There is only one way to make gumbo, Aleta Rivarde-Schexnayder told her daughters when she first taught them to cook. And that’s to follow the recipe passed down from her Creole grandmother.
Gumbo, the distinctively flavorful blend of seafood, meats and vegetables that makes use of French techniques and ingredients originally from Africa, is Louisiana’s signature stew. And for New Orleans-born Rivarde-Schexnayder and the thousands of other African American families in Los Angeles who claim a Creole heritage, it is also a tie to centuries of personal history in Louisiana.
No two families are alike and no two gumbos taste the same, she says. That’s why, as zydeco music booms from a nearby stage, Rivarde-Schexnayder is proud to be one of four home cooks sharing her fragrant melange of ham, beef sausage, vegetables, shrimp and blue crab at the 18th annual Louisiana to Los Angeles (LALA) Festival.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, preserving such Creole traditions has taken on new urgency for Angelenos who call New Orleans their hometown. “Katrina was a wake-up call,” says Denise Legaux, one of the owners of Harold & Belle’s, a leading Los Angeles Creole restaurant. “It’s a reality check on how vulnerable we are, and how vulnerable our culture is.”
Holding onto traditional gumbo recipes has come to symbolize the holding together and strengthening of the local Creole culture. This year organizers of the LALA Festival, the official start of the local Mardi Gras season, inaugurated the “gumbo cook-off” as a feature of the Creole celebration, held Feb. 11-12.
“After I visited New Orleans and saw the devastation, I knew we had to do something different at this year’s festival,” says Harold Hambrick, a director of the LALA Festival, who invited Rivarde-Schexnayder and others to share their gumbos and cooking tips with a community hungry for the food of their grandparents. If Los Angeles’ Creole diaspora wants to keep in touch with the heritage, it will have to support Creole culture here in Los Angeles, he says.
That reality was brought home to Rivarde-Schexnayder, who moved to Los Angeles with her husband and oldest daughter 20 years ago. After Katrina hit New Orleans, her L.A. household expanded to include her parents and her mother-in-law, a familiar story in a community that claims to be home to the largest Creole population outside of Louisiana.
Even before Katrina, Creole food showed signs of regaining its former popularity in L.A. After decades during which family-owned restaurants folded in the face of competition from fast-food chains, African Americans of Creole heritage opened two new restaurants in the last year: the Creole Chef at Crenshaw Plaza and the New Orleans Grille in Long Beach.
The migration of Creoles from Louisiana to Los Angeles started in the 1950s with tradesmen moving out of the segregated South seeking better educations for their children and better opportunities for themselves. In 1969 when he founded Bayou Talk, a newspaper serving the local Creole community, says publisher Louis Metoyer, “the hub of the community was around Harold & Belle’s, near Crenshaw Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue. That [neighborhood] was the center of Creole social life.”
As recently as 10 years ago, Bayou Talk was a 14-page monthly with a paid circulation of 3,000. Another 3,000 papers were dropped off at a dozen Creole restaurants around the city, he says. Today, he prints just four pages every couple of months and he drops papers off at only three restaurants.
There has never been a formal census of the Creole community, not even in Louisiana, according to historian Terrence Fitzmorris, dean of Tulane University’s University College. And there has never been a clear definition of who is, and who is not, a Creole, he says. Technically, the word connotes a “native” of a region, says Fitzmorris. And there are plenty of non-African American Louisianans claiming to be Creoles.
MEMBERS of the Creole community in Los Angeles define themselves by their mix of African and French colonial heritage. Spanish, Haitian and American Indian lineages also run through the community. With their roots in slavery, Creoles don’t always have the birth records or other documentation that prove ancestry.
Afro-Creole people, says Lawrence Powell, another Tulane history professor, “are a unique community that goes back to before 1800, the oldest black urban community in America.” They have a strong sense of belonging to a particular place -- the 7th Ward in New Orleans -- where they feel deeply rooted, he says. “They weren’t wiped out by Hurricane Katrina,” says Powell. “But they were damaged.”
When descendants of those early Creoles moved to Los Angeles, they tried to replicate that sense of community in the Crenshaw District.
“When I moved to 54th and Western Avenue as a 5-year-old, I thought I was still living in New Orleans,” says Michael Barichere, who cooked in a number of restaurants and was a co-owner of Bayou Grille in Inglewood before opening New Orleans Grille in Long Beach five months ago.
The stores were full of the Creole specialties that then were common in New Orleans’ 7th Ward. Barichere, who has a reputation for making authentic New Orleans gumbo, often finds himself explaining the difference between Creoles and Cajuns (the descendants of French Canadians who settled in rural Louisiana) to folks who come into his restaurant.
While it’s black and white to him, the public confusion is understandable, he says. Chefs claiming an Afro-Creole heritage are almost exclusively self-taught cooks working in mom-and-pop cafes. The two nationally recognized chefs cooking Creole food are Emeril Lagasse of Portuguese and French-Canadian ancestry and Paul Prudhomme, a Cajun.
“The food came out of slavery,” says Barichere, but Creole cuisine is also urban food, the food of a city where the abundance of the Gulf of Mexico was readily available in the seafood markets, and where fresh baguettes filled the bakeries. Cajun cuisine, on the other hand, is country style cooking, he says, with ingredients often drawn from hunting and fishing inland waterways.
All gumbo starts with roux -- a slowly cooked mixture of fat and flour. For gumbo, you let the roux cook until it’s brown; that’s what builds into a dark, rich broth. Many chefs, including Barichere, use butter. Although vegetable oil is common and some home cooks, including Rivarde-Schexnayder, brown their flour without butter or oil, the roux is what makes gumbo different from other stews.
Seeds from Africa
THAT’S just the start of the thickening necessary for true Creole gumbo. The word gumbo derives from an African word for okra, a plant that was brought to America as seeds by African slaves. Okra gumbo, thickened with that vegetable’s viscous juices, was a vegetable stew.
A separate type of gumbo was thickened with ground sassafras leaves, file, a Native American contribution to the dish.
Gumbo is an elastic dish, reflecting both the cook and local tastes. There are chicken gumbos, oyster gumbos and duck gumbos. According to at least one century-old Creole recipe book, gumbos once were primarily defined by one special ingredient. Today, most gumbos are a combination of meats, seafoods and poultry.
Rivarde-Schexnayder makes her gumbo with hot, smoked-beef links. She includes cubed ham, but not Cajun andouille sausage. Beef stew meat enriches her broth. The family secret, she says, is in the mix of herbs and spices, which pack a savory punch after a long, slow simmer with the meats. Before serving her gumbo, she adds boiled shrimp and cleaned and quartered blue crab in the shell.
If your family was poor, says Stanley Le Sassier, another gumbo cook at the festival, “you couldn’t waste anything.” His mother made gumbo with leftovers.
A veteran of World War II, Le Sassier was among the first Creoles to come to Los Angeles, attracted by the postwar boom in Southern California. L.A. was an “open” city compared with the racial prejudice he’d grown up with in the South, he says. “I could go further in life here.”
As Le Sassier’s life improved, so did the ingredients in his gumbo. He now uses both hot and mild beef sausage, shrimp and blue crab, cleaned and quartered. His broth is more of a soup than a stew sauce, and he likes his spices mild.
Today in Los Angeles restaurants, file gumbo is the overwhelming favorite; okra gumbo is difficult to find on menus. “Okra is a strange character, an acquired taste,” says Harold & Belle’s’ Legaux. “It has to be prepared really well or you get that slimy green taste. The secret is to cook the okra until all of the slime is cooked away. There isn’t much margin for error.”
Many Creole cooks believe a gumbo should include either file or okra, not both. But Terry Fortia, a recent Creole transplant to Los Angeles, likes to use them both in the same gumbo. A chef who trained in the private clubs around New Orleans, Fortia lost his home to Hurricane Katrina and has been working as a sous-chef at Memphis in Hollywood. He spices his favorite duck and andouille sausage okra gumbo with more than a tablespoon of file.
“Gumbo is that special dish served at Christmas or Thanksgiving,” says Fortia. “In New Orleans, every restaurant has a gumbo.” For his recipe, Fortia says he took the basics he learned from watching his mother cook at home and added things he learned working for other chefs.
At Barichere’s New Orleans Grille, gumbo is made with browned chicken thighs and smoked turkey sausage. Shrimp and lump crab meat are added at the very end. “It looks wonderful to put in the whole blue crab but, come on, how are you supposed to eat it?” he says.
With abandon, if the people devouring gumbo at the LALA Festival are any indication. There seems to be no substitute for picking up the crab and using your fingers to work the meat out of the shell. Utensils are optional but napkins are a necessity.
When Barichere makes gumbo for himself, he’ll toss a handful of lump crab meat into the broth with the meats. The crab is too delicate to survive the long simmer intact, but it adds extra flavor, he says. If his father is coming to dinner, he’ll add oysters as a special treat.
In most of the gumbos made in Los Angeles today, the sausage of choice is chicken, turkey or beef, often links made fresh each day at Pete’s Food Products, a sausage company on Jefferson Boulevard started in the 1960s by a Creole family from New Orleans. The Cajun andouille sausage that is common in New Orleans can be difficult to find in local Creole restaurants.
“We like our own sausages better,” Legaux says. “Andouille was all you could find in New Orleans but we have more options here.”
The “no pork sausage” rule in Los Angeles is a complicated story, according to Norm Theard, owner of the Creole Chef at the Crenshaw Plaza. “They think pork is poor people’s food here and they want nothing to do with it,” he says.
Theard moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans 14 years ago and still prefers his gumbo with andouille sausage. But although he offers andouille sausage gumbo at his restaurant, he says he’d be out of business if he didn’t also offer a pork-free version.
While Rivarde-Schexnayder’s faithful replication of her grandmother’s gumbo is one way of keeping her family heritage alive, ironically, it is the fact that gumbo is a personal dish, interpreted differently by each cook, that sustains the larger tradition. In Los Angeles, gumbo continues to evolve even as it speaks of its Louisiana home.
Times staff writer Cicely Wedgeworth contributed to this report.