I’m in the kitchen, making turkey gumbo. It’s an old family recipe, meaning that it doesn’t really have an exact recipe. You need the basics: a good roux, seasonings you love, lots of meat. But the particulars are really up to you. Making a good gumbo is an adventure, an exercise in building something wonderful.
Beyond the kitchen entry, a small crowd gathers in the dining room, sitting around the old table of dark wood, bearing the scuffs and scars of many years of use. The babble of conversation washes over me, but I don’t take part. It’s not that I can’t afford the distraction. I just don’t feel a connection, a sense of… belonging. Of being part of things.
I bring the shallots over to the sink, give them a good rinse. Out in the dining room, gather around the table. Talking, joking, sharing the family news. From the back yard, I hear the laughter and joyous shrieking of children playing, nieces and nephews having a great time, delighted to be somewhere new, somewhere out of the ordinary. It’s nice to see that simple things can still bring happiness to kids.
I carry the shallots back to the cutting board and start chopping. My gumbo has three different kinds of onions in it. Really adds a lot of flavor. Can’t get enough flavor in a good gumbo.
I hear my older sister talking about her kids, how much they’ve grown, how well they’re doing in school, getting along with their friends. And her husband, how his law practice is going, how much money he’s making. I’m really happy for her, glad that she has the family she always wanted, that their supported and cared for. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told her that.
A soft sizzle comes from the pot on the stove. I hastily wipe my hands on my apron, pick up a large wooden spoon. Stirring the roux is critical. You can’t let it burn. It’s the base for the entire meal. You stir it, briskly, to keep the flour from burning, to keep the oil and butter from scorching. In seconds, a rich, yeasty odor rises from the pot. It brings a smile to my face.
Through the rising steam, I see my younger brother showing off something on his phone. His latest grades. Oh, he’s doing well. Going to be a teacher one day, professor of world history. He’s always loved the subject. It’s good that he keeps us appraised of his progress. I hope he has a long and happy future ahead of him. But I don’t think I’ve ever said that aloud.
Opening the fridge, I root around in the crowded mess until I find the sausage. I know Cajun food started out as something that starving refugees scrounged together, but these days a lot of people are obsessed with the finest of this and the best of that. Seriously, get over it. Just cook with what works. For me, that’s off-the-shelf ingredients. Generic brands. I don’t read the package contents; I judge on taste, on how it makes the recipe better.
As I set the package on the counter and take up my knife again. Then I hear the scrape of a chair moving. Glancing through the doorway, I see Mom leaving the table and heading for the kitchen.
“Hey there.” She walks past me, headed for the coffee pot. “How’s it going?”
“Going great, Mom.” I slice open the sausage package and start chopping the links into bite-size bits. “Just fine.”
She pours herself a cup of joe, adding the rich aroma of coffee and chicory to the air. “That smells amazing.” she says, nodding toward the stockpot.
“Thank you.” I open the pot and scrape the sausage off the cutting board and into the simmering roux.
“Good, good.” She takes a sip. “You are a such a good cook.”
I give her a quick smile. “Hey, you taught me everything I know about cooking, Mom.”
Once more into the fridge I go, fetching out a large container of turkey meat. It’s all in little, soft bits, macerated off the turkey carcasses from last year’s holiday dinners, which have lain in the depths of my freezer for months. Preparing the turkey meat is an operation in itself. I tell you, nothing is a greater expression of familial love and devotion than boiling bones for hours, then spending hours more flensing all the tiny pieces of meat off them. Now, all I have to do is put it in the pot.
With the meat in the pot, I add a healthy measure of broth, give it all a gentle stir. Then the lid goes back on. Now, the only thing left to add is time. Simmer this baby for forty-five minutes to an hour, and it’ll be perfect. In cooking, like a lot of things in life, time is the one factor that really determines success from failure. It can bring things together, bind them inseparably. Turn what was once a bunch of disparate elements into a complete whole. Taking time, giving time, is important.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” Mom says.
“I know it’s a lot of work, cooking a meal for a big family like this.”
“I’m happy to do it.” And I am. Really. I love cooking. And I love my family. Maybe I don’t show it in everyday life. Maybe I don’t reach out and connect very well. So, when we all get together, it seems like the least I can do is make dinner. Because every time I cook for the people I love, I’m cooking with love.
I head for the pantry, fetch out the bread. It’s not fresh, but it’s not supposed to be. Stale bread goes best with gumbo. Slap a slice in a bowl, add gumbo. Heaven. Not everything has to be fresh and new to be perfect. Sometimes, time has to pass. Things have to age, mature.
Cooking taught me a lot of lessons about family. You can’t always follow a recipe. You can’t always expect to have the best things to work with; sometimes they’re not even best for what you’re trying to make. Give things time, time to come together, time to grow old and change.
I turn to Mom with a smile. “Now we just have to wait. It’ll be ready soon.”
She smiles back at me, nods. Together, we head back into the dining room, where the rest of the family waits.
Most importantly, I learned when it comes to doing anything for your family, you just have to do it with love.