Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Of Gumbo"


It's with honest trepidation that I even post this. In fact, my hands are refusing to type as well as they normally do. Over the last year, I've realized that there is a story in everything, and growing up in the south, a boy can experience much the 'everyday joe' doesn't. So, I started writing. At first, I wanted to be the next Hemingway and bring stories to life through drunken eloquence or the next Buckingham with the added rawness of the day, but nowadays I just want to be me.

This story you're about to read is the beginning of the character development that I hope one day (several years from now) finds me in an editors office, working out "a deal". It started a year or so ago, with little notes here and there about my boyhood and my friends from the day. We called ourselves the "Heads or Tails Hunting Team" (don't worry, you'll find out why sometime). Thick as thieves we were, running backroads at night, dodging the 'laws', just having fun. But, until you've hopped up the memories with imagination and outright lies, it'll only be worth reading for you. Thus, the characters while mostly tangible assets, are portrayed as I 'viewed' them both then and 'characters'.

If you find yourself ever asking, "man, I wonder if ole Gator is pulling my leg", I will only respond with -- Every story I tell there's but one absolute truth......that 8/10 of it is 20% true.

I thank the guys that initially read it several months ago: IRONGRIP, for giving credence to the recipe at hand, GordonGekko and Champcaller for the honest critique, Gordon and RJohnson for reminding my I like making a gumbo last night as we waited on it to 'get ready',and also a character in this story that reads this board and has never posted. When told of my ideas and plans he merely stated, "well, don't have me as no crackhead."

Lastly to my bud DoubleR, for showing me through his own 'lifes work' that sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns and "do it yourdamnedself".

Truly, this is just the start.

“Of Gumbo”

By Justin Harrison

There have been numerous influences in my life, but very few have been as strong as the little no named duck club which sat under the pin oaks on the banks of the Ouachita River. So strong in fact that if the wind blows right, I can shut my eyes and see the characters that made that place so special. Invariably, you notice Jim, “self-proclaimed” best friend of my father. Yep, there’d Jim be, or as us kids called him “Cajun”, fussin over the roux. He used one cup of flour and ¾ cup of oil, that according to Jim, was “de’ perfectest combonasheeon”. The stirring piece of Cajun's arsenal was a humongous wooden spoon that Gran Gran, my granddad and leader of this motley crew, was quite certain doubled as Jim's boat paddle. For a kid, one of the things that made Cajun larger than life was his total, undeniable disdain for the nuiances and order of everyday living. Such that is was and to a great spite of my Gran Gran's, often Jim was found making said roux sporting not much else but his “personals” and boots. Fortunately for Jim's place amongst the camp and concerning a pot of gumbo, the man simply had no equal. He was truly a Picasso when left to his own devices, a living tribute to his South Louisiana upbringing. Cajun used to boast in an oft drunken slur that, “eben me gran b’ named Roux, didn’ she wuz Mike.” Heck even Gran Gran, realized the importance of letting Jim handle this measure of the proceedings. Graciously, he resigned himself to the peeling of shrimp or crawfish and shucking oysters when the season and money allowed, picking ducks and geese when they didn’t. Either way, the old man would be wearing a button up shirt freshly pressed, a pair of woolen pants tucked into his socks, while donning knee-high leather boots, a throwback to days he can’t let go of.

Over in the other corner on the chopping block, you had daddy and Harold B cutting up chickens, ducks, andouille sausage, celery, onions of yellow and green, and bell peppers. Hunched over the block, they talked in whispers hoping “us kids” wouldn’t hear the snipe hunting and bootlegging stories of their youth. This was in all probability the first time I ever heard the term “holy trinity” when not in reference to some baptismal procedure. Understanding the Catholisism of the area and the importance of onions, celery and bell peppers to a meal as heaven sent as gumbo, the title seems duly justified. Given to such, I suppose now would be an appropriate time for the reader to take full stock of the “cutting” procedure. You NEVER (emphasis of the men of that camp) breast a duck or goose or bone a chicken. Rather, you pick them whole and cut into them into smaller pieces such as legs, thighs and halves. The use of these pieces are to follow, but rest quietly knowing they were “bone on”.

Depending on a number of issues, none of which matter here, you’d most likely find Big Ronnie and Danny D minding the boil pots. Rendering a duck, goose or chicken broth from the pieces daddy and Harold B produced, they kept a close eye on me and my crew seated around the fire. Sometimes the shrimp and crawfish peelings Gran Gran divvied up would be used to make broth too, remembering of course the seasonal and monetary ebb and flow one will experience throughout a given year.

Throughout the mix that was my upbringing, you’d be hard-pressed not to see my buds Magic, Chunk, Ifee, or Skillet sitting on the logs encircling the fire pit roasting hotdogs because per Chunk, “that gumbo just takes too damned long to make.” Magic and Chunk, were two brothers that were as different as night and day. Magic trusting in the Word from the time of his conception, and Chunk trusting his hangover wouldn’t last all day. Somehow, that camp allowed them to meet in the middle, which made ole Harold B (their dad) pretty damned happy. We should all be so lucky. Ifee’s nickname stems from my Gran Gran considering his fondness of the drink even at such a young age. Having just caught Ifee red-handed in Jim’s peach shine Gran Gran exclaimed, “Danny, it ain’t so much ifee gonna drink, it’s when.” Somehow, “whenee” just didn’t sound right so Ifee as born. As a quick aside, he was Danny D’s oldest boy, and took many a butt chewing over being drunk at the camp. The chewings didn’t take, and last I heard, he spent some time in rehab drying out. Pretty sure that didn’t take either. And finally you’d see Skillet, Big Ronnie’s boy who so affectionately was named by my dad b/c “rare was it he went hunting and brought back anything fit for the damned thing.” These four friends and I were as tight as a miser’s clutch upon two bits. Most have remained that way, though time and life refuse to allow full disclosure of our memories altogether.

The camp itself was nothing more than a bunch of 1960’s fifth wheels and “come alongs”, stacked end to end with a trailer thrown in as the centerpiece for good measure. Really though, it seemed like the Taj Mahal, and we were the lords of the manor. Insignificant to the world though it may have been; that camp left me with more memories and laughter than one man should be granted in a fully drawn lifetime. Strong was its hold on me. Sadly enough and stronger still is the longing to be back there. All too quick did several characters decide to wake up on the wrong side of the dirt. All too quick were we to move on to other camps and pursuits after Gran Gran and Jim passed. Yep, that camp taught me a myriad of things alright. A few that come to mind are that when the calling commences please find yourself politely next to a tree, “thanky-kindly”, contrary to today’s belief system, a properly bred cocker spaniel can be a retrieving machine if given ample opportunity, and also that decoys are nothing more than salve for the hunter if the ducks want in. Per ole Cajun, “they’s com’n boy, we’s ain’t bringin no heavy sack o' decoys if’n we’s don’ be needin too”. The men of that camp also taught me a number of recipes to which I hold dear. Some standing guard at the front line of my memories are mouth watering dishes such as smoked pork loin stuffed with jambalaya and covered in a raspberry sauce, pot roasted teal, fried duck drizzled in honey with a side of tomato gravy and cat-head biscuits, and bacon wrapped wood ducks drenched in homemade ranch dressing. Lastly, a simple truth was stamped into my gray matter that declares there ain’t many pursuits in life as dedicated as a tired, cold and hungry hunter. Now, this last one would be the key to what I’m driving at. You see, there’s not so much a right way to make gumbo because a hand may legally put most anything, up to but certainly not limited to hard boiled eggs, in a gumbo and still rightfully call it such. In fact, if you enjoy it by itself, odds are strong you will appreciate it that much more in such a concoction that is to become your gumbo.

Thing is though, you gotta play it smart. Several truths hold regarding the making of a good pot of gumbo. They can be noted as the following, and should be committed to memory accordingly. First off, if you don’t have the time nor the desire to stand over your roux stirring with a wooden spoon for a few hours, today’s not the day to undertake the making of such. Secondly, no self-respecting gumbo will be found without a healthy population of the aforementioned trinity. Furthermore, corn and tomatoes in a gumbo pot are borderline blasphemy and should be added at the makers own risk, and only if the cupboard is completely bare of necessary items. Interestingly enough, while a certain amount of meat and seafood is required, pretty much anything from possums to coons will suffice. Also, while very little equipment is necessary, a roux should be made only in a large cast iron skillet or pot that’s been burdened w/ layers of burned in grease. All else shall be added henceforth. And the last great commission concerning this matter is that gumbo in its truest form is meant for friends and family, thus making solitary confinement an undesirable situation for the maker. Great care and credit to the men, brothers at arms, for passing along such wisdom to a cotton-topped, big eyed child.

There you have it, the making of a proper gumbo as heralded by that bunch of hunting brethren found from the late 60’s to the mid-90’s under that same bunch of pin oaks. Leisurely they sat supping around the fire, calmed by the sweet serenity of the nearby river and ever present wind, leaving the switch marks of the worlds disappointments behind. O’ to be back!

Time smarts and memories therein haunt those who’ve spent a life collecting the latter and running from the former. Realizing the pain in this, and in order to grant full disclosure, I must add the footnote of how I would enjoy such a day as a good ole gumbo cooking. Well, for me and mine, I’d call up Magic and Skillet, who by happenstance, fate, or God’s work now live within a 5 mile radius of my wife and me. Magic would be on veggies, Skillet on meats, the wives would go shopping, and I’d be commandeering the roux, as only ole Cajun could before me. We’d call up daddy, Harold B, and Big Ronnie to invite them, though given the mileage between us and them, they’d most likely thank us and slink back to their now well broken in easy chairs. At some point the talk would probably turn to Gran Gran, and how he thought it a must to be properly attired to eat said meal. We'd toast the camp nestled quietly beneath those pin oaks at the river’s edge, and we’d probably even talk about ole Jim, his life, and strangely, his funeral. Truly something to behold, considering the South MS Coon Hound Association showed up in full regalia sporting skull lanterns, knee boots, and an army of barking, howling blue ticks, walkers and redbones. Man, could those mutts howl. I suppose in their own way, they bayed and yapped an outlaw tune, betrayed at loosing one of the few. After that, and at several points in between, I’d pour from the bottle into a silver flask Cajun gave me, a bit of whiskey to pass around. At some point, we might actually eat the gumbo. Of gumbo, as the ghosts of that little no named camp which sat under the pin oaks on the banks of the Ouchita River deeded. Simply speaking, a gumbo enjoyed the way it was meant to be.


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