Making Gumbo for the Storm

Friday, August 26, 2011. The news reports have been predicting Hurricane Irene to smack into New York City in two days, as it edges up the East Coast. I think little of the warnings until I hear that they’re planning a system-wide MTA shutdown, unprecedented in New York City history. Whoa. This is serious. The lifeblood of the city. I don’t know the exact statistics, the population of straphangers in NYC, but I know that I don’t leave my neighborhood by foot if my destination’s more than 20 blocks away.

But a hurricane doesn’t think in terms of blocks, neighborhoods, subway stops, crosstown, or boroughs as we NYCers do. So what if it was supposed to impact downtown Manhattan or Queens the most? For a storm that was 600 miles wide at one point, would it really matter how long it takes us to commute to City Hall on the 6 train?

I began to worry. Fortunately Curtis and I are both from Florida, which has seen more than its fair share of hurricanes. Preparing for hurricanes is a skill that Curt learned at a young age. While I didn’t do much of the preparing in my parents’ house (my dad was the one to go out and get batteries – and once our hurricane pantry was full, we never had to break into it), I was at least aware of some of the preparations one takes in survival/possible disaster situations. Admittedly, some of my knowledge came from The Zombie Survival Guide, like filling my bathtub with water, but I assure you (and my landlord) that I did not destroy any staircases.

I met Curt at the grocery store – on Friday afternoon, it was still well-stocked – and when I arrived, he had 5 gallons of water and a case of Budweiser on our dolly. I smiled, and he said, “just the essentials.” We thought of what to buy for our potential hurricane. What would I cook, so we could have something that wasn’t just canned food in case we lost power?

As we rolled through the meat aisle, I picked up a family pack of chicken thighs and legs, a typical purchase for me. “Are you going to make fried chicken?” Curt asked, with a hopeful note. I thought for a moment, and realized that I wanted something that would stretch the meat out, something that was filling, nourishing and delicious. Fried chicken meals usually involve one or two pieces per person. That meal goes quickly, even with a family pack of chicken. “No,” I said, thinking quickly, “I want to make gumbo.”

I haven’t made gumbo in a few months – summer’s the wrong season for it, at least in my apartment, with no air conditioning in the kitchen. And since I made my decision in the grocery store, I forgot an essential ingredient (for me at least):  the sausage. I even looked at the Hillshire Farm kielbasa (my substitute for andouille), and tried to figure out if we should get it, then decided against it, because it’s a touch expensive, and I didn’t think we would use it anyway. Sigh.

It was only when I got home and started chopping the celery, bell peppers and onions, that I remembered a story I read in Best Food Writing 2010, “God Loves You and You Can’t Do a Thing About It,” a selection from Kim Severson’s memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. In this chapter, Severson details her visit to New Orleans three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. The focal point of Severson’s visit is Dooky Chase, the famous New Orleans restaurant celebrated for its authentic Creole cuisine, and the lauded chef Mrs. Leah Chase who’s been part of the restaurant since the 1950s:

When the storm came, Mrs. Chase had a freezer full of gumbo and crab, the same way she had forty years earlier, when Hurricane Betsy killed eighty-one people and injured more than 17,000. Back then, with no electricity , she knew it would all go bad. But she still had gas, so she cooked up everything she had and worked with the police so she could deliver her food to people stranded in their homes. Hurricane Katrina was different. Water breached the levees and flooded her restaurant before she could blink an eye.

 

I thought of how Con Edison was talking about cutting off the electricity, how the potential downed trees post-hurricane might cut off the electricity in a number of neighborhoods. I realized I have no idea how the grid system is set up. I have no idea what could affect my particular corner of New York City. How many people does it take to make this city run? If electricity was down, would gas go too? The bill is to the same people, but aren’t they actually exclusive of each other?

As I washed the vegetables in cold running water, I thought of how lucky I was, to be able to turn the faucet on and trust the water that comes out to clean our food, hands, bodies, ease our thirst. I recognized in my decision to cook gumbo, a desire to stretch our food, if needed. If somehow we were able to heat up the gumbo in blacked out days, (over a candle or something – this is before I reread the Chase story and realized she did have gas to cook with), we could at least share with neighbors and friends a cooked meal. I made extra rice in case the water also got cut off. In a split second lapse of judgment, I added too much water to the stew, so it turned out soupy and washed out the balance of flavor – though it was nothing that a little salt and pepper, an added roux couldn’t fix.

It wasn’t enough for an army of police, or even for all the residents of my building. And in the end it wasn’t necessary. I woke up on Sunday morning and looked out our window. The trees I said goodnight to were still intact, the streets wet but clear of debris and standing water. We were the lucky ones. But I knew that already.

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