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Saturday, February 18, 2012

My View of Gumbo

A great way to kick off the Mardi Gras season here in Lake Charles is to grab a bowl and join in on the fun at the World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cookoff.  All you need to do is get about fifteen or twenty Krewes in one place, offer a prize for the best gumbo in the room, and then get ready to eat a lot of Gumbo.
  For those of you who do not live in an area where Mardi Gras is important, let me explain something to you.  This is serious stuff.  I've lived in dozens of places, all over the United States.  I've never been anywhere that cancels school for three days for Mardi Gras.  But they do here.  In fact, they don't just close down the schools.  The headline in yesterday's paper points out that a long-awaited trial would not start until after Mardi Gras.  It makes sense, since the local government is shut down till then.  There's just too much to do this weekend.
  And what better way to start than to have a Gumbo cookoff?  If you've ever had that silly little bowl of fake gumbo restaurants serve outside of Louisiana, you'll have to change your way of thinking.  The thing to remember is that gumbo can come in many different tastes and combinations.  The common thread is that they all have a roux base.  I'm not an expert on it but I know that it is made from flour and a fat of some kind (which could be butter, oil, or the more traditional animal fat).  You really have no idea how different gumbos can be until you get more than a dozen of the best together in one room where you can try them out.
  And that's what we get to do.  As you can see, these gumbos are mixed in great big pots, stirred with big sticks, and it is usually done by big guys.  (Usually with a big beer in their hand, too.)  Each of the gumbos is prepared by one of the many Mardi Gras Krewes.  Don't ask me to name them, I can't remember them all.
  Now, I've learned in my more than two decades in Louisiana what kind of Gumbo I like.  I'm not picky when it comes to the meat.  Most of it is chicken and sausage, and that's great.  Some of it is wild game, which in these parts, could mean...I'd rather not think about what that could mean.  I'm sure it's just duck.  Really.  Tasso is a favorite of mine.  The level of spiciness starts at pretty spicy, and goes up from there.  I can identify some Gumbos as mild, but I think I've been conditioned over the years and I suspect that there really isn't a mild gumbo in that room.
  The first time I went to this event I was surprised to discover how different the rouxs can be.  I like the dark ones.  Today, we found one that wasn't too spicy, and had a smoky flavor, which was the best I'd found.  I could have had three bowls of that but there were too many others to try.
  Before the gumbo is ladled into the bowl, a scoop of rice is dropped into the bowl.  Potato salad can be added right into the gumbo.  Crackers are offered on the side, though that is not too common.  One of the great  treats is if you can find a bowl with an egg in it.  The hard-boiled eggs soak in the gumbo pot and as you can imagine, they are fantastic.
  Before the gumbo is served, there is plenty of King Cake (a Mardi Gras sweet roll), cracklins (if you have to ask, don't), and boudin.  Boudin is a personal favorite of mine.  It's like a rice sausage with all kinds of goodies stuffed in with it.  And it is almost always really hot.  It took this Yankee a long time to get use to all the cayenne pepper around this here place.  A note to all you newbies--keep a glass of water with you at all times. Even when you taste something and say 'hey, that's not really spicy'.  Yeah.  Just wait.  And hold the water close to your lips just in case.  And don't, don't drink Sprite if you're trying to drown cayenne pepper.  That is a bad idea.

And where else can you get great food like boudin in a camoflaged bowl?  Ya'll in the other parts of the world just ain't that lucky.
  So all of this great eating is going on while a local band knocks out great blues and cajun music.  The pretty cool part of this is that the entrance fee is only five bucks a head.  For the amount of food you can eat, that's a steal.
  And this year's cookoff was in the middle of a heavy rain and thunderstorm.  With the trees blowing in the background as seen through the floor to ceiling windows of the Buccaneer room, it looked like a Hurricane party.  Just the way we Louisiana folks like it: rough weather, loud music, and spicy food.
  I had to add this little guy here.  They start their zydeco players out at an early age here.  Just look at him go!

I'll add a few more shots of the festivities.  Now, is anybody hungry?
Costumes abound in purple, yellow and green.
That's quite the prize-winning duck!
The gumbo is ready to be had.

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