November, 2013. Breaux Bridge, LA. Gumbo Nation and a Backward Look at Natchez, MS

Posted on November 13, 2013


DSCN0163Last weekend was the annual gumbo cook-off competition at Cajun Palms RV Resort in Breaux Bridge.

We love the Cajun area of Louisiana.

There’s a richness here – not a monetary richness, but a cultural richness that is hard to find anywhere else.

It’s a place where culture is defined not so much by race, ancestry or background as by a person’s preferences in food, music, and language.

It’s a place where “ca-est’ bon” rolls naturally off the tongue, even for those without a drop of French blood in their veins.

It’s a Gumbo Nation of mixed heritages, all stirred up to produce wonderfully unique music as well as wonderfully unique food that’s built around the bounty of the local swamps and bayous, rice and sugar cane fields.

And the one dish that has become emblematic of this multicultural melting pot is…gumbo. A sort of stew served with rice, there’s as many recipes for this special dish as there are Cajuns in L’Acadiane – the 22 parishes that make up French Louisiana.  Onion, celery, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, chicken, pork, alligator, crawfish, shrimp, fish, sausage – if you eat enough gumbo you’ll eat ’em all.

The base seasonings – sassafras, in the form of file’ powder, and bay leaves – were introduced to settlers by Native Americans. Okra, a vegetable brought over by West African slaves, is used to both season and thicken the dish.

And, of course, the roux that starts the whole thing is derived from French cooking, though like the Cajun French language, it has its own distinct identity.

Louisianans identify with their gumbo as Texans do their chili, whether it’s served in a foam bowl at a picnic table or in the finest china around a Louis XVI dining table.

Natchez and the Mystery of Mammy

DSCN0137Speaking of identifying, my mind keeps going back to Natchez and Mammy’s Cupboard.

Natchez, of course, is famous for their Spring and Fall Pilgrimage, a tradition dating back to 1932.  During these multi-week events, a selection of the city’s most beautiful historic homes are open for tours by costumed hosts in 19th-century character.

These celebrations obviously appeal to those interested in antebellum history, Greek revival architecture and the essence of 19th-century Southern gentility, and include theater performances, special presentations and live music.

Sometime along the way the contribution of African-Americans to the history of Natchez could no longer be ignored, and today the museum of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American History is one of many related sites that can be visited while attending Pilgrimage.

So that brings us to a strange – and famous – roadside attraction at the edge of town that might, or might not, be viewed as depicting something, but we’re not quite sure what.

Built in 1940 as an attention-getter for a gas station and later evolving into a restaurant, Mammy was originally sculpted as an African-American woman.

However, sometime in the 1960’s she was repainted with the flesh tones of a white woman. This racial change, one may assume, was made to appease those who saw Mammy’s Cupboard as an unfortunate roadside stereotype reflecting a negative image of the South in general, and Natchez in particular.mammy gas

Now Natchez has a Black woman in ‘whiteface’.

mammy gas 2Is this forward thinking or backward thinking?

Or, no thinking?