Some of my favorite foods are gumbo.
Note that I did not say, “One of my favorite foods is gumbo”; gumbo is not a singular dish, but more a genre of dishes following a general form:
- Meat (or other)
Roux can be thick or thin, light or taken all the way towards black. Just don’t burn it!
Everyone who makes gumbo makes it differently. Roux — basically a cooked combination of oil or fat and starch, usually flour (and if this sounds somewhat similar to your Thanksgiving gravy recipe, it is!) — can be created from vegetable oil, turkey drippings, pork fat, or other alternative, cooked on high heat or low heat, made thick like paste or thin like soup, and brought to a golden blonde color or all the way to a brown so dark it’s almost black. Yes, there are rules: don’t stop stirring, and don’t let it burn. That’s just about it on the rules. The rest is to personal style and taste of the chef … and the diners.
What vegetables you use are also up to you. The traditional “trinity” consists of chopped celery, onions and peppers, but which you actually use, and in what proportions, again is up to personal style. You mix these into the roux, cooking them in its heat.
You choose what stock to use.
The stock is usually chicken stock, but it could be turkey stock, beef stock, even a vegetable stock. You pour this in once you’ve driven off the water from the vegetables — which then take up the stock.
The traditional spice in gumbo is cayenne pepper, but again, it’s a matter of taste.
You like it spicy? Savory?
Some add numerous different pepper varieties, salt, garlic, onion…. You get the idea.
Meat of course is a matter of taste. Vegetarians might use radish or potato. Personally I love it with pork sausages and chicken.
Chicken? Pork? Potato? You choose.
Some people think that gumbo always has seafood. That’s not required. In fact, it can be quite rare. Fancy restaurants may offer a seafood gumbo, but that could be just to appeal to their clientele.
The final result, as you can imagine, could almost be anything. The only thing consistent is the general form of the dish.
Aren’t novels similar?
We have conventions about what must comprise novels — a protagonist or protagonists, some sort of conflict, an obstacle and/or antagonist, and a resolution — and there are general rules of grammar and punctuation, even if much of that really comes down to contemporary conventions and personal style. There is a general collective sense of what a novel is.
And yet does that mean that novels can be predicted? Of course not. Like gumbo, novels, while following the general form, can really be almost anything.
And like gumbo, when they’re prepared well by a talented chef, they are delicious.