Every year I take up my soup spoon, adjust my bib and continue my search for the best tasting seafood gumbo I can find. It's not an easy job, but I'm up to the task again this year. You can find it just about anywhere you can smell the salt in the air. My choice is the gulf coast from Alabama all the way to Texas.
I've tasted gumbo made with shrimp, (head on or head off) chicken, sausage, fish, scallops, clams, oysters and crab meat. Heads on shrimp give the gumbo a stronger and more flavorful taste. Added to these ingredients are vegetable such as onions, bell pepper, okra, parsley, celery, garlic and tomatoes.
In addition to all this, there are spices such as bay leaves, garlic, thyme, salt, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, file' powder, Creole seasoning, chicken bouillon, Worcestershire Sauce, Old Bay Seasoning, Cavender's Greek Seasoning, Crab Boil and ketchup. Some chefs leave out the chicken and pork.
From what I've seen and sampled along the coast, I've discovered that there is no such thing as a standard gumbo recipe. Some sea side chefs make theirs with chicken. Others cooks would have to be threatened bodily harm to put a bird in their soup, using Scallops instead. On the New Orleans side of the coast, many put sausage in theirs, but not just any sausage. It seems that each chef uses a particular brand and wouldn't dream of using anything else!
If there is one thing that all gumbos have in common, it's that they all must have a roux. This pronounced roo and they all seem to be pretty much alike; made with flour and oil, vegetable shortening, lard or bacon drippings. Some say to cook the mixture until its copper colored and some like to see it a lighter shade. Whatever color, the roux' is the one staple in a perfect gumbo, giving it a texture. Without it the fish, scallops or shrimp would simply be swimming in hot water.
No two gumbos taste alike, even when its made by the same cook. While I was in Pensacola, Florida I found a seafood grill close to Orange Beach, Ala that had a wonderful spicy seafood gumbo that smelled so good your mouth began watering as you walked into the room. My nose wasn't wrong! The gumbo was out of this world. After a huge bowl I was stuffed! I left the place vowing to come back soon.
After fishing most of the next day, I had to make a trip back to the gumbo grill I had visited the day before. Knowing that anticipation is half the fun of most awaited events, I was anxiously awaiting lunch at the gumbo grill. The server came out of the kitchen with my bowl of gumbo and I didn't even wait for my stew to cool before I dug in with my spoon.
My taste buds are not dumb; they instantly knew that something was amiss! This was not the same taste as the day before! I immediately asked for the chef, whom I had met the day before and congratulated him on a wonderful dish, so he was waiting for more applause as he approached me.
"What happened?" I cried. "This is not the same taste as yesterday!"
"I made it the same way." he said somewhat defensively.
"Are you sure it's the same recipe?" I asked.
"What recipe?" he asked as he looked at me like I was nuts!
He assured that since he had been making seafood gumbo everyday for the last several years, he always made it the same way. He admitted he could have used a little more of this and a little less of that. Whatever it was, the gumbo wasn't the same.
He confided in me that this method of preparing seafood gumbo was the way most of the restaurants up and down the coast did it. He didn't know anyone who wrote down the recipe since most of the other cooks had been making the stew the same way for years. The gumbo wasn't the same as before but it was still good!
I have given up trying to make gumbo myself, because none of my tasted edible. If you want to try it yourself, search on the internet for seafood gumbo recipes. You'll find more than you could copy in a lifetime. Do as I do and just make it an important part of your next ocean side vacation and search for the perfect gumbo!