I won’t pretend for a moment that I’m qualified to tell you how to make a roux or okra. I’m neither Creole nor Cajun, but 38% of my DNA comes from Western Europe, which includes France – and from where the cooking techniques that most influenced the two groups mentioned above came from. For people unfamiliar with roux, it is simply a mixture of equal parts fat and flour cooked to varying degrees and used as the basis for sauces, especially okra. The recipe is simple, but the process can be nerve-wracking.
My precious mother-in-law, Ouida (pronounced WEE-duh) Rasberry, cooks up gumbo for special occasions or anytime she can get her hands on some fresh Mississippi Gulf Coast shrimp. Served with hot rice, it was always the most requested meal on family birthdays.
My father-in-law, James, was one of Roe’s fiercest critics. We held our breath until he made a judgment on the thickness and color of the tenderness laid before us. Most of the time, he’d say, “Woe, your Roe is just right.” There have been several times where he has said bluntly, “This roux is a bit too skinny and dull.” And she answered, “Thaaanks,” in the most ironic tone her gentle spirit could muster. I wanted to hit him upside down with a hot pan. Of course, even if it was thin and pale, that wouldn’t stop him from coming back for seconds and thirds.
The gumbo Ouida was top notch, and as far as I know, her recipe (which was included in the handwritten cookbook she gave me for Christmas several years ago) was all I needed to know. Her mom showed her how to make it, and she passed it on to me. I’ve tried and refined it over the years, but the rule for her recipe still holds. Both our ways of cooking okra are part Creole (tomato-based) and part Cajun (roe-based).
Sooner than I would have liked, she became the mother of the Mulberry clan. Owaida passed away at the age of 97, but I had been taking her prescription for years because her health was deteriorating. It was a daunting task that terrified me as I stood over an iron skillet and began making the only thing that would turn gumbo into something catastrophic or legendary: a roux. The goal is to cook the flour and oil together—slowly, patiently, lovingly, confidently, and attentively—until the color of an old copper coin or darker. There is a fine line between dark enough and disaster. Only instinct, sight, and smell (which come with experience) can distinguish between the two.
The first time I tried making a roux, I looked in my wallet and pulled out the oldest penny there. It was from 1972 and had obviously been around the US a few times. You should have seen me look at that coin in my left hand over the pan and flip it over with a wooden spoon in my right hand. the phone rang. I left the penny and spoon to answer it. I swear it was only for a few seconds. The roux burned and the smoke alarm sounded. A hissing fit descended, stepped on my feet, grabbed the bowl, and ran into the yard, and disaster poured out. I wiped my eyes, lifted the smoke, and then pulled on my Weeder pants to start over.
This was a long time ago. I now have gallons of okra and dozens of pans (almost) of the perfect roux under my cooking belt. I’ve learned that it can be ruthless, selfish, and demanding. It has to be the center of attention, or it will give you a hyper wake-up.
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