Every New Year’s Day friends and family gather around for my mother-in-law Val’s famous gumbo. At 96 years old, Val is a beautiful, gracious hostess and still able to make a spicy simmering pot. It’s 2020, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic our family wasn’t able to travel to visit her this year. For the first time in my life, I made Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner entirely on my own. On the verge of a new year, the time had come for the ultimate challenge- Val’s delicious gumbo.
I started by calling Val to ask for the recipe. A meticulously organized woman, she was able to send it to me within minutes. Based on the notes, the recipe was originally from Mikie Wiley, a family friend and bowling partner. Val found it on the back of a bowling sheet dated October 2, 1968. Val used the recipe as a general guide, and added her own variations over the years. There are cross outs and revised directions. As is the case with most old family recipes, the ingredients were written down, but there wasn’t much detail on the cooking methods. It’s also well known that making gumbo isn’t an exact science. Val’s notes actually say that no two pots are exactly alike. Making good gumbo really tests the artistic and improvisational aspects of a person’s cooking skills. Like life, you have to prep and plan, but ultimately to need to feel your way through it and follow your instincts.
I prepped the ingredients and equipment, and then just before I started, I felt a pang of nervousness and excitement. This was the first recipe I had ever watched her make when Michael and I were engaged. I knew that this was her signature dish as the matriarch of the family, connecting one generation to the next. I wanted to do a great job.
I positioned a few ingredients together and posted a photo on social media. I invited friends to chime in with advice- my New Orleans friends in particular. Within minutes, there were over 50 comments. Some friends generously offered cooking tips, and others wanted to see photos when the gumbo was finished. Many lamented the fact that we can’t all get together to share.
I miss our extended family this holiday season, including all of the incredible meals that our relatives make every Christmas. Making this recipe brings the smells and tastes of Val's kitchen into mine, and makes everyone feel a little bit closer.
Happy New Year!