Louisiana gumbo

STAFF PHOTO BY ELIOT KAMENITZ Louisiana gumbo is a comforting reminder, in a time of change, of those good things that never do.

Among the many things for which I’m grateful this Thanksgiving is my daughter’s success since leaving college. She’s making a good life for herself out of state, though like most Louisiana expatriates, she misses our food.

Some weeks ago, long before the temperatures dropped, she phoned for advice on making gumbo. What we call “gumbo weather” — cool, gray days that bring hunger for something rich and warm — wasn’t yet in her local forecast. Even though high sun beamed through her windows and the day spoke of flip-flops and T-shirts rather than autumn chill, she was craving the taste of roux and sausage, chicken and okra, spices and rice. What she wanted, really, was a taste of home.

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We talked first of where she might quickly find decent sausage for her pot, a tall order if one lives so far west of Breaux Bridge. She landed on an expedient, and we expressed her some jars of roux, packed as carefully as Fabergé eggs, to help things along. There was a follow-up call about how thick and dark the mixture should be, how slowly it should cook, when to know that gumbo was, in fact, gumbo.

As my daughter listened hundreds of miles away, I felt as if I were talking an amateur pilot onto a runway. A few hours later, she texted us a photo of her gumbo, which looked divine. Her boyfriend, also a Louisiana expat, had pronounced it the best gumbo he’d eaten. It’s a dish, perhaps more than any other, that tastes all the better when shared with someone you love.

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All of this made me think of my late mother, who once wrote out for my wife a two-page tutorial on how to make her holiday cornbread dressing.

“I hope I’ve been specific enough,” she mentioned in sharing her recipe. “Please call me if you need to … I cook like many mothers — the taste, look and adjust method.”

Mama’s been gone for years now, a wistful reminder that the time we have to pass along family recipes is not unlimited. I’m also reminded each holiday season that the best way to teach cooking is by showing, not telling, which is why shared family time is so important. It's something social distancing has made more difficult.    

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Thanksgiving can be a time to extend what small wisdom we have from one generation to the next. It's when we fetch yellowed recipes from the kitchen shelf, some written by those no longer with us. By heeding old ancestral spells scribbled long ago on tattered index cards and scraps of loose-leaf, we bring the past once more within the living fold of the present, which is all that tradition is, really.

In a year when so much has changed, I welcome the chance to sit at a holiday table and be nourished by those things that never do.

Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.