Saturday, November 20, 2010

Five ways writing a book is like making gumbo

Last week I posted my personal gumbo recipe, and lest you fear this blog is turning into a cooking show, let me demonstrate my one and only superpower: relating *everything* to writing.  (Okay, maybe it’s more like a sickness than a superpower.)  Anyway, it occurred to me that all creative processes share similarities, and cooking gumbo shares a lot in common with writing a novel.  Allow me to expound:

1)  You need to have the right tools.

I wouldn’t make gumbo without my favorite pot and my long wooden spoon.  A sharp knife helps, too.  If you’re going to write a book, you need your tools, and I don’t just mean grammar and an ear for dialogue.  You need space (mental and physical) to write and your laptop or notebook or typewriter: whatever makes it easy for you to get words on the page.  I could probably make a passable gumbo with an aluminum pot and a dull knife, and I’m sure I could use pen & paper instead of my laptop when I’m writing, but it just wouldn’t feel the same.

2)  Patience pays off

It takes a long time to make a roux.  It’s boring.  Sure, I get some satisfaction out of watching the flour slowly brown, but honestly, there are dozens of things I’d rather be doing.  The thing is, if I rush the roux and stop it before it’s ready, the resulting gumbo is bland an unsatisfying.  I get the same unsatisfying result when I rush a story.  I have to put in the (sometimes boring) time editing every scene until it shines, or the finished product will fall flat. 

3)  It takes time to make it your own

When I first started cooking gumbo, I followed my mother’s recipe to the letter.  I was learning.  I didn’t know enough to improvise.  It took a lot of years and many failed batches before I started to make the recipe my own, and now, I can tell the difference between my gumbo and my mother’s with just one bite.  I don’t love my mother’s gumbo any less just because I’ve got my own version: It’s hers; it tastes like home and family and Christmas Eve in front of the fire.  There’s room in the world for as many variations as are worth eating.  The same holds for writing.  When I started out, I was mimicking some of my favorite authors, but over time, my own voice came through.

4)  Sometimes you have to skim off the fat

With all the sausage and oil and chicken that go into making gumbo, there’s bound to be some fat rising to the top of the pot.  It doesn’t add to the flavor, and it interferes with the texture of the soup, so I skim it off and toss it out. Sometimes I think my brain works the same way.  I’m throwing so many ideas around in my head, there’s always some stuff in there that doesn’t belong in a book.  Once I've got a full draft down, it's easier to see the parts that aren't adding anything to the story.

5)  It’s much better when you share it

I almost always make gumbo for a crowd.  It's not that I don’t love eating it myself, it’s just much more fun to make a big pot, have a group of people over to watch college football, and sit around and talk with our bowls in our laps.  Writing’s the same way.  I’m creating something that’s meant to be consumed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Gumbo Recipe

There are as many gumbo recipes as there are cooks.  It's something I grew up hearing, and I think it's true.  Mostly.  Some things are not gumbo.  I once ordered "gumbo" in a restaurant in San Francisco and got some sort of clear-brothed soup with chunks of carrots (carrots!) and fancy chicken-apple sausage.  This is not gumbo.

THIS is Gumbo:

Dark broth, sausage that will give you a heart attack, and definitely no carrots.  Today, I'm sharing my personal recipe, but you’d better have good sausage and a good pot, or I take no responsibility for the outcome!

Step One: 
Get four onions, four stalks of celery, and two green bell peppers. Chop ‘em up.  Small is good, but you don’t have to be anal about it.  (An example of how gumbo recipes differ: my mother doesn't use bell peppers in hers.)

Step Two:
Load up your iPod and get a cup of coffee.  You’re gonna be at the stove for the next hour, no breaks.  Here's my setup, including my favorite coffee cup:

Step Three:
Get your pot.  Dump in one cup of corn oil and one cup of bleached flour.  (No substitutions!  Bleached flour absorbs the oil better.)   Mix until there are no lumps.  Once you’ve got a smooth paste, turn the heat on medium.  Stir CONSTANTLY, covering the entire base of the pot, until the mixture heats up, then turn the heat to low.   Keep stirring.  

Step Four:
Keep stirring.

Step Five:
Has it been half an hour yet?  If so, take the following quiz to see if you’re done.

My roux is the color of...
A) …my self-assembled IKEA birch-finish bookshelf.
          Are you kidding?  Not even close.  Is the fire on?
B) …a penny (a not-so-new one).
          Almost there!  Don’t give up.
C) …a Hershey bar.
          You’re done!  Pour in those chopped vegetables (quick!  before it burns!) and keep stirring. 
D) ... a Hershey bar with little cookie pieces in it.
          Ummmm...sorry to have to tell you this, but you burned it.

Here's my roux in progress.  Not-quite done roux:

Done roux:

Step Six:
Once you've added the vegetables, you don’t have to stir so often, just every minute or so to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom.  When the vegetables have wilted down to about half their original volume, add half a tablespoon of chopped garlic, stir for another minute, and start pouring in chicken broth a little at a time.  Don’t stop stirring while adding the broth.  At this stage, your gumbo should look like something the dog threw up on the couch...

...but it should smell amazing.  Keep stirring & adding chicken broth.  Your gumbo consistency is up to you.  My mom makes hers a little it thin; I’ve modified the recipe to make it a little thick. 

Step Seven:
Put in a chicken.  (Make sure you take out the organs & neck from the cavity!)  Add two bay leaves and a couple teaspoons of crushed, dried rosemary.  Bring the gumbo to a simmer and let the chicken cook until it is literally falling apart.  This will take 2-3 hours.  Fish out the bones and & pick off all the meat, then throw it back into the pot.  Let it cool a little and skim the fat off the top.  Cook it some more.  (It is impossible to overcook gumbo.)

When  you're ready to serve it, adjust the seasoning with Tony Chachere's (or the seasoned salt of your choice) and add a bunch of chopped up parsley.  Cook a pound of sausage and throw it in.  Your gumbo is done!  Serve it over rice, topped with green onions and file (powdered sassafras).  I let my guests add the hot sauce themselves.  Yum!

Friday, November 5, 2010

You Gotta Have the Right Sausage

After finishing a critique of my manuscript, one of my beta readers told me, “I was hungry when I finished your book!”  It’s true; there’s a lot of cooking and eating in my WIP.  Hey, food is a big deal!  The kitchen is an important place—it’s where we gossip, share secrets.  It’s the emotional center of a house, which anyone who’s ever thrown a party knows.  I may be wrong, but I think this is especially true in the South, where food and cooking are huge parts of the culture and community.  

Some of the foods I grew up with (like thin, crispy cornmeal-battered fried catfish and New Orleans-style cafe au lait) can't really be found anywhere but home, but The Enabler and I do our best to recreate our favorites out here.  It isn't always easy.  As much as we love San Francisco, one of the problems with living in California is the lack of good sausage.  Southern comfort food—gumbo, jambalaya, red beans & rice—requires GOOD SAUSAGE: fatty, don’t-wannna-know-what’s-in-it, heart-attack-inducing sausage.  I’ve despaired of finding it anywhere but the South.

Luckily, every six months or so, we either make a trip home, or someone comes out to visit.  These trips are great opportunities for sausage-smuggling.  We even have a special suitcase for it,The Amazing Traveling Bag:

 My mother bought it for a dollar at a thrift store, and it holds a Styrofoam cooler with four packages of Richard’s:

 I *love* Richard’s sausage.  No other will do.  (It's pronounced "ree-shards," and the tag line is "C'est Si Bon:" It's So Good.)

Of course, ingredients are only part of the story.  To make a good gumbo, you’ve got to have the right cooking implements, too: a long wooden spoon, a sharp knife, and most importantly, a pot.  Cast iron is best.  It holds heat better than steel or aluminum, so the heat gets distributed more evenly over the base.  When you’re making a roux, this helps avoid hot spots where the fire hits the metal, so you get nice, even browning. This is my pot:

 It was my grandmother’s, one of her many cast iron Dutch ovens.  It never gets washed with soap--that would destroy the baked-in "seasoning"--and since it's really too big for any of our cabinets, it lives on top of the stove year-round.  I can’t imagine making gumbo without it.

Next week, I’ll be posting my PERSONAL GUMBO RECIPE, complete with pictures.  (If you want to try it, you've got a week to find yourself a pot!)  Stay tuned!