Cajun food is our culture's pride and joy. It's no wonder then that food, specifically gumbo, was the earliest clue that should have slapped me in face and said: Hardy, you are Cajun. It didn't slap back then, but I felt the sting, twenty-five years later, when I remembered how in third grade Jonathan Garret told me he and his family had eaten out the night before and had gumbo.
Gumbo was a dish Mom prepared at home, and Jonathan's family leaving their home and paying money for a dish that during the winter was a staple in my house was confusing to me - I just assumed Jonathan's mom wasn't a good cook. As far as I knew, part of a mom's job description was cooking gumbo. But at age ten, I didn't understand that my mom making excellent gumbo was the anomaly, not Jonathan and his family going out to eat it.
In Pensacola, Florida our neighbor's from across the street invited me over for some of their gumbo. A retired couple, Fay and W.D., were both from Alabama. Fay was a short woman with a wrinkled face that resembled a roadmap, which is ironic because when I knew her, she was in her sixties and still didn't know how to drive. Her lack of skill, I soon discovered, was not limited to driving.
At that point in my life, I had only eaten Mom's gumbo, which usually was seafood gumbo full of shrimp and blue-crabs. But what Fay cooked, I was not ready for. To begin with, she did not put any file - fee-lay - powdered sassafras leaves, in it, and this is what gives gumbo its distinctive consistency and taste, separating it from soup or stew. Adding insult to injury, Fay cooked her rice in with the gumbo - major faux pas. Rice is to be cooked separately and the gumbo spooned on top of it.
Although Fay's gumbo lacked file it had its share of ingredients. There were some shrimp, oysters, and chicken. The shrimp and oysters I was accustomed to, but not the chicken with them. Mom either cooked seafood gumbo or chicken gumbo, but not this amalgamation. Fay's gumbo also included corn, peas, and carrots: ingredients I'd never had and hope never to experience again in a gumbo.
Fay's house that night was full of her family. Her kitchen and dining area was one large room with a rectangular table flanked by wooden benches in the center of it, and the table was packed with adults, while her grandchildren and I had places in the living room sitting on the floor around the coffee table.
In the middle of everyone eating and talking, Fay sought my opinion of her gumbo. Being only a decade old, I knew nothing of the etiquette a guest was to possess, so over the loud talking of her family, I said, "This ain't gumbo." Silence. Would I be made to leave? Thankfully, Fay overlooked my rude truthfulness and the others went back to talking and eating. I didn't finish my bowl of "gumbo" and soon walked back across the street to home, where upon entering, Mom asked: "How was it?"
"Not as good as yours," I said and gave Mom a run-down of the ingredients.
"Fay made a chowder."
Fay's gumbo was brought up around the house only a few times after that incident, and always jokingly. I was never invited back to her house for any type of meal, which suited me just fine. Back then, I didn't understand why Fay had asked my opinion of her gumbo. At first, I thought it was simply because I was a
guest. But now I realize it was because she knew I was Cajun, and she wanted an insider's take on her creation.
While Mom was reluctant to teach me French, Cajun food helped me learn my first French words. Boudin, which is rice dressing - otherwise known as dirty rice - stuffed into sausage casing, was something Dad made sure to pick up a few pounds of when we made trips to Louisiana and visited Mom's family. Boudin is one of those words I've always known, hearing it said around the house by both parents, and Dad pronounced it just as smoothly as Mom: boo-dah[n]. I rarely pronounce the "n" and didn't even know the word had one until I was twelve.
Buying pounds of boudin to bring back to Pensacola meant we had to put it in a portable cooler on ice to get it back without spoiling. Boudin is boiled in grocery store meat markets, small sausage kitchens, and service stations all over south Louisiana, but after it is hot, you have to eat it immediately. If not, it must be kept cool, and thus the cooler. Dad had numerous coolers from his days of weekend fishing trips, and usually brought one of them. The summer of my twelfth year, though, he forgot, and we bought a Styrofoam one from a store in Lake Charles. On the side of the cooler, in bright red letters, was the store's name: The Boudin Kitchen.
"What's boudin?" I asked from the backseat of our Pontiac station wagon, pronouncing the "n" on the end for the first time. The cooler was wedged between the driver's seat and the back seat, resting on the floorboard and squeaking as it rubbed against the two with every bounce of the interstate. When I said it, the word sounded familiar; I just couldn't place it.
"What, son?" Mom said.
"Boudin?" I repeated, not as loudly, for the connection was starting to come together in my mind.
"Boudin," Mom said, pronouncing it in French, the sound swooshing softly from her mouth. She turned and looked at me questioningly, as if she couldn't believe what I'd just asked.
I didn't follow up that outburst with any more stupid questions. But in retrospect, it wasn't too dumb of a question for a child raised reading and writing English. And French words in comparison to run-of-the-mill American English sound so grandiose. Until a few years ago, I didn't realize that the tasty catfish coubillon - coo-bee-on - with its tender white fillets and spicy tomato gravy, meant simply catfish soup. Mom's chicken fricassee - free-kah-say - boiled chicken in a consistent dark-brown gravy served over white rice, was to die for. The meat slid effortlessly off the bone and the peppery gravy made the rice worth eating all by itself, which I often did after the chicken pieces were gone. I was a little disappointed to find out that fricassee means stew. Stew does not embody the deliciousness a good fricassee possesses.
Food was my earliest and biggest indicator that I was Cajun and I missed it. I am embarrassed to admit how blind I was to this fact, but growing up with these foods made them a natural part of my life, even in the Florida panhandle. And when something is so natural, one has a tendency to take it for granted. Yet, if I had paid attention in my youth and saw that Mom was the only one in the neighborhood cooking gumbo, coubillon , and fricassee , it may not have taking me a quarter of a century to understand that I, like Mom, am Cajun.
Hardy Jones' fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Clapboard House, Miranda Literary Review, Sugar Mule, The Furnace Review, Louisiana's Living Traditions, Diamond Sky Dancer, Dark Sky Review, The Iconoclast, The Jabberwock Review, The Delta Review, and Chips'n'Cheese. In 2001 his memoir People of the Good God won a grant. His novel Every Bitter Thing is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Cameron University .