Food has always had an emotional connection for me. It symbolizes some of my happiest and saddest moments. My childhood was one of constant changes. There were days of being a latchkey kid. I would get home to my dark house with just a freezer full of frozen dinners to greet me. I can still feel the sadness of sitting at a table with just this tray of disappointment in front of me. Cursing the tv dinner gods for always getting corn into my apple crumble. To this day when I pass the frozen section in the store, an overwhelming sadness envelops me.
Then there were the days of warm kitchens and laughter. The times I would be in a small kitchen with the screen door slamming open and shut as people shuffled in and out. I loved to sit at the table and watch them cook. Watch as they stood in one spot for what seemed forever making roux. Smells of onions and stocks lingering in the air. The constant chatter as people chopped and stirred. This was when I felt most safe. This is where everything would always be all right. Life couldn’t be that bad if a bowl of gumbo was in my future.
My Aunts house was one of silliness and dancing. Inappropriate jokes with funny shaped breads and impromptu dance parties. My Dad's house was always had background of music that none of my friends knew or cared to know. He gifted us with his smart ass remarks as he prepared the chicken. In my Maw-Maw’s kitchen there was only the sounds of people chatting as they poured yet another cup of coffee. Oh and her occasionally reprimanding of us kids for running through the kitchen. The one thing they all had in common is the joy of cooking. I can’t remember one fight or frown when they were cooking. It was like genetically it had been predetermined - this was our happy place.
As my life changed, I had no idea how much the sounds and smells of those kitchens would get me through tough times. It is a long sad story that need not be told which found me in California. I was a teenager in a strange land. All of it was foreign to me - the smells, the sights, and the food. A little Cajun girl thrown into the heart of the Long Beach in the 1990s. It was a time of heavy gang activity, poverty and soon the LA Riots.
I remember the day we knew something horrible had happened. Our school was next to a National Guard Armory which was relatively quiet and empty most of the time. All of sudden there were people there and a buzz of tanks and other vehicles followed. Soldiers walking round in full uniform and fully armed. It was so sudden it took me aback - like I was seeing things. Then came the announcement over my school intercom. The principal starts to talk and all the words start to jumble together. “School is closed… riots… get home safely…” What did they mean? What was happening? Riots? Like in prison. As everybody packs up and heads to the now long line of cars for parent pick up. I head toward my bus stop.
It was a city bus ride home for me. We all sat there in shock. Looking out the windows you could see plumes of smoke rising in the air and people running past. A man tried to talk to me and I just bowed my head. Fear has now taken over my Southern Hospitality. It was a fear that seeped in, which I knew it would now be a permanent resident in my soul. The whole ride and walk home was fuzzy. Actually, most of it is a blur now. It was all so much.
Grocery stores were looted, stores were set on fire, people ran through the streets with arms filled with ill-gotten gains and martial law was declared followed by tanks coming down the streets. My neighbor and I stood outside and marveled at the smoke coming up all around us. You could turn 360 degrees and see a smoke rising from every angle. It felt like the world was on fire.
We were told over loudspeakers to head inside and stay away from windows. As we watched the world fall apart on TV with the noises to match outside our own windows, my brother and I were frozen. If it was hard on me what must have it been like for him? His world shattered in moments. One second coloring in the lines the next being yelled at to stay away from the windows so he doesn’t get shot.
When we were finally allowed to leave our houses it was liking walking out into a war zone. Tanks and burned out buildings. Everybody walking around with a glazed look in their eyes. Food was my first mission, we needed supplies urgently. All our local stores had been looted so it was a bus ride to the nearest, functioning, store where we stood in line for hours because they only let a couple people in at a time. We were only allowed to buy so much, so everyone had a chance to get nourishment. I started towards the frozen section but a memory stopped me. My brother had cried the night before, ‘No more Burritos Joji. No more burritos!” It stopped me and an overwhelming need of comfort food washed over me. I changed my direction and headed to find flour and oil. I would tell y’all the rest of the ingredients I picked up but I don’t want my Cajun card taken away. I made do with what I could find and headed home.
That night I stood over my stove for hours and made a roux. All the memories of warm kitchens and laughter flooded in. I am sure I did not make the best gumbo that night but what I did make was some healing. That gumbo built back some of my security and hope that we would be alright. We sat together over my mediocre gumbo and nourished our souls. From afar all my relatives were helping us. From that point on, when life got hard I knew if I could just stand at that stove and make a roux it was going to be okay because it couldn’t be that bad if a bowl of gumbo was in our future.
Food doesn’t just nourish our bodies it nourishes our souls. It has the power to remind of us of our families support even if it's from a million miles away. That little Cajun girl used everything she learned from those kitchens to bring us a reminder of the happiness we still had to look forward too.
I am sure you are wondering, “What the hell does this have to do with soup?” Not much, other than I love that it is an ingredient that you find in Latino and Cajun cultures and that represents two groups of people that have been very important in my life. One in Louisiana and one In California. Like I said, I connect food with happiness and this soup reminds me of being a young Cajun girl adjusting to life in California. Oh, and it is a damn good soup.