Where I come from, lying is a sin only most of the time.
You can never lie to your parents, pastor, teacher or Scoutmaster. You are, however, allowed to stretch the truth when it comes to complimenting someone – especially a woman. In the South, we call those ‘white lies.’ ‘White lies’ work quite well when complimenting someone’s hair, clothing or blackberry cobbler – so long as you don’t get caught up in the web you’re weaving.
I was first busted in a ‘white lie’ by none other than my wife, a Jersey girl who was unacquainted with Southern customs.
The sauerbraten incident
It was some time in 1995, and we newlyweds were getting into the groove of going to Sunday dinner with her family. Though the meal and the company were always comfortable, I was elated to learn that my mother in-law this time would be preparing a legit festgelage — complete with kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), rotkohl (red cabbage) and sauerbraten, a traditional Deutschland-style beef roast. I’m a German, through and through. But I’d never had the main dish prior to that meal.
Whether it’s something reasonably simple – like eggplant parmesan – or painstakingly time-consuming – like sauerbraten – my wife’s mother is a cook. Period. Knowing her, she probably learned how to make an authentic sauerbraten from a German neighbor or family member. Instead of trying to make adjustments through the years (like most of us do), her efforts go into buying the best beef shoulder roast, and using exact measurements of allspice, gingerbread crumbs, red wine, and so on. The result is always a thing of beauty. And it’s absolutely delicious — if you like sauerbraten.
I learned – during the first bite – that sauerbraten is not my taste.
But, like any southern gentleman who is taught that lies told when complimenting someone don’t count against you, I chewed and swallowed, then took another bite.
‘Wow,’ I told my mother in-law as she looked my way for a reaction. ‘This is really delicious sauerbraten. It’s really rich.’
‘Thank you,’ she replied. ‘I marinated it for three days.’
‘I can tell,’ I said. ‘I can really taste the allspice. Nice.’
My new wife smiled. I could tell she was proud of her mom. She might have even been considering learning to make the dish, like her mother had done for her father. But, the conversation we had a couple of months later probably streichened those thoughts.
‘I have a surprise for you,’ my wife said. ‘You’re going to love it.’
‘Really? Are we going to Papaya Dog and to a Yankees game?’
‘No, silly,’ she responded. ‘My mom is making sauerbraten again, just for you!’
I was in trouble. I couldn’t fake it twice. Besides, I’d just worked up a hankering for some cheap New York City hot dogs.
‘Look, Catherine … I don’t really like sauerbraten. So, please tell your mom I’m sick, or something.’
‘What? Are you kidding me?’
‘No. It’s just tha—’
‘I can’t believe you!’ she shouted, cutting me off. ‘Mom works on this dish for days? You tell her how great it is? Now, all-of-a-sudden you don’t like sauerbraten? Do you lie just for the hell of it, Adam?’
‘I wasn’t lying,’ I said, in a feeble attempt to escape her wrath. ‘Your mom’s sauerbraten is fantastic … for sauerbraten.’
As the verbal beat-down continued, I learned that ‘white lies’ in New Jersey are apparently just lies, and that the proper thing to do is to just flat-out tell someone you don’t like something. So, we went to Mom’s for a wonderful German dinner.
‘Let me tell you, Lillian, this sauerbraten is even better than the last one,’ I said. ‘I really want to learn how to make this dish.’
Even as my wife shot me various looks of disgust, I continued to pour it on. And eat more sauerbraten. I think she became an honorary Southern woman soon following that incident. And it’s not just because her hair became bigger, and lipstick much brighter. Her palate also seems to have dramatically changed.
Just about every dish that I’ve made and served since then has been her absolute favorite … ever.
Mardi Gras in my part of the country is just part of life. Some people take it very seriously, and plan for months ahead their jaunt to New Orleans, while others (like myself) prefer to partake in the food and spirits from the comfort of our homes — or at least at a local themed fundraiser (and there are many). There is no wrong way to make gumbo, in my opinion, unless you omit okra. Though gumbo has roots all over the world, okra is the true namesake for this thickened soup. According to various horticultural historians, okra arrived in North America on slave ships from West Africa, where the pod was known as ki ngombo or quingombo. The other ingredients really depend on whether you are making the Cajun or Creole version, but any purist will also tell you that filé is also necessary to call it ‘gumbo.’ My recipe combines the dark roux, seafood and spice of the Cajun version; and the savory tomatoes and other vegetables of the Creole dish.
2 – Tablespoons butter
3 cloves – garlic, minced
1 medium – onion, chopped
3 – celery stalks, chopped
1 lb. – okra, chopped
½ cup – butter
½ cup – all-purpose flour
2 quarts – chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tablespoon – sugar
1 – 16 oz. can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 Tablespoon – fresh parsley, chopped
1 sprig – fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon – ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon – ground black pepper
½ teaspoon – Louisiana-style hot pepper sauce
⅛ cup – Worcestershire sauce
Juice from ½ lemon
2 lbs. – Raw seafood (peeled & deveined shrimp; scallops; flaked crab; oysters; clams; lobster chunks; etc.)
1 lb – andouille sausage, cut into ½ inch pieces
Melt (2 TB) butter in large skillet over medium heat. Cook garlic, onions, celery and okra until crisp tender, and browning around edges. Set aside.
In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, melt ( ½ cup) butter. Add flour. Stir constantly.
When the roux is a rich, dark brown (milk-to-dark chocolate), add reserved vegetables and stir. Add stock and tomatoes. Stir well. Add dry seasonings: parsley, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, black pepper and thyme. Bring to a boil; reduce heat; and simmer for about 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
Through a wire mesh sieve (into a large pan), strain vegetables. Pour stock back into large stock pot. Add andouille sausage, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and lemon juice. Simmer for about an hour, stirring and skimming occasionally. Stock will thicken slightly. (If it thickens too much for your liking, add more stock and turn heat down slightly.) Add seafood. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes. Sprinkle with file powder and serve with rice. Garnish with fresh parsley or scallions, if desired. Allow guests to salt their own gumbo. This recipe makes about 8-10 servings.
*Filé (pronounced fee-lay) powder is the ground leaves of the sassafras tree, and is available in grocery stores across the South. It has a very light tea-like flavor and thickens the soup slightly. It should always be added after cooking.