My Love Letter to the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico

I’ve spent hours and hours and days and days making gumbo. Plain old flour and oil in a hot skillet and then whisking, whisking, whisking till my arm aches. The oil and flour becomes a deep, dark roux, shiny and beautiful like smooth velvet, almost the color of the ancient cast-iron skillet I make it in. It’s hard to describe the transformation that occurs with such simple ingredients and even harder to understand — it’s just another of life’s many mysteries, like a magic spell passed down from cook to cook, a spell that turns shrimp and crab into tender, weightless, sweet bits of meat and the holy trinity of onions, celery, and peppers into soft morsels in a savory stew that will melt in your mouth like chocolate.

The magic roux is a little bit of a diva — if you rush her, she will rebel, and you’ll end up back where you started.

She wants to take her time getting ready, and she wants to see just how far you’re willing to go to witness her magic. I adjust the heat, keeping the roux just this side of burning, letting the color deepen without scorching. I patiently coax it from light brown to the copper color of a penny and then finally to a deep, dark brown that’s almost black. All of a sudden, the roux releases the smell of roasting nuts — she’s full of herself now, finally stepping into the room and ready to start the show — and though I’m tempted to pull it off the heat, I let it go just a tad longer, the voice in my head, my lifelong anthem, daring me Take it to the edge, sister!

When one more second will be too long, I sprinkle in the onions and nudge them gently around the pot with my wooden spoon. The onions steam and sizzle. Hot roux spits on my hand and arm. Like I said, she’s no easy lady! I stir on. Time for the celery and then the bell pepper. The roux calms down, deigning now to settle in and do her magic, taking every humble ingredient I toss into her mysterious velvety embrace and making it the star of the show.

I beat the odds a lot of times and a lot of ways in my life, and how I cook is how I tell time and how I tell my story. Every passage of my life has been marked by food. Every twist and turn in my personal story has been a leg of my culinary journey. My childhood was a time of Sunday dinners at my grandmothers’ homes in Mississippi. Raised in her mother’s boardinghouse, my Buffett grandmother would put out a massive spread of fried chicken and roast beef, mashed potatoes, rice and gravy, green beans, stewed squash, speckled butter beans, potato salad, and sliced tomatoes; a sideboard covered in desserts like pound cake with strawberries and dewberry pie; and watermelon iced down in a galvanized tub. Children sat at the children’s table, and the men gathered in the garage with the “hidden” bottle of rum. And on Fridays, being a good Catholic, my grandmother made enough seafood gumbo to feed the whole family and even have leftovers to go with Sunday dinner; the smell would wind its way out of the kitchen and down the driveway to greet us in a welcoming cloud that led us right back to her kitchen. She used to say, “You are always underfoot, LuLu. If I can’t find you, I know to look in the kitchen.” And that’s still where you’ll find me.

My Peets grandmother was the “dietitian” at a girls’ finishing school in Long Beach, Mississippi. That meant she ran the kitchen, planned the menus, and managed the staff. She taught us scrawny and wild Gulf Coast kids about finer fare. At least one Sunday a month, we had to forgo our usual playtime in the red-clay gullies around our modest neighborhood of identical postwar redbrick houses and travel the coast highway to Gulf Park College. It was a beautiful campus with the majestic Friendship Oak overlooking the vast Mississippi Sound. My brother would have to wear a collared shirt and skinny tie, and my sister and I wore white gloves and Mary Janes to the dining hall. A man in a tall white hat carved rounds of beef served with au jus and horseradish sauce, and there were fancy sides like crabmeat au gratin. They even had petits fours for dessert. It was country-club food, even though we were far from country-club people!

Both of these Sunday traditions were authentic Gulf Coast experiences, and my personal cooking and entertaining reflect them both: my cooking, my style, even my home are a little bit rustic, a little bit refined.

A very young wife and mother, I found myself all alone in the kitchen with no help and no experience. My mother, wonderful in so many ways, was cooking “challenged,” and my grandmothers were just far enough away that I didn’t have their guidance. I did my best with a Junior League cookbook, and I found out for the first time that I actually liked to cook. It wasn’t long, though, before no amount of Divine Casserole could keep my young marriage afloat. So with a hundred bucks in my pocket, I put my two girls in my Ford Mustang and a brand-new fifty-dollar vacuum cleaner in the trunk and we headed to Key West. As I crossed the Seven Mile Bridge over those turquoise waters, I figured if it all went south, as my dad would say, I could hock the vacuum for just enough money to get me and my girls back home!

IN Key West we moved in with my brother, Jimmy, who lived in an apartment right next to Louie’s Backyard, one of Key West’s best and most iconic restaurants. Almost the day after I arrived, Jimmy and his friends, including Tom McGuane, who would later become our brother-in-law, took me to a French restaurant, Le Mistral, on Duval Street. I’d had fish stew before, but Chef Renee’s bouillabaisse was something completely different. It was thoroughly French, like he was. On the rare payday occasions that we went out to eat growing up, it was Morrison’s Cafeteria, Roussos Seafood Restaurant, Constantine’s Restaurant, or one of the dives out on the causeway for fried crab claws. This, however, was exotic. The fine wine, the fancy croutons, and the rouille he put on top of the bouillabaisse — it was my first WOW moment in food. I don’t learn by reading. I’ve got to get in there with all my senses and then do it myself.

This tasting experience awakened something in me — I wanted to try that…I wanted to do that!

And another thing that made the experience at Le Mistral so alluring was the juxtaposition of this sophisticated, finely crafted food being served in an extraordinarily casual environment. We were eating fancy food wearing cutoffs and flip-flops! The dynamic was similar to the contrast between the cooking cultures of my two grandmothers, and it was on its way to becoming a lifelong theme for me. I just fell in love with the freeing lifestyle of Key West and all its small, personal neighborhood restaurants. I immersed myself in the food, with its focus on seafood — lobster, stone crab, yellowtail snapper, hogfish, grouper, conch.

Key West was a place where enjoying life, expressing yourself, and making and savoring good food and drinks were all one and the same. I’ve carried this point of view with me ever since, and made creating food that captures this spirit my passion and career. Having been barefoot children and then Key West hippies together, Jimmy captures in his music the same attitude I celebrate in my food — songs about friends, about being barefoot and fancy-free, about the adventures and mysteries of life on the water, and, of course, cheeseburgers, margaritas, boat drinks, pitchers of beer, and shrimp beginning to boil.

Life happens. Circumstances took me from Key West back to Alabama and on to New Orleans with another husband who couldn’t settle my gypsy soul. So I was off again, cruising on a yacht cooking for Harrison Ford in Belize. When that job finished, instead of going home, I stayed on the yacht, which took me to New York City for several years, catering weddings and Fortune 500 dinner parties, until I eventually made my way to Los Angeles, where I tried my hand at writing screenplays while I catered on the weekends. I quickly got in step with the alfresco cuisine of the West Coast, with its focus on fresh ingredients and simplicity over complicated techniques.

Later I returned to Alabama to care for my mother, who’d had a stroke, and my father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but by that time I’d truly gone around the culinary world. I was coming back to the food of my youth, but my interpretation of this food would now be enhanced by all the lessons I’d learned on each leg of my tour. I was home, eons older and wiser than I’d been when I left that day with my vacuum cleaner as my only insurance. To be truthful, though, in terms of money I wasn’t that far from where I’d started. It was a new chapter. So I turned to what had gotten me through all my challenges and adventures before — cooking. And what in the world could I make that would feed the most people? A big ol’ pot of gumbo, of course. So that’s what I did.

When I opened the first LuLu’s Sunset Grill out of a modified bait shop café on Weeks Bay, Alabama, I was the cook, hostess, janitor, server, buser, dishwasher, and office and kitchen manager. I couldn’t afford to buy much equipment and had to make do with what I could rustle up. I used my great-aunt Loraine’s huge cast-iron skillet to make the roux for my five-gallon batches of gumbo. Do you know how hard it is to break cast iron? Well, I manhandled that thing making so much roux that I broke the handle right off — not that I stopped using it. It didn’t matter if it was a hundred degrees outside — people wanted gumbo. We started to run out, so five gallons a day became fifteen gallons. I made batch after batch after batch.

Gumbo was something special from my earliest memories of family love and togetherness, and now here it was, paying my bills, making my customers happy, feeding my children. People kept on coming for the gumbo and the company and the atmosphere of the place, which was a little bit ’Bama river rat den, a little bit Key West dive bar, and a smidge of Friday afternoons in Mom Buffett’s kitchen.

As I stirred and stirred and stirred that roux, I got to where I could do it with my eyes closed, and it got to be a ritual for me that I embraced, an intentional moment of stirring together all my crazy adventures that had gotten me to this point, that had brought me home, all the techniques I’d learned, the people I’d met. And when it was time to add the onions, celery, peppers, and other ingredients to the roux, I started tossing in bits and pieces from my mind as well — my worries, my hopes, my blessings, my intentions — letting them get washed in the mystery of that simmering pot of Gumbo Love, tossing them in almost as if handing them over in a prayer to the gumbo diva herself.

Gumbo became my signature dish and the restaurant’s best seller. But behind the scenes it was the cooking of the gumbo that became my therapy, healer, life teacher, and mentor that ushered me from being a young, frantic, overwhelmed single mother fraught with constant anxiety about the future to a woman of confidence and diligence with a supreme faith in the goodness of life. I decided I wouldn’t dwell on what I didn’t have, but what I could do at that moment, and I knew there was one thing that I could do well: cook. So I cooked and I cooked and I put my hopes and dreams into those pots of gumbo by simply doing what was in front of me — step-by-step, like ingredients in a recipe. And life unfolded.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that all those pots of gumbo were gradually building a true organic belief in myself — pot-by-pot, I was becoming the me I had always dreamed of, an empowered woman who embraced most days with hope, curiosity, and laughter.

I like to say every job I ever had prepared me for what I’m doing now, and everything I learned to cook is in every dish I make. All this, plus all the people I care about, plus all the goodness I see around me, is what seasons my gumbo and my life. At some point I started wishing people “Gumbo Love” and signing “Gumbo Love” above my name, because I can’t think of a better way to express what sharing goodness means to me. It’s my personal secret for success. It is my bliss. Cooking with love, serving with love, and loving life. I am telling you, it comes through in the taste of the food and the good vibes in the air.

I hope this book inspires you to cook up your own Gumbo Love and spread it out to the ones you love with a pot of gumbo or just some “vacation” time spent together on the porch or cozied up on the sofa.

I wish all of you the best. I wish you barefoot weather, cold drinks, and happy cooking. I wish you Gumbo Love!

LUCY’S SIGNATURE SUMMER SEAFOOD GUMBO

Serves 14 to 16

OVER THE YEARS, this is the recipe that I’ve cooked the most and that has remained a featured specialty at my restaurants. As far as the seafood goes, I use shrimp and crab, but if it’s cool enough for oysters and there are some sweet and pretty ones available, or it’s crawfish season, I will toss those in, too. And though I usually use only sausage in my winter gumbo, it’s no crime to add a little andouille to the pot as well.

3 pounds medium wild-caught Gulf shrimp, heads on

2 pounds cooked blue crab claw meat, picked through for shells handled carefully to keep the meat in big chunks

4 large ripe tomatoes, or 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes with their juices

3/4 cup vegetable oil or bacon grease

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1 bunch celery, coarsely chopped, including leaves

2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped

8 cups shrimp or seafood stock, heated

2 to 3 teaspoons sea salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons dried thyme

4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

2 tablespoons LuLu’s Crazy Creola Seasoning or other Creole seasoning

1/4 cup hot sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 blue crab bodies, if available (optional)

2 1/2pounds fresh okra, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces, or thawed frozen cut okra

2 cups finely chopped green onions

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Cooked white rice, for serving

French bread and butter, for serving

  1. Peel and devein the shrimp. (If you’re making your own stock, reserve the heads and shells to make the stock.) Refrigerate the shrimp and crabmeat until ready to use.
  2. If using fresh tomatoes, fill a medium saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Carefully drop the tomatoes into the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and let them cool. The skins will slip off easily. Remove the cores and coarsely chop the tomatoes over a bowl to retain as much juice as possible. Set aside. (If using canned tomatoes, chop each tomato into eighths and return them to the juice in the can.)
  3. To make the roux, in a large stockpot (about 10 quarts), heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, gradually add the flour, whisking continuously, and cook, stirring and adjusting the heat as necessary to keep it from burning, until the roux is a dark mahogany color, 25 to 35 minutes. Be careful: if the roux burns, you will have to start all over again!
  4. Carefully add the onion to the roux and stir with a large wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes. (The onion will sizzle and steam when it hits the hot roux, so caution is advised. All seasoned gumbo cooks have roux battle scars on one or both arms.)
  5. Add the celery and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Add the bell pepper and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 to 3 minutes more. The mixture should resemble a pot of black beans in color and texture.
  7. Add the heated stock and the tomatoes with their juices. Stir in the salt, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, bay leaves, oregano, basil, Creole seasoning, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir well. Bring the gumbo to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer. Add the crab bodies (if using) and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour.
  8. Add the okra and bring the gumbo to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until the okra has lost its bright green color and cooked down like the other vegetables. If the gumbo gets too thick, add a little water. If it is too thin, continue to simmer it, uncovered.
  9. Gumbo is always better the day after it has been cooked, although I’ve never had a complaint when I served it the day I made it. At this point, you can cool the gumbo. Turn off the heat and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Then place the pot, uncovered, in an empty sink. Fill the sink with cold water and ice around the stockpot (try not to get any in the stockpot itself). Stir every 15 minutes to facilitate cooling. (The gumbo will spoil if improperly cooled) When completely cool, refrigerate the gumbo in the stockpot, uncovered.
  10. When ready to serve, slowly bring the gumbo to a simmer over medium-low heat. Thirty minutes before serving, add the green onion, parsley, and lemon juice to the gumbo. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and crabmeat, mix well, and cook for 2 minutes. Cover and turn off the heat. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes more to cook the seafood. The gumbo will stay hot for a long time. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Taste and adjust the seasonings; serve over cooked white rice with French bread and butter.

For more, check out Gumbo Love by Lucy Buffett. Published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2017 Lucy Buffett.

Available May 9, 2017!

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, IndieBound

For more information: http://lucybuffett.com

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