Growing up in New Orleans makes food connoisseurs of us all. Who makes the best red beans and rice, jambalaya, shrimp etouffee or bread pudding? We are all experts on these matters of monumental significance and usually have to look no further than our mothers or grandmothers for the answer. In my case, I’m blessed to have also partaken of the culinary delights prepared by my great grandmother, Marguerite Victor Johnson, and of course, there’s my uncle Kenneth. Many of the staple dishes in my family have been passed down for generations and my family roots in this city go all the way back to the 1700’s. Today I’m sharing my family’s recipe for okra gumbo as well as the story about the time my mother, Yvonne, served the gumbo at a dinner party she held for Martin Luther King, Sr. and Coretta Scott King.
I’m pretty sure the year was 1971 when my mom and I went to Atlanta with a group that included her very close friend, Lydia Vallerie and her two children, Vaughn and Krystal. The Corpus Christi Elementary School Girl Scouts sponsored a bus ride to Six Flags in Georgia. The trip included tours of a few places around Atlanta, one of which was Ebenezer Baptist Church. The great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. co-pastored there with his father, who was known to all as Daddy King. I was very young, about 3, but I remember my mom telling me how important it was to honor Dr. King. I cannot tell you her exact words, but even at that tender age, facing the spot where Dr. King was laid to rest, I understood we were standing on sacred ground.
It was there at Ebenezer Baptist Church, that we met Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. He struck up a conversation with my mother after noticing the bus she exited was from New Orleans. He said he would be in town that weekend and asked her if she could make okra gumbo. She said yes, of course and the rest is a proud part of our family history.
The bus trip ended on a Thursday and Reverend King was scheduled to have dinner with my parents the following day on Friday. Fleeting moments of the trip to Atlanta are still vivid in my mind. I remember some of the amusement park rides, my friends, and seeing the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of the dinner party. I’m grateful for the pictures that survived Hurricane Katrina, and I’m happy to share them with you now. After agreeing to host Reverend King, my mother went right to work making phone calls to invite family and friends. Upon returning to New Orleans, there was a lot of shopping and cooking to do. Along with the gumbo, my mom served a roast, green peas and a tossed salad. Dessert was a choice between vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream along with almond flavored cake from McKenzie’s Bakery. It was quite an event considering there was only a day to prepare.
I have to warn you that my mother’s okra gumbo does not begin or end with a roux. Served in the warmer months, okra is deemed to be a coolant and a thickener. I could tell you this is the reason the roux is not necessary, but she doesn’t make a roux for filet gumbo either. In my family, okra and filet gumbo are all about the tomato paste. The tomato paste is what gives the gumbo body.
The dinner party was a success. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Coretta Scott King raved about my mother’s okra gumbo. Others who accompanied the Kings to New Orleans, but didn’t attend the dinner, called the next day to inquire about getting a taste because they heard how good it was. Well here’s your chance. The weather is warming up and it’s the perfect time of year to make it. Okra gumbo is also a great addition to any Easter dinner. I hope you try it and enjoy!
12 Pounds of okra
3 medium sized yellow onions
4 Green onions
2 Cloves of fresh garlic
1 Bay leaf
3 Pounds of stew meat
2 Large slices of seasoning ham
8 Blue crabs
3 Pounds of small shrimp
1 Small can of tomato paste
2 Tablespoons of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 Cup of cooking oil
You’ll also need two large pots. One should be at least a 16 quart pot and the other can be a little smaller.
Set the mood to cook: I recommend Ray Charle’s “A Man and His Soul”. It contains many of his memorable melodies and is a real treat.
Rinse the okra thoroughly and place on a clean kitchen towel. Wipe each individual okra dry before cutting off the tips. Slice the okra from the top down, then chop into pieces. Set aside.
Peel the dry outer skin from the onion and finely dice. Set the onion to the side.
The green onion must also be finely chopped. In this case, only use the bottom portion of the onion, chopping up to just above the bulb.
Peel the outer layers of dry skin from the garlic and chop the two cloves very finely, then set aside.
Rinse the stew meat and cut into small pieces. Salt and pepper meat, and set aside.
Remove the heads and tails from the shrimp, peel away the husks and devein. The easiest way to devein a shrimp is to lay it on its side, cut down the back of the shrimp with a knife and remove the vein. In case you don’t know, the vein is the black line running down the back of the shrimp. Throw the heads away, but be sure to keep the tails and husks. You will use these later to make the shrimp stock. Rinse the shrimp as well as the husks and tails thoroughly.
Fill your smaller pot with water, add the clean shrimp hulls and tails and boil until they turn pink. Remove the hulls and tails and throw them away. This is your shrimp stock. Set it aside until needed.
Always, always cook the okra in a sauce/saute pan until all the slime is gone before adding it to your gumbo. Heat 1/4 cup of cooking oil in your pan over medium heat, then add the okra and stir it until all of the slime cooks away. Set the okra aside.
Now it’s time to brown the stew meat. Over medium heat, add 1/4 cup of oil to your pan. Once the oil is heated, add the stew meet and stir until browned. Set to the side when done.
The seasoning ham must be cooked slightly using the same technique and set to the side.
In a pan over medium heat, add more oil and once heated, put in the onions and add the can of tomato paste and the sugar. Cook until the onions become translucent.
It’s now time to combine all the ingredients except the shrimp. Put the ingredients into the 16 quart pot and pour the shrimp stock over the ingredients until they are completely covered. Stir well and bring to a boil. Now reduce the gumbo to a simmer and add the shrimp. Cook for an additional 25 minutes and you’re finished! Serve over rice.