Eisenhower & Alligators

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The inventive gathering of ingredients and the music of its improvised creation have accompanied the author's family dishes on journeys great and small, in stories of locality and history. All this and a recipe for gumbo ma mere
Jim Gabour
18 March 2012

You have, of course, heard that phrase:  “You are what you eat.”

In my family, and in my various environments, food has often determined the immediate course of history.  Not just in the survival part, the immediate everyday present of refueling to get through another twenty-four hours, but the longer-term direction of what the future would hold.

Both my father and my mother cooked one dish in their lives that shaped everything that was to come.  I feel both dishes to be metaphors for larger issues that surround me in 2012.

* * *

Even outside the fine restaurants and neighborhood eateries, men cook in New Orleans, and they cook frequently in their family homes.  This is not your stereotypical American dad-at-the-grill type cooking.  Though traditionally male meals here fall within the realm of single-dish “pot food”, this large pot may contain a very complex mélange of ingredients.  Etoufees, bisques, saucepiquantes, gumbos, creoles, jambalayas, courtbouillions, all require a degree of skill in execution and spicing.

I was brought up in a home that further reinforced the role of males in the kitchen.  Drafted from his newspaper job, my father had been happily assigned duty as an Army mess sergeant in the early days of WWII.  This man was no ordinary cook, though, but rather a culinary soldier who could later brag that he brought tears to a future president’s eyes.  All it took was a dose of his baton de poisson courtbouillon at a camp table in Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Yes, “fish sticks” saved my dad’s life in WWII.


The lieutenant colonel and future commander-in-chief Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower had arrived on a surprise inspection of troops who were devising training techniques that would eventually be used for the assault of the European continent on D-Day.  Ike was a short hop from the first of his five stars, and everyone around him knew that this was a man on the fast track to the top.  The infantry battalion he visited, my father’s, was that day slogging through Louisiana marshland on an exercise being designed to condition troops for penetrating inland from a beach head.  It was not a pleasant scenario.

Ike, ever the populist commander, had demanded that his noon meal come from the same field mess that was feeding the men. But Dad knew that a bucket of grey liquid chow would not be the thing to serve a hungry field-grade officer, in spite of the colonel’s orders.  Besides, the mess truck was fairly well empty after feeding over three hundred hungry men.

Within five minutes, my buck sergeant father had scoured the bottom of the frosted-over mess truck cooler, only to discover that all that was left were a dozen boxes of freezer-burned fish sticks (haddock, he always emphasizes when he tells this story, was written on the side of the box as the main ingredient -- my Southern father had never heard the word before), and two cans of whole tomatoes, were what he had in hand to concoct an entree.

Not remarkably for a man of his tastes and bartering skills, he had weeks earlier scavenged half a case of decent red Bordeaux in a notoriously dry north Louisiana parish, and stashed it away safely for just such an occasion.  Within a further twenty minutes, he had scraped the inedible breading off the sticks, and formed the remaining fish flesh into portions that actually resembled filets. The resourceful sergeant then whipped up the dish with only the personal spices and condiments he kept in his pack, utilizing a tiny one-burner portable stove, his helmet, mess kit, and bayonet.  Eisenhower watched the whole process and loved it -- a regular mess sergeant preparing a dish with the word “baton” in it, and was cooking it in a helmet, nonetheless.  It was all so military.  Ike did not, he admitted, speak French fluently, but baton de poisson courtbouillon sounded great and tasted better. 

Dad did not disillusion the lieutenant colonel with further translation, and Ike departed a happy and well-fed soldier.

Two days later word came down that my father had been promoted to Master Sergeant.  He was detailed to follow Ike to Europe, but was stalled in what ended up being a tour of the southern Atlantic. He continued happily cooking deep sauces on the troop ship as it dodged U-boat after U-boat for months on end, and then finally returned to the Americas without having touched land in either Europe or Africa.  In the end Master Sergeant Gabour was assigned to spend the remainder of the war slaving away at a stove to feed US forces guarding the Panama Canal.  He did this happily, as he does everything.

I know of no one else’s parent who came back from WWII with a perfect tan and a taste for habanero chilies.

That tan, his skill at his civilian career and at the domestic stove served him well as he courted my mother. 

I was the oldest of six.  Consequently, I was given culinary training as some children are given violin lessons.  The limited skill I acquired served me well after I left my parent’s abode, though to this day I still envy and emulate the life of musicians.

All of this history sources back to a few pounds of aggrandized simple food, of batons, cooked in a helmet.

* * *

I must, out of fairness and love and an unbiased admiration for both the person and the dish, here include my mother’s refined addition to another food that acts as a binder to families all over Louisiana, but especially in New Orleans:  gumbo.

Gumbo ma mere

Discover Jim's mother's recipe for gumbo with a few variations from the author himself

I heard Wynton Marsalis describe it in wonderful fashion.  Ed Bradley was interviewing the New Orleans trumpeter for a backstage piece I was directing that eventually would become part of an hour-long PBS special called “A Tribute to Louis Armstrong”.  I was enjoying myself more than I was working, like right now.

As I remember it Wynton declared about New Orleans, “It’s always been a family town, and food brings folks together.  You’ve got music people -- who are constantly hungry -- coming by to visit and talk, and there’s always that pot of gumbo on the stove, a sharing thing, a generosity.  ‘C’mon in and get some gumbo,’ they’ll say.  Next thing you know, folks are fed, and music is happening.  All different sorts of sounds come together, just like you make a gumbo.  And then something special happens that’s not like any of the parts.”

My mother, oh she can make some gumbo, but it took her a while to get it just right.  My folks had saved up for a decade and finally bought a small – really, minuscule – chain of weekly newspapers in Central Louisiana.  She became the editor, with my dad as publisher and chief printing press laborer, and for a large portion of the rest of her life, she wrote at least half of each edition herself, sold the ads, and handled the local politics.  She’d gotten into reporting for an East Texas daily newspaper as her first real job – that is where she met my father, who was union steward in the printing back shop -- and never really had the opportunity to learn about kitchens before she found herself immersed in newsprint and children.  She always kept us fed, though, and often kept us amused at her heroic efforts to cook for the family after coming home from three eighteen-hour deadline days in a row.

At one point, she began to actually take a great deal of pleasure and delight in failing at certain dishes for us, especially her amazingly futile attempts at baking.  But it was the gumbo that bound the family together.

It happened by the calendar.  Come September where we lived just south of Bayou Robert, on Boeuf Trace (“cattle trail”, which described it accurately in those days), the first of the hunting seasons – that for doves -- opened with a bang.  As a side note, those of you who know my complete disdain for weapons and the NRA these days may find it odd that I hunted as a young man. The fact is that from September through February over a third of the protein my family ate came from the swamps that surrounded our home.  Now I can barely stand the thought of aiming a barrel at any furred or feathered creature, but a half century ago it was by no means sport.  I was merely gathering dinner.

Our few neighbors were of like mind, and everyone had a large freezer where meat was stored for the non-hunting spring and summer.  When any hunter had a more bounteous season than usual he simply gave away the overflow to friends and family.  But soon my dad had to stop hunting because of demands from the papers, and I deserted the twelve-gauge shotgun hunt for the pursuit of knowledge and other less aesthetic game at university.  Still, by November my mother’s freezer was inevitably filled to the brim with dove, duck, squirrel, rabbit, venison, gator, whatever came in the door in the hands of friends.  And then, just as inevitably she would make a massive five-gallon gumbo and feed not only the family but all the Boeuf Trace neighbors.  For days.

That dish bound us all firmly in its warmth and spice.

In the 21st century, with increasingly delicate health, she seldom tries to duplicate those large-scale long-ago single-pot dishes. But I must say, that with the approach of late fall, my stomach rumbles at the thought of the meal that I grew up anticipating would happen each November. 

And so now I make it myself, acquiring the ingredients from cellophane-wrapped packages sold in the local market.  There is alligator meat and frog legs, turtle and quail (!), almost everything I need can be found somewhere here in the city.  It is a quest I relish.  Over the years my own friends come over to eat the dish with me, and I tell this story once again, so the dish has become dubbed gumbo ma mere.  Even when I make it myself, I do it her way. 

I feel connected to something much deeper than the contents of the bowl.

Food.  Consumed as history.

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