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Gumbo Therapy

Grief hit me hard this year, the first Christmas during this pandemic. While I knew that grieving is not linear, I didn’t realize how heavily the darkness sat on me until I found myself alone one sloppy wet Saturday morning before Christmas, with a page-long to-do list, and unable to shower and get dressed for the day. I let myself wallow that day, while feeling ridiculous because I am so fortunate compared to many. I promised myself if I allowed myself that day to be sad, I would make gumbo the next day. Gumbo isn’t part of my heritage, but I adopted it as just the thing to make on a blustery day at home.

The next morning, in my sunny, chilly kitchen, I stir the gluten-free roux for 45 minutes, gently browning it to a rich chocolate milk color. I’m a novice gumbo maker, so I follow the recipe; I’m not ready to experiment.

I learned to cook during college, making from-scratch vegetarian and vegan meals to serve forty college students, a mix of residents and boarders, in a co-op house in the West Campus neighborhood alongside the University of Texas. When I was growing up, my parents served a few different home-cooked meals on rotation, and we supplemented with frozen dinners or restaurant meals. When your upbringing is Hamburger Helper, Lean Cuisine, and Luby’s you start from scratch in cooking from scratch. My cooking partner and roommate that first semester had grown up cooking with her Italian-American family, so our first dish was manicotti, stuffed with seasoned ricotta cheese -- a tofu filling for the vegans -- and baked in homemade red sauce. She had to coach me through peeling the garlic and boiling the noodles. As housemates stopped by the kitchen to chat and peek under pot lids, we kept the CD player going, changing to faster tempo music to get us through the frantic last half hour before dinner time.

Roux thickened, I add the trinity – diced onion, celery, and bell pepper, and sauté until the onions caramelize. Then I run to open windows before stirring in the 10 cloves of chopped garlic. I add roasted chicken, sausage, bay leaves, and chicken stock before the sizzling garlic can burn, and leave it to simmer, returning to stir every half hour.

Friendships formed in the kitchen. Next week’s cooks perched by the cookbook shelf to flip through recipes, plan menus, check the spice shelves and pantry, and add missing ingredients to the grocery shopper’s list. There was always someone nearby to ask how many pounds of dried beans were needed, and what do we do if we forgot to soak them overnight. I absorbed my knowledge of cooking from being around other people who cooked, and tasting our successes and failures, the flavorful and quickly-devoured quinoa-black bean burgers, and the rock-hard loaves of bread we threw from the third-floor window to see if they would bounce.

At the end of three hours, I taste the velvety liquid from the pot, adjust the seasoning, and it is rich with layers of flavor that can only be built with time and attention. I know it will taste even better the next day.

What we didn’t have in the co-op kitchen was a mix of generations. I look forward to hanging out in the common house kitchen, teaching knife skills to the children chefs, and learning the cooking heritage of the experienced chefs who will be my future neighbors. I envision a shared cookbook shelf where everyone contributes their favorite recipes, and we will blend those flavors into the most amazing meals.

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