival started in what—19—?
Celeste: I want to say ’73 or ’72. We’re not the best experts on the early history of the festival, but I think we’ve been doing it since the second or third year.
Do you make the gumbo under the circus tent or do you make it here?
Donald: We make it right there under the tent.
Celeste: From scratch every day.
Diana: Start at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Donald: And we make it, and we’ll show you later on—we make it in 60-quart pots. We make two pots at a time, and we make our gumbo a little bit different than normal, but that’s going to be for later. But everything is done right there under the tent, so what the customer is getting when they come with their tickets is that fresh bowl of gumbo.
Diana: We make eight pots for the weekend.
What time of year?
Diana: The last full weekend in the month—
Donald: October, every year.
Maybe you could describe the gumbo for me.
Donald: Well the gumbo is a traditional—or, excuse me. Let me rephrase that: a non-traditional seafood gumbo. We have oysters, shrimp, crabmeat—
Donald: Crab claws…sausage, ham—.
Diana: And of course the roux.
Donald: Roux. We don’t use okra in ours. We use—it’s a roux base, and—
Donald: And the seasonings, which includes everything from Worcestershire to garlic.
Diana: Lemon juice.
Donald: Crab boil.
Celeste: We actually have the detailed recipe for that quantity printed in the community cookbook. It’s also printed in a copy of that Louisiana Cooking magazine, and so you can make a gumbo for 200 by following the recipe.
Donald: If you’re so inclined—if you’re so inclined.
What kind of sausage do you use?
Donald: We traditionally use Savoie’s pure hot. In other words, we have used others, but we always go back to Savoie’s.
So it’s smoked?
Diana: It’s not a heavy smoked; it’s a light smoked.
Celeste: It’s not—I mean, it’s a mass market commercial product. Savoie’s started out as—as a small operation, but they do all kinds of prepared foods now and it’s very consistent because it’s made on an industrial scale. It’s not like buying, you know, smokehouse sausage where one week’s batch is hot, the next week’s batch is less hot. It’s also, I’m pretty sure it’s in a synthetic casing. It’s not in a natural casing, which is good because a natural casing sausage boiled that long in a gumbo would kind of get yucky and start to disintegrate. And so it stays together. Its industrial characteristics work well in our large quantities.
What do you mean by non-traditional?What would make a seafood gumbo more—?
Donald: Because a traditional—a traditional seafood gumbo wouldn’t have the ham or the sausage—.
Celeste: Well, and that’s a traditional Lafourche Parish seafood gumbo. We happen to live on—in sort of the outpost of Acadiana. The Cajuns on this—the east side of the Basin culturally are pretty distinct from—culinarily at least, distinct from the west side of the Basin. These aren’t rice farmers; these aren’t sweet potato farmers. Here you have fishermen, fishermen with great access to fresh products all year-round. If they wanted crabs, they went half a mile down the road and they put out their crab traps and they got crabs or shrimp or oysters or whatever product was available. So they weren’t really making a seafood gumbo with a little bit of seafood and stretching it with some other cheaper protein—the hogs in their backyard, or you know, whatever they had on hand.
Celeste: Hotdogs or Spam or bologna or any of the things that you find—.
Donald: Believe it or not there are some people who do, in their gumbos, put the stuff that Celeste just mentioned. There are some that will put weenies, Vienna sausage. In other words, the way gumbo was, and still is—it’s whatever you had went into the pot, and that’s what you ended up with. That’s why lots of times the term un gumbo means it’s just a mixture, which is a way from what gumbo really is. A gumbo is just a bunch of stuff. That’s just like the other food that’s popular: jambalaya. As many gumbos as there are, there’s as many jambalayas. In other words, we make gumbo—she doesn’t make gumbo the same way that I do, or that she does.
Celeste: No, hers is too thin.
Your mom’s is too thin?
Diana: The biggest fights we ever have is how to cook anything—mainly gumbo. Because her sister makes it one way, and she makes it another way, and he makes it another way, and it’s like, Well I can come if I can bring my gumbo, but I don’t want your gumbo.
How come you don’t make a gumbo just like your mom?
Well first of all, my mother is not Cajun in any way whatsoever. She grew up in Central Louisiana. She’s Scotch-Irish, German [Laughs]—other stuff—. And so her gumbo tends to be more like soup—less like a stew. It’s much, much thinner than certainly what you get in Southwest Louisiana, which we sometimes disparagingly call gravy gumbo. You know, your spoon will stand up in the bowl it’s so thick. Our gumbos are brothier. But hers crossed the line into soup. Real broth.
So when you’re making the gumbo for the festival, it sounds like there are a lot of you pitching in. Who gets to decide, or who decided in the beginning the ultimate recipe and style?
Celeste: Well it started off with a pretty straightforward traditional gumbo. And what happened is, over time the festival grew and we were cooking in larger and larger quantities. And as you know, large-quantity cooking is nothing like cooking at home on the stove in a single pot. And so we evolved over time to the increased scale—just increased the volume of festival cooking. So we went from a roux actually made in the bottom of the cooking pot to a roux prepared separately—prepared on-site, prepared fresh that day, but made in a pot with the sufficient bottom so that the roux wouldn’t burn, which we’d then transfer to the bigger pot. So it’s not necessarily so far afield from traditional gumbo; it’s just a whole lot of small adjustments or reworkings. But there’s this great division of labor that happens because the gumbo—not only do we make it on-site; we still hand-chop everything that goes into it. All the ingredients are prepped the week in advance. My mom is the chef de commis: she’s the prep guy, or the prep gal. And we have a whole—we have a whole gang of people who show up, and we spend an entire evening cutting all the sausage, cutting all the ham, cutting all the celery, cutting all the bell pepper, cutting the onion—. Oh we do cut the onion by food processor, but shhh. Don’t tell anybody. Just the white onion—not the green onion. The green onion is still cut by hand.
Andre: Like Nik [Nik is Celeste’s nickname] was saying, I’ve got my job, she’s got her job, he’s got his job, and get out the way. Let me do mine, and everybody comes together on the end to bring—I bring the roux, and then she does the tasting—
Wait, so you—you do the roux?
Celeste: He’s Mr. Roux. I think we made him Mr. Roux because he can take the heat, because it’s a miserable hot job, you know. You have to stand over there, and we’re making a roux with a really large quantity of flour and oil.
What kind of oil do you use?
Donald: Peanut oil. We may change this year to canola oil.
Celeste: I don’t like canola. We’re going to fight about that.
What color do you get the roux?
Andre: About the color of that table. [Laughs]
The color of the table?
Andre: Peanut butter.
Donald: Not the chunky.
Celeste: And Skippy—not that all-natural stuff. I will say it’s—I will say it’s about the color of a dark cardboard box, too.
Donald: We use something that—and I don’t mind telling you—we use Kitchen Bouquet™. If Kitchen—if the color is not to Celeste’s satisfaction, add a little more Kitchen Bouquet™.
Celeste: I like it dark because the—. If you cook a light roux, that medium-brown roux, it gives a great taste, but sometimes with—especially with a seafood gumbo, because of all the ingredients you’re putting into it, it comes out the color of that—of like dishwater at the end of the night. You know that nasty dishwater gray. And I just find it’s a horribly un-appetizing color, so I want it to be on the warm side of brown.
Celeste: Let’s go back to the process. So we made the roux; we put it in the pot; we put the vegetables—we made the roux, we put the water in the pot and put the vegetables in the pot, and then we add the cool roux and that cooks for a while. ‘Til the foam rises. Most—most of the foam cooks down. It cooks right back in, and at that point you add peeled shrimp, crabmeat—picked crabmeat, you know.
Diana: And then you let that cook and the shrimp—
Donald: And the oysters.
Celeste: And ham and sausage—sausage and ham.
Donald: And clam juice.
Celeste: And clam juice? Well there’s another great schism in the gumbo family. Most people in South Louisiana will not do that, and they don’t have to ‘cause they’re making small quantities. Because we’re making huge pots and because we look for, you know, a consistent tasting product, you can't gauge how salty the oysters are going to be; you can't gauge how fully flavored your shrimp are going to be ‘cause we do this in late October, so it’s not as though we have access to fresh brown shrimp which have the best taste. We’re using frozen shrimp provided most often by our neighbors who have a large shrimp processing facility on Grand Isle. So they’re frozen shrimp, and you just can't always judge how seafoody—.
Andre: But the oysters—the commercial oysters are washed.
Donald: You cannot buy unwashed oysters anymore.
Celeste: And that’s where the real oyster flavor is.
Diana: When we first started making the gumbo it was legal to use oyster water.
Celeste: So you could buy a gallon of oysters and a gallon of oyster liquor—gallon of oyster water.
Donald: So what we had done in the last, I guess 10 years, 12 years—for a flavoring we’ve started using sea clam juice, you know, and it has—you know really the—.
Celeste: But that—again, that’s a work-around. You know in the best of all possible worlds you could still get oyster liquor. And the oyster liquor, if you’re opening oysters yourself and you can save it, it’s wonderful because it’s kind of viscous and it acts to thicken the gumbo in addition to providing the good flavor. And I think you can really tell the difference in a gumbo that’s made with very fresh oysters that have some oyster water in it.
And so, okay, the seafood is cooking, and I know you told me some of the seasonings that you use, but what kind of pepper do you use?
Donald: We use a mixture of cayenne, black pepper—black pepper.
Celeste: And I think it’s the—one of the distinctive tastes in it is the liquid crab boil because it’s red pepper, it’s oil of cloves, it’s oil of bay. It has all these funky herb oils in it that aren’t in just the straight pepper, and so it provides a—a much more—.
Do you put filé in the gumbo at all?
Celeste: We offer salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce, and filé at the counter when the person gets their bowl. Most people will season with filé. Up and down Bayou Lafourche most people don’t put the filé in the pot; it’s unusual to find down here putting it in the pot.
Donald: Because what happens with the filé, once you—if you—once you reheat, it tends to get stringy. If you reheat a pot that has filé in it, it—the liquid will get real stringy like okra.
Diana: And we use Zatarain’s. The other ones, they just don’t have the potency.
Donald: That’s just like Worcestershire that we use in the seasoning. Don’t try anything but Lea & Perrins. The French’s is horrible; it has no taste. In other words, it sounds like it’s brand-sensitive but there is a great deal of difference in the—the taste.
Celeste: So it’s seasoned with garlic—granular garlic in these large pots, although at home it’s probably fresh garlic.
Andre: Many years of trial and error.
What does the money go to that’s raised at this festival?
Celeste: The festival is put on by the Bayou Civic Club, which is a non-profit 501-c-3 that operates a 77-acre regional park. The centerpiece of that park is a community center with an Olympic swimming pool, a gymnasium and performance stage, catering kitchen, meeting rooms; it has tenants, including the local Council on Aging and the Recreation District and the Public Library. And it also has tennis courts, soccer fields; you know it’s—
Diana: Football fields, baseball fields.
Celeste: Scout shelter.
Do you have any idea how much the festival raises?
Donald: It can be as little as $25,000 and as much as $300,000.
Celeste: The important thing to know about that particular facility is that, first of all, it’s not tax-supported in any significant way. It does have—it does have public tenants, you know, who are tax-supported. It does receive a little money from a tax-funded recreation district, but it’s non-sectarian and non-membership driven. In other words, if you wanted to go swim in the pool and you drove in here to this community today, you could go down there and pay your $3.00 and swim in the pool. It’s not like a YMCA. It’s not like—you don’t have to prove anything to be there. Every person in the community is welcome. Every person in the community can participate. And again, it’s a 77-acre park. It’s a huge building. The budget—the whole budget is probably right, I would say right at $1,000,000 a year for the entire facility stem to stern. I mean including utilities and liability insurance and all that, and this is in a town of 5,000 people. I mean it draws from the larger area. They consider their entire service region to have a population of about 15,000, but in terms of core supporters who provide financial backing for the entity, it’s about 5,000.
And is that where the festival is held?
Celeste: Yes, on the grounds of that facility. They paved a portion of the parking lot. The portion that’s under the festival tent is what’s paved, which is silly because it’s the—it’s not the front entrance to the building. So you drive up and you think, Why is there a random paved parking lot [Laughs] out here in the middle of nowhere? But they’ve paved their festival site, as opposed to paving the front entrance and main parking lot.
To download the entire transcript
in PDF form, please click here.