I Wanna Stay Home and Make Gumbo with You, Ma

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Right in time for Mother’s Day, University of Baltimore MFA candidate Tara Orchard writes about working with her mom in the kitchen. In the beginning, her mom taught her how to crack an egg and cook an elaborate meal, then the tables turned.

My mother’s kitchen is small. And in a small kitchen, there is one thing that you need to know: you need to dance—in a manner of speaking. Since my mother and I developed our own dance long ago, there is never a problem when we cook and there hasn’t been for many years. A hand to the hip—step to the side. A reach across—take a step back. Just saying a name: Get out of my way, woman, this pot is hot! Like many things though, this dance took time, and it had to start somewhere.

The first thing my mom taught me to cook was an over-easy egg. It was much harder to do than she had always made it look. First, I had to put about a teaspoon of butter in a pan that is over a medium-low heat, let it melt, and spread it around the pan to prevent sticking. I had to be mindful of it, or it could start to brown. I had to crack the egg on the side of the sink, not too soft that it wouldn’t crack, but not too hard that the shell would crash inwards and the egg would explode along the side of the sink. Cracking the egg was nerve-wracking, my mind already racing to figure out the best way to clean up the mess I would inevitably make, but surprisingly didn’t. I had to gently press my thumbs in the crack created on the sink, not too fast or hard, or else I would push right through the egg itself and break off parts of the shell. It was better when I wiggled my thin thumbs into the shell and gently pulled outwards. I couldn’t drop the egg from too high up either, or the yolk could break and the clear slime would splatter. I was impatient, waiting for the slime to turn completely white, signaling that it was time to be flipped, but it happened fast. My hands shook. It was time to flip it. …I broke the yolk.

“You just need to keep doing it. Practice. Your brother wants two eggs and your father wants four.”

She smiled, grabbing the black pepper and salt, housed in empty Corona bottles with blue tops that had been given to my mom by a waitress at a Cajun restaurant, from behind me.

“Get to work.”

She walked out of the kitchen, leaving me to slide the spatula under the egg and move it to the plate myself.

For a moment I considered saying no, and telling my dad and brother to make their own. Both of them could cook … they just preferred not to. But one look at the sad, broken-yolked egg I had just placed on a plate was enough to keep me silent and reaching for another egg.

***

She was a stay-at-home mom that was determined to have my brother and me be able to do anything and everything we could before we left the house. She taught both of us how to cook, clean, mow the lawn, paint a room, and so much more. But cooking was the one thing she taught me that I latched on to. It taught me balance, allowing me to drop my clumsiness like most of my poor, patient mother’s dishes. It taught me to balance between flavors and textures, as well as balancing my time and my emotions. It helped me learn from my mistakes: when to stop adding cayenne pepper and that extra virgin olive oil should never, under any circumstances, be used in baked goods (especially brownies, though for taste rather than texture issues). I gained confidence in the kitchen too as I learned to cook, learning to trust my instincts when it comes to adding spices (with the exception of any hot pepper), and learning that my intuition is usually right (aside from underestimating the amount of spice one teaspoon of chili powder can hold). The kitchen is a place that allows me to find peace.

After a brief period, in which the only thing other than eggs (over-easy, scrambled, and omelets) that I could make was Hamburger Helper, I moved on and learned to make my first homemade main course: meatloaf. Most people view meatloaf to be something questionable, and with good reason: You never know what is going into it. But that’s because you can put anything in it, like Cajun seasonings, Mexican seasonings, tomato sauce and eggs, etc.

We were going to make it our very own way.

My mom set the oven to 375º and took out a mountain of uncooked ground beef that she had bought at Costco. She had me take out breadcrumbs that were combined with Italian seasoning, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, A1 sauce, Goya’s adobo seasoning, salt, pepper, and minced onions. The beef was dumped into a huge plastic bowl and an egg was thrown in, perfectly cracked by me after spending so long making eggs for breakfast. My fingers hesitated before digging into the cold contents of the bowl, my fingers quickly turning red as I hopped from foot to foot to take my mind off of the recently-pulled-from-the-fridge meat and eggs. The raw meat and egg slime covered my fingers, making a new home under my nails, as my mom reached over and poured in some breadcrumbs.

“You just eyeball it,” she told me. “That looks about right. Keep mixing.”

My hands, which had been hovering over the mixture while she poured, began mixing once again, faster than before in hopes of warming up again quicker. The minced onions were thrown in. The Worcestershire sauce was splashed in, followed by the A1. The salt and pepper were shaken in. And, by the time the adobo was mixed in, I was convinced that the next time I went into the sun, I would have mini-meatloaves cooking under each finger nail, regardless of how hard I tried to clean them. My hands hovered again as my mom pulled out a baking pan and sprayed it with Pam.

“Dump it in the pan. Then you have to round it out.”

I flicked my fingers, flinging away small bits of meat, and picked up the bowl, taken aback for a moment by how heavy it was. I carefully dumped it into the pan, almost missing but making it after quickly pulling the bowl back, then set out to make it smooth and oval. When it was, I pulled back, my hands hovering again and careful not to touch anything. My mom picked the adobo back up and sprinkled a bit more on top then gestured for me to rub it in. She did the same for the A1 sauce. Finally, I got to wash my hands, watching from the sink as she put the meatloaf into the oven and set the timer for an hour. A bag of frozen lima beans was heated up to go with it, topped with salt and butter. I was proud of myself, even though she did all of the work. Next time, I would do it though. I knew how to do it now. For the next few months, I frequently made meatloaf for dinner, changing little parts of the recipe and making it better and better.

***

Food shopping is always fun … at least, it is for me and my mom. The only reason my dad enjoys it—other than that he stockpiles his favorite junk food that wouldn’t make it into the cart otherwise—is because he enjoys watching my mom and me argue. We’re both obsessive compulsive, though our compulsions are different—something that has led to numerous fights in the past—and one of these compulsions always takes place when shopping. See, she has to buy everything in twos and I have to buy everything in threes, and, if we don’t, we get antsy, our anxiety building, unable to think about anything else until we have the correct number of items in the cart. My dad, on the rare occasion he joins us, can often be found standing off to the side, a single box of Ho Hos in his arms that will inevitably find its way into the cart and have both of us fidgeting at the sight of a single box. He snickers as my mom takes a can out of the cart or I throw a box in to fit our compulsions—a game to see if I can sneak an extra of whatever we need before she notices what I’ve done, or if she can remove it before I notice. By making it into a game, we can control the anxiety that comes with not getting our way a bit better, which allows me to walk out with only two gallons of milk and her to walk out with three boxes of frozen spinach.

It’s dangerous for us to go food shopping together though. We could go in with a small list of the five basics and leave with twenty items and two bottles of white truffle oil that we don’t know what we’re going to do with, but we’re definitely going to do something with it, and what does it even taste like, we know they’ve used it on The Chew. And, when my dad inevitably asks about the other 15 (not forgetting the original five we went in there for) items we picked up, more amused than angry, he knows that our reply will be something like: We need to experiment and try something new.

Gumbo. When done properly, it is made with about 22 ingredients and takes around four and a half hours to complete. What makes it so hard to make, though, is that there are so many different ways to do it and so many opportunities to ruin it. Some people use seafood, some do not. Some use squirrel. If you don’t use enough flour in the roux, you’ll have a soup instead of a gumbo. And if the roux isn’t dark enough, then the gumbo looses color and the taste loses depth. If the garlic is burnt, you should just toss the whole pot because it’s going to ruin everything. If the pepper is soaked too long, it’s going to change from a warm and gentle heat to a mouthful of smoky fire. If the beef is cooked too long, it’ll become too tough and it will be like gnawing on chunks of leather. Too much thyme, and it’ll start to taste like Thanksgiving stuffing (too much thyme does this in any dish, trust me). It’s become a favorite of mine to make, though, and it was one of the first recipes that I taught my mom.

Music drifted through the air—the trumpets playing; the percussion keeping the beat; the sound of sizzling onions, garlic, carrots, and celery mixed with the music, just a hair quieter than the music itself. I placed my cup on the countertop and spun, following through with a few salsa steps to carry me over the cold tiles to the stove so I could stir the vegetables around: I was in my element and nothing could go wrong.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,” I sang under my breath, “dance with me, make me sway…” I spun again.

“Really?” my mom asked from the doorway of our kitchen, making me jump and stop short. Her eyes danced in amusement as a small smile curved her lips.

“Way to sneak up on me, Ma… You’re gonna give me a heart attack,” I mumbled as I turned around. I stirred again, pretending to make sure nothing was burning and giving my heart some time to slow its rapid beat as well as giving myself some time to get rid of the blush that had spread across my cheeks.

She didn’t say anything, but walked over to the white refrigerator and pulled out the raw chicken breasts. Taking her place on the other side of the sink, she opened the package and began to cut the meat into smaller pieces, just as she had done with the Andouille sausage, carrots, onion, garlic, and celery.

The onions, celery, carrots, and garlic in the pot in front of me are sautéed until golden, then set in a bowl on the side.

“What’s next?” She asks.

I point to the sausage she cut up and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil into the pan before throwing the sausage in with it.

Andouille sausage and chicken are cooked—separately to ensure they are both cooked fully—in a cast iron pot, browned, and set-aside in a separate bowl. Dried chilies are placed in boiling water and left to steep. A roux is made and cooked over a medium-high heat until it is a dark chocolate brown with the texture of thick, wet sand. Some of the water from the steeping chilies is thrown into a blender with the vegetables and one of the chilies, and it’s blended until smooth. Beef cubes cook in the roux until it is evenly brown, though still pink inside. The vegetable mixture is poured in. Chicken stock is added, as is the white sugar, fresh parsley, thyme, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and cayenne. It’s cooked for two and a half hours. The chicken and sausage go back in the pot. Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce get splashed in as well. The bay leaves get fished out and lemon juice takes their place. It cooks for another 20 minutes before being poured over rice and topped with freshly chopped scallions.

Hours later, and it was finally done. We sat at the table to eat, my dad and brother with bigger bowls than mine and my mother’s since neither of us eat much … especially after hours of cooking and multiple taste tests. My dad covers his in a layer of black pepper and takes a bite. He looks at my mom.

“You can make this more often,” he teases, as he always does when we make something new.

“How can you even taste it under all that pepper?” my brother asks as he does every time my dad compliments a meal. He doesn’t wait for a response, instead choosing to eat more.

“Tara made it,” was my mother’s response.

My dad looks at me, surprise but proud. “Nice.” He smiles. “You can make this more often.”

Now that I’m living (and cooking) on my own, my mom and I only get to cook together when I have a chance to go home. We still compare recipes and we still try new things, but it isn’t quite the same. To make up for this, we’ve started a competition of sorts with a dish my father ordered from a restaurant in Texas. The people at the restaurant wouldn’t give us the recipe (understandably), so we only had the name “Guisado in Chile Verde,” and the small description under it that just said that it was beef and green chili stew. We couldn’t find it online either, so, when we each got back home, we took several recipes that sounded like they could be it, and combined them, though neither of our attempts were successful in recreating the dish. We’ve added ingredients and taken ingredients out, blended it all together until it’s perfectly smooth and left it a bit chunky, left it in a slow cooker overnight and cooked it in a cast iron pot on the stove for a few hours, and we still haven’t gotten it right. One of these days, though, one of us will make it correctly, winning our competition, and have to teach the other once more.

 

Tara Orchard is currently living in Baltimore, where she is finishing the final semester of her MFA. She doesn’t know for sure what she’s doing next, but it should be fun and will definitely involve writing.