Nabakov presents – Deep Gumbo: Or, How I Dared The Big Easy To Blacken My Tongue While They Played Waltzing Matilda As I Was Offered A Boat Of Uncertain Length.

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I’m not much of a cook but I’m a real hellion when it comes to ordering up a good meal. Would the kitchens of New Orleans (“It’s pronounced ‘Nawlins’ man! You sound like a fuckin’ limey!”) be up to the challenge?

I arrived in the Big Easy on the evening of Friday 7 November 2008 after 26 hours on the Amtrak Crescent train from Washington DC. My sleeper was very cosy and the views magnificent.

Miles and miles and miles of forests in their glowing fall colours, tiny hamlets painted by Norman Rockwell, long stretches of failed dismal outer suburbs not painted by Norman Rockwell, more beautiful forests, enormous military depots in Georgia where the autumn light turned the ranks of Abrams Main Battle Tanks into squat bronze terrapins and then sunset over the plashy bayou before the final run along the Lake Pontchartrain causeway across oily black moon-rippled waters into the glowing crescent of Nawlins.

The sleeping car attendant was suavely attentive to my needs (“Smoking stop in 10 minutes Mr N.”) and the lounge car very damn elastic about bar closing hours. But the dining car offered some pretty fucking indifferent cuisine and service.

“We do steak and eggs. Or warm chicken salad. How would you like it?”

“On time?”

“You really don’t want to start dissing me here honey.”

So I was feeling distinctly peckish by the time we were decanted around 7.30pm at the Union Passenger Terminal in Nawlins – a chunk of 1950s moderne brave new world of mass travel – right next to the crappy concrete brut 1970s Louisiana Superdome (which is quite a lot smaller than the MCG by the way – but better lit up at night).

Five minutes later a taxi (helmed by a 300 pound bloke who appeared to live in it) dropped me at my hotel in the French Quarter – a 170 year old charmingly dilapidated, sprawling and eccentrically renovated southern mansion run by a charmingly dilapidated, sprawling and eccentrically renovated southern family.

After unpacking and frisking my whiskers, I asked the hotel’s matriarch where would be a good place for a louche gentleman on the loose to enjoy some quality local cuisine before flanuering into the night.

Thirty minutes later I headed out into the Vieux Carré armed with a hand-drawn map marked with Xs everywhere and much juicy gossip about local activities. (Corruption in Nawlins city council elections!!?! Shocked I was!)

So anyway, to cut a rumbling stomach short, I ended up in front of Oliver’s Creole Restaurant on Decatur St at about 9pm on a Friday night. The place was buzzing and looked unlikely to accommodate a lone traveler trying pot luck – but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I pushed through the swing doors and was immediately bailed up by the Restaurant Captain (An American variant of maitre d’) who looked and sounded like a wiry aging ex-hippy version of Burl Ives. Magnificent sideburns. Or as my grandmother called ‘em “bugger’s grips.” I chose not to share this observation with the man who was gonna get me a table.

Instead I did what we should all do in such situations. Clearly explain the nature of your proposed transaction while making it clear you will behave with the style and etiquette appropriate to the venue.

(While also making sure you don’t nonchalantly put your hand in your trouser pocket while it’s still holding a lit cigarette. As apparently one drunken Melbournian did at HR-57 on 4 November 2008 around 3am.)

OK, back on story. Me getting seated at Olivier’s on Decatur. On a Friday night.

“Good evening sir.”

“Hi, table for one thanks.”

“Do you have a reservation sir?”

“No, I just got off the train from DC and I’m hungry.”

“Is sir English?

“I’m Australian and still hungry”

“I’m sure you are sir. And you will paying how?…Yes MasterCard is fine.”

“Any chance the local cooking can get a bit spicy?”

“Spicy? Oh…really?…I think we can accommodate you sir. OK, I’m gonna hand you over to Andy here who will be serving you this evening.”

Enter Andy, a young black guy with a complete Buster Keaton stone face who showed me to a nice wall table well away from the kitchen and toilet doors.

A digression here. Dining alone in foreign cities can be a subtle pleasure if you handle it right. Just pretend yer Bogie in ‘Tokyo Joe’. Disclaimer: This advice may not work for the ladies. Unless you’ve got Humphrey Bogart’s attitude. Or looks.

Anyway I was seated and got the iced water right up front but just as I reached for the menu, Andy whisked it away.

“Um, I was gonna read that.”

“Nossir, you asked for spicy, we’re gonna give you spicy. Are you vegetarian or lactose intolerant?”


“OK then sir, we’re gonna let the kitchen see what they can do for you. Some lagniappe first, then the house gumbo, extra spicy. You see if you feel like some of our bread pudding afterwards. That OK?”

“Er…well…yes…OK I suppose…Hey I’d like a drink as well-“

“Sir, I’m gonna recommend this wine for you. By the glass or bottle?”

“Oh the bottle thanks…wait a minute, how much will all this all cost?”

“Sir, I guarantee you’ll get out alive for around fifty bucks…so far.”

“Make it so.”

And so began one of the most entertaining meals of my life.

The ‘lagniappe’ was a cartwheel of a plate populated with a pile of tasty little things from mushrooms stuffed with peppers stuffed with mushrooms stuffed with peppers to crab cakes the size and colour of mermaid toenails that exploded like tongue-tripped sea mines.

“This is bloody great! What do you call it?”

“I jus’ told the kitchen to make one extra of all the entrees going out and put it on the plate. You ready for the big course now sir?”

“Well perhaps another bottle of the Hartford first.”

“Y’know I thought you’d say that. Here it is. Enjoy sir.”

Meanwhile the 20+ table next to me was a family reunion getting raucous. Tropically torpid grandparents, bouncy and prosperous middle-aged mums and dads, bored and embarrassed teens and scampering toddlers.

In what I now understand is typical Nawlins style I was drawn into one of the tangential table conversations and then before I sorta realised it, my chair, plate, cutlery, glass and bottle were deftly moved to the big family table. Along with me.

“Yar Australian? Y’know we’ve always wanted to visit Australia. Uncle Henry’s got sum great stories about Sydney in the 70s.”

“I read yah doing some mighty interesting things with those stem cells down there under.”

“Shame Marie ain’t here. Wouldn’t he jus’ love Marie? Are you married?”

“Say, you heard of Tennessee Williams? He wrote a lot about Nawlins.”

“Y’know the big problem with Obama? He’s from Chicago. Those Northerners rilly think their farts don’t smell too?”


“Jus’ tellin’ it like it is darlin’”

“So you’ve heard of Huey Long? Well let me tell you about the Kingfish.”

“So I hear tell this Melbourne Cup is quite a horse race”

“Can I freshen your bottle sir?”

Then my extra extra spicy spicy gumbo gumbo arrived arrived.

“Whoo-ee! Who’s that for?”

“The Australian gentleman here who was speculatin’ about whether our local cuisine would leave an impression.”

“Ooh, you are so in for it now honey.”

An enormous bowl, orangey-brown, lumpy and fragrant. Steaming and bubbling like the death throes of a screen villain. Radioactively throbbing like a Nawlins city council election.

As I braced myself, fork in hand, the Captain loomed up and coyly asked if I liked the music. The bastards were now playing through the restaurant PA, Tom Wait’s “Waltzing Matilda”. Andy was lurking deadpan. A dozen faces at the table were turned on me with expectant smirks. I was trapped, surrounded by American hospitality. I had no choice but to dig in. Our nation’s honour was at stake.

Hot! Hot! Hot! But delicious. And hot! HOT! REALLY FUCKING HOT! NOT CURRY HOT! NOT CHILLI HOT! ANOTHER KINDA HOT! DELICIOUS! BUT REALLY HOT!…HOT!!!!!! H.O.T. h o t HHOOTT!!!!#$@@&^&&^%$#@^*!

So what’s the recipe? Well that proved easier to ask than to answer. Andy said he really couldn’t say and the Captain said he would “make enquiries”.

Eventually a cheerful chef wandered out from the kitchen and after admiring my red and perspiring face for a minute said she really couldn’t say there was any kinda exact recipe as such but rather really that it was sorta hand-me-down thang that they really kinda kept adapting according what was sorta really available and how much was really kinda needed. The words “sorta” and “kinda” were used a lot. Really.

However the table had its own strong opinions about makin’ gumbo and proceeded to raise them with the chef and anyone else who could give a shit. After lively discussion between all concerned (including some kibitzers from other tables), I was left in possession of a pile of notes scribbled on napkins, coasters, boarding passes, business cards and someone’s school report which I have attempted to distill here as a recipe for very hot Nawlins old school gumbo.,.for y’all parfait gentle readers .

Very Hot Nawlins Old School Gumbo – kinda serves sorta a bunch of folks. Really.

First find your restaurant and order. Or failing that, you will need:

  • A bunch of flour. “A bunch?” “It’s a local technical term. It means bigger than her fist but smaller than his head.” This will require a pot/saucepan/smoke-blackened family heirloom.
  • A bunch of white long grain rice. See above. This will also require another pot/etc.
  • Several shot glasses of cooking oil.
  • A smoked ham the size of a catwalk model’s buttock – diced into dice cubes.
  • Shrimp. How much? ”Well how much do you like shrimp honey?”
  • Enough chopped onions, green peppers, tomatoes and okra to fill a third of a big pot. An even mix between ‘em. “Um…how big is big?” “How hungry are you honey?”.
  • A shot glass of heavily traumatised garlic.
  • A tablespoon of cayenne pepper – or to taste.
  • A tablespoon of black pepper – or to taste.
  • Some secret (or at least incomprehensible) ingredients. “Sand? Did you say ‘sand’? I distinctly heard you say ‘sand’.”
  • A tankard of the jus left over from the last gumbo – “the starter”.

Smodge the oil and flour together in the biggest pot on low to medium heat until the mix turns the colour of post-Mardi Gras eyeballs.

Throw in all the vegetable matter, the spices and half the tankard of former gumbo jus, an’ probably 250 grams of water as well so it doesn’t dry out, whack a heavy lid on and simmer for around the length of the 1949 film version of “All The King’s Men” or until fair and transparent electoral processes come to Louisiana. Whichever comes first. Think at least two hours minimum regardless.

By now you should have also boiled the rice in the other thingy to a consistency where it’s sticky but wherein each grain also retains its structural integrity. Chuck the rest of the gumbo jus in with the rice and simmer for the length of how long she can walk on gilded splinters.

Dollop the flavorsome rice into the largest concave plate at your disposal. Then pour the lava over it.

OK, it’s not much of a technically precise recipe. But, as far as I could work out, them Nawlins food pixie pirates basically deal with a good gumbo the way Ponce De Leon thought he could handle the fountain of youth.

By all means, google proper quantities, qualities, temporal attitudes and appropriate ingredients. But don’t forget a good gumbo is an ongoing concoction managed with local style. Like an Anglo-Saxon pea and ham soup simmering away over a long winter.

“It’s all about the vibe.”


YOUR CORRESPONDENT fanning his TONGUE while contemplating Andrew Jackson’s FORCIBLE IMPOSITION upon the NATURAL ORDER of NEW ORLEANS. One of the very few times I’ve ever felt simpatico with the belligerent bloodthirsty old fart.


The chef’s parting words as the great gumbo discussion heated up were “Go the Bread Pudding after. Lotsa starch and carbos that’ll cut the heat.” And she was right. And it was delicious too.

By now it was dessert time and everyone at the table under the age of 25 had either buggered off or fallen asleep. The liqueurs and Irish coffees were being distributed. And suddenly next to me was a tiny silver-haired foxy old grandpa, leering away. Think a very old Burgess Meredith just escaped from a ship in a bottle.

“Aussie right? Big island? You guys must sail a lot?”

“Well…yes…dabbled a bit. Mainly Hobie Cats and-“

“Whaddya think of this?”

‘This” was a rather crumpled photo of a nice 20 foot sloop.

“Nice sloop”

“30 feet of sea loving there. And she could be yours for twelve grand. You could sail her back.”

“Well yes it is a very nice boat but I already have a return airline ticket. I must say is it really 30 feet?”

“Of course it is. Here, hold the picture like this.”

“Dad! Stop it! Jeff! He’s doing the boat thing again.”

“Elle! Is your pa doing the boat thing again?”

“I dunno. It doesn’t look like 30 feet to me.”

“How can you tell sonny?”

“Well, you standing next to it does provide some perspective.”

“Eight grand! It’s got some fine stowage points those government bastards will never find.”

“C’mon dad.”

“Well OK it’s more liking to 25 feet. But she goes like a goddamn bird.”

“You wanna get his shoes Elle?”

“Gimme back my picture!”

“Nice to meet you Mr …mumble mumble.”

“Four grand!”

“I’m so sorry. He’s not normally like this.”

“Yes he is Elle! We hafta to talk about this.”

The Captain swept the door open with deadpan aplomb as family members bustled Grandpa to a car. Judging from the look on his face, it was not the first time the Captain had had to usher out this senile pint-sized pirate.

“So sorry about that. Dad is y’know…senior moments”

“Yeah I understand…Nice boat though.”

“Probl’y why he’s sold it three times already.”

By now it was after 11pm and the naughty naughty sinful jazzrnbdiscobluestechnoswamp dins of iniquity on Decutar and Frenchmens Street were calling to me. I made the international signing the bill signal at Andy.

“Nossir. It’s all been picked up by the parties who booked this table.”

“Really? Do they have any idea how much I drank.”

“We all do. We’re impressed.”

“There must be someone here I can give money to.”

By now those left at the table were either rather crestfallen after granddad’s freak-out, shipping sleeping toddlers out to SUVs and/or double-checking cell phone details for teenage spawn loose in Faubourg Marigny.

I tried to explain why I should at least pay for something. But apparently Southern hospitality would be permanently shamed by a visitor forking out for anything so I rolled with the flow, discretely added a Benjamin and a Grant to the tips pool, shook hands and kissed cheeks all around, laid a smoldering but unrequited look on Elle, a very svelte fortysomething Louisiana soccer mum, and headed out into the night.

Then the wormwood-infused absinthe Duke Ellington mashups, nude boogie tarot card readings, techno hand of glory zydeco and Baron Samedi-spiked cocktails stuff all happened.

But that, as they say, is another story.

33 thoughts on “Nabakov presents – Deep Gumbo: Or, How I Dared The Big Easy To Blacken My Tongue While They Played Waltzing Matilda As I Was Offered A Boat Of Uncertain Length.

  1. FXH you simply must blog about the cocktails of N’awlins … I could try but it wouldn’t be half as good as this post. My favourite line from Louisiana, uttered by the Gulf War veteran scion of another ‘charmingly dilapidated, sprawling and eccentrically renovated southern family’ (whose patriarch assured me he was not racist because he was quite fond of Dorita Hafner), was this:

    ‘Every Australian I’ve ever met was a whole heap of fun’.

    You are continuing a noble tradition FXH!

  2. “I’ll cross your palm with silver for it.”

    As long as you stop halfway and let go.

    And yes, down the really sleazy end of Bourbon St, a live (or going by the photos on display outside “undead”) sex club was offering nude tarot readings as ZZ Top blasted out through the swing doors. I was tempted but something told me it wasn’t really on the cards that night.

  3. Yeah, see, this is why I love blogging. Most high-end food mags would be all over that like a starving yabby and then turn round and sub-edit it down till it could bland for Australia. Pfft.

    Re the nude tarot thing, any fortune teller worth her crystal ball could probably tell a whole heap of stuff about people’s futures by getting a good look at them with their kit off.

  4. If yer going to Nawlins, I can throughly recommend where I stayed.

    Right smack bang in the middle of the French Quarter.

    The prices on the website are more of a guide really. Feel free to dicker a bit.

    And the place’s history is even more colourful than they’ll admit to on their website. EG: During WW2 and the fifties, it was one of the Big Easy’s major cathouses.

    “Please keep in mind that all of our rooms and suites are completely individual in terms of size, layout, shape, and décor.”

    They’re not fucking kidding. I scored an attic penthouse suite for US$70 a night. King-sized bed in a king-sized room. A bit musty but amazing florid flock wallpaper and and an enormous carved oak desk. Having plush carpet in the bathroom was a bit odd though.

    But then the whole joint is bit odd. For example, it’s got only one lift, the size of a telephone booth – manufactured by the “Jolley Elevator Company of Louisiana” – which you can only reach by ducking underneath a spiral staircase.

    But the place is very friendly and lassiez-faire. EG: Some member of the family who runs the place offered us a joint as I sand ome other guests were unwinding under a Banyan tree by the leaf-clotted and unswimmable pool one afternoon while listening to someone practicing jazz flute on the roof of the next building over.

    However Olivier House also provides subtle and alert family-based security. I’d recommend it for single female travellers, not least because it has a 50something new agey yet very worldly matriarch in charge who keeps an eagle eye on everything and will tolerate a lot but not any infringement of classic Southern hospitality.

    I’m going back.

  5. “And having been drinking with Nabs, I have no doubt it is all completely true.”

    Not completely all of it. I had to take some liberties with the dialogue as it never sounds so precise in real life. Especially Grandpa the crazed yacht broker who was a lot more mumbly in reality.

    However ’tis true part of the gumbo recipe was written on someone’s school report. If you’re reading this Aaron D********, you need to focus more on Math and not be so easily distracted.

  6. Well, accurately transcribed dialogue rarely even makes sense, much less pushes the story along. I thought that in general it had that unmistakable ring of authenticity. Especially the bit where your entire place setting gets moved to the big table and someone puts on Waltzing Matilda. I would have started sobbing at that point.

  7. “…could probably tell a whole heap of stuff about people’s futures by getting a good look at them with their kit off.”

    “Staring into your crystal balls, I predict you will not have much of a future as a championship Thai kickboxer…”

  8. thanks for the link since it includes the elusive pickled vegetable component but yr probably correct that the inner south is not quite the french quarter:)

  9. Butbutbutbutbut… *Splutter*

    This is an impossibility! Your recipe calls for

    A tankard of the jus left over from the last gumbo – “the starter”.

    So… you can never start making gumbo. Only the people who have been making gumbo for generations can make it! And if you accidentally drop the tankard, then not even then!

    And how did those Nawliners who’ve been making Gumbo for generations get started, anyway, since it’s an impossibility? Must have been visited by some supernatural character similar to the spirit of Jazz in the Mighty Boosh – the Spirit of Gumbo.

    And another thing. I’ve never dared make gumbo because if you get liquid anywhere near Okra, you get an incredible amount of mucilaginous muck, I’ve been told. My Indian friends tell me they fry it kind of dry and don’t put it in wet dishes – of which Gumbo is definitely one.

    Since I’m a big fan of wet ricey spicey one-dish meals, please put me out of my misery someone and tell me the okra secret plus how I get the Spirit of Gumbo to visit my kitchen with some Starter. (Presumably I could ask a returning tourist, but it’d be confiscated at Customs, no doubt.)

  10. That was absolutely a great read. Good stuff Nabs.

    I did Nawlins in ’96. Highlight was when I was involved in a live performance of a Zimbabwean, Ghanian, Chinese, German and Australian all walk into a bar.

  11. Totally agree okra works in gumbo, so yumbarama and enjoy the First Gumbo conundrum. I think you can start a gumbo if you have a proper roux. This is not what we know from Francophilic cookery. Roux in France is of course flour cooked in sufficient butter to make a tasty paste, either buerre blanc or buerre noisette, depending on the extent of browning (noisette meaning nutty, of course).

    Roux in Nawlins is an astounding thing which starts with butter and flour but ends with a black oily substance best stored in nuclear bunkers. Additions include file powder and other things that help along the heat Nabs suffered. Why anyone ever thought it was food is beyond me. Just one of the mysteries of Louisiana.

    Funny, just now watching Bones [goes to New Orleans so we can include forensic stuff and voodoo tricks]. Gives much less a sense of the city than Nabs did.

  12. Nabakov (can I call you Vlad?), thanks for bringing a little gumbo spice to my rather mundane Adeladie motel room. I was eating a bowl of microwaved scrambled eggs enhanced with a tin of corn kernels when I came across your post. Made me wish I had some hot sauce, a bit of jazz and a bottle of absinthe to wash it down with.

  13. you louche lush! that was a cracking post 🙂

    btw lagniappe means, loosely, a gift from your host, or a little something extra.

  14. “And how did those Nawliners who’ve been making Gumbo for generations get started, anyway, since it’s an impossibility?”

    Good point Ms Smartypants. I shall return to Nawlins as soon as I can to seek an answer. Don’t wait up.

    “if you have a proper roux.”

    Aha! Some of my notes start to make bit more sense now. I thought they were just teasing me about roos at one point. But yes roux is probably what was really meant by my use of ‘jus’. Anyway it was never meant to be a proper recipe, more piratical ‘guidelines’.

    “btw lagniappe means, loosely, a gift from your host, or a little something extra.”

    I’m sure it does in many quarters. In Nawlins it appears to mean “get that in you and then we’ll get this party started.”

    And happy to dilate at length on drinkin’ in Nawlins but not sure it’s worth a post in its own right. Perhaps if the Devil Drink pulled his cork out and retransubsantiationed himself here to lead a thread here about what really makes a good bar good…

  15. Perhaps if the Devil Drink pulled his cork out and retransubsantiationed himself here to lead a thread here about what really makes a good bar good…

    Yah, though I’m pretty sure TDD’s a screw-top.

  16. Nabs – top stuff mate.

    A roux is just the flour and fat you fry at the start – though as DSO says, in Norlins they do the browning for long enough to elicit a ‘sacre bleu’ from your average froggy.

    But the ‘jus’ definitely refers to liquid from the last one, and ain’t no roux gonna cut it no matter how blackened.

    My tip for avoiding the Gumbo Existential Reductio ad Absurdum would be to make your first one with a stock of ham hocks with prawn heads and shells. Simmer ham hock (maybe some onion ends and carrot and celery tops) for an hour, then chuck in prawn parts for another 15 mins.

    I guess eat this first one alone or with non-judgemental friends, then proceed with confidence.

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