Who’s Your Mama and Does She Make a Good Roux?
By Maria Patina
The Joys of Being Cajun
I kind of feel sympathy when I meet someone who has never tried Cajun cooking. It breaks my heart to find out that someone doesn’t know what a Cajun is – gasp! I believe they’ve missed out on the delight of coming home from school and smelling that earthy spicy goodness. Sure, most people came home and smelled their own version of that down-home smell; be it chili, chicken and dumplings, Irish stew or enchiladas. But Cajun cooking, to this Cajun, is the ultimate cultural food experience. I get tickled when I hear people arguing about whether their down-home dish is the real way to cook it. People argue that chili should have chocolate in it. Others think that’s the way the Yankees make it and it has no place in the south. Some people swear that gumbo must have tomatoes while others think that’s the first sign of “fake” gumbo. People even debate what to call spaghetti sauce, (gravy or sauce) But, the truth is, how ever your mawmaw (or whoever made it for you) made it is how it should taste. So that’s the way it should be made! (smiling)
Cajuns are people who originated from France and eventually immigrated to Canada. They were banished from Canada, supposedly for being Catholic, and settled in Southwest Louisiana. They had very few resources, so they lived off the land. They farmed crawfish, which were quite plentiful in the area and used those same fields to grow rice when crawfish weren’t in season. They did a lot of hunting and fishing to survive. Now, they are famous for their wonderful cuisine; a lot of rice and gravy and deep dark rich foods. One of the mainstays of Cajun cooking is gumbo. Oh gumbo, that pot of warmth, love, fun, and home! Gumbo is a Cajun soup that is filled with sausage and chicken or seafood, lovingly made when someone has a LOT of time to cook, or “fix” something special. It takes 3 hours to cook it. The base is a mixture of flour and oil called roux. “Who’s your mama and does she make a good roux” is a saying in our culture. This simple, but powerful paste is the start, the mother, the alpha ingredient of the gumbo.
I’m a Cajun girl from Port Arthur, Texas. If you don’t know where that is, it’s right next door to Southwest Louisiana (the motherland) and, 90 miles east of Houston. I grew up there in the 70s and 80s. There are a lot of Cajuns in Port Arthur. I’m very proud to come from a city, rich with Cajun culture. My friends and I have always said that there was something magical about growing up there. You could walk into anyone’s house, smell that inviting aroma of gumbo and you knew it was going to be special. It beckoned like an old pair of jeans. In Port Arthur, I didn’t know anyone who put tomatoes in their gumbo, so I run with that camp.
In my opinion, Cajun food isn’t just nourishment, it’s culture. Along with somebody “having a gumbo”, there was always connection; people laughing, visiting, maybe drinking, and occasionally dancing. It was so much fun and it nourished both the tummy and the soul. The connection around this magical mix of spices, roux, and rice really carved a huge place in my heart. One that has left me longing, at times, for the good old days in a small town with a common love of food, music, and fun.
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