Saturday before taxes were due, many would-be badauds and flaneurs in search of lagniappes found a great way to procrastinate--by pretending to be Cajuns. Some of the teams at the Cajun Cook-off for Girls Inc. in Avondale actually did bring in some ringers, though. Bradley Arant, for example, conjured some gumbo voodoo all the way from Baton Rouge, disguised under the pseudonym of Simmery Judgment.
Other teams actually paid homage, with their smooth, slightly toasted roux, to their French-Canadian cousins who were evicted from Canada by the English imperials. And that is how the French and Indian War came to influence our food.
When you read in your history book about the British trick of scaling the chalk cliffs by night to surprise the French the next morning on the plains of Quebec, they did not tell you in school that the redcoats (not known for their own culinary brilliance) were changing the course of American cuisine and giving it some real originality--by their cruel exile of the vanquished Frenchmen to then-Spanish Louisiana.
And the Indians (not from Mumbai or Kerala--we are talking the Native American variety) showed up again to put their own influence on some of our best-known indigenous dishes--with the ground sassafras leaves those Gallic exiles turned into gumbo filé. And the Merrill Lynch team added a nice grace note of reference to our indigenous people, by adding corn to their gumbo, as well as chunks of tomato--another famous vegetable that also originated in North America (imagine a time when Italians knew nothing about it).
And you know if you have ever been to Montreal that those Quebecois never would have run into any people from more balmy continents way up there in the cold. They had to go to the American South to encounter the homesick slaves who brought some of their native plants with them from Africa. And one very important plant seed pod formed the essential ingredient in what became New Orleans´ most famous dish. We call it okra, but the West African name (still used in Cuba) was kimbobo, and a few similar variants. And that is how, with some little mix-up and a slight mispronunciation of the Bantu language, we got the name for gumbo. (Okra came from okwuru, in the Igbo language of Nigeria).
Well I was pleased as I could be to slip in there anonymously and help judge the contest. For me, these were some of the touches I was looking for, either of authenticity or creativity, and some of the highlights:
The overall winners in the gumbo/ jambalaya category, Yates Bait Shop (I hate to inform you, but they don´t really sell bait, but are construction contractors--the bait motif was merely a guise) brought out their gumbo in really neat fish-shaped mugs. That was a big hit with the other judges. I thought the mugs were neat, too, and that had its own visual appeal, but I marked on my scorecard that it hampered the ability to see the gumbo. And I am a big believer in seeing what I am eating, and like Bunny the food ought to be good-looking.
But the seasoning was excellent, as fellow judge Sous-chef John Washington of Café DuPont agreed. It had a subtle spiciness that grew on your palate. The broth was light and the roux only slightly toasted, at least that is what my taste buds told me. But I liked the consistency that I say a good gumbo has to have--I call it a nice okra sliminess. I also liked the graininess of the Yates renditon (again, thank the Choctaw for their influence) with a nutty al dente rice mixed in along with plump, slightly crunchy okra seeds.
Yates made another change I liked to the Louisiana variant of French mire poix. This common Gallic vegetable mixture on the other side of the pond consists of onion, celery and carrots. The traditional Cajun version (I guess they couldn´t grow carrots underground in the swamps) is made of onion, celery, and green bell pepper. But Yates recoded the color to poivrons rouges. That is red peppers to me and you in Alabama. Well, it won first prize.
Those simmery judgment lawyer people had some raw authentic touches with cartilage from the joints of the meat in the gumbo for a gelatinous crunch, along with whole crab claw pincers and shrimp in the shell. I thought I was in China. And the most daring entry came from Crestwood North with their chicken sausage gumbo. With its braised meat, savory broth, and pasty little balls of mashed potatoes, I thought I was eating Pho Gumbo in a Vietnamese restaurant.
The WDs won my spirit award--they are just a group that likes to get together and cook and say Who Dat. They clearly had an authentic Cajun in the bunch who lacked any inhibitions. Go Saints (just don´t put a bounty on knocking out the judges).
Well there´s lots more to tell about the other participants, but for more information, go to http://bhamweekly. com/birmingham/article-2992-cajuncook-off-raged-in-linn-park.html.
Or go to www.bhamweekly and search for the author Anonymous.