The Ingredients of Gumbo

The Ingredients of Gumbo
Julia Schuster

May 2012 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-039-8

Every family is a unique stew of personalities, memories and shared events.
Our PriceUS$12.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Every family is a unique stew of personalities, memories and shared events.

When stirred with care and respect, the mix produces a lifetime's feast of love.

"I watch the members of my family file into the dining room, one by one, ingredients, each of them, yes, a menagerie of peculiar ingredients that make no sense at all together until they are thrown into the pot and simmered for a while."

Julia Schuster's family is as Southern as moonlight and magnolias, yet, like any fascinating clan, their dreams, feuds and peculiarities reflect the universal appeal of families everywhere—the rich, deep and fulfilling bond of tolerant affection.

THE INGREDIENTS OF GUMBO treats readers to an artful mix of stories, poems, recipes and gentle, sassy opinion, mingling the exotic and familiar, the funny and sad—all the intricate flavors, textures and spices of a complex family.

Julia Schuster earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky in June, 2007. Julia lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she is a junior-high religion teacher. Her short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in a number of commercial and literary publications, including her 2009 novel, FLOWERS FOR ELVIS, from Bell Bridge Books. Visit her at


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I had never thought much about gumbo until Christmas eight years ago, although it had always been a part of my at-least-once-a-month cuisine. Ah, that Christmas. The memory of it is as clear to me as a Waterford crystal vase. Mother always served gumbo for Christmas Eve lunch, with an assortment of my other favorite Creole or Cajun recipes. Gumbo is a family tradition, chock full of sausage and duck, fresh rabbit and venison, or my favorite crawfi sh and shrimp, depending on Mother’s mood and what Daddy drags in from his latest hunting trip.

Even an occasional snake shows up in the rich, dark roux, all displayed on Mother’s fi nest china, of course.

Now, sitting in my usual spot just to the right of Mother’s place, I watch the members of my family fi le into the dining room, one by one. Ingredients, each of them. Yes, a menagerie of peculiar ingredients that make no sense at all together until they are thrown into the pot and simmered for awhile. But memories of that Christmas Eve prevent me from enjoying the beginnings of this one and transport me back to a Christmas Eve when I glanced across the dining room table at my bug-eyed Yankee cousin, Mimzie. It was that Christmas Eve when my thoughts on gumbo and our other fine Louisiana delicacies were transformed.

Everyone had just settled into their seats, linen napkins smoothed across Sunday bested laps, polite sips of water taken, heads bowed, chests crossed in the name of the Trinity, grace spoken aloud and in unison, when Mother lifted the lid off her Villeroy and Bach handpainted soup tureen to reveal its contents. It was then that Mimzie’s prim face contorted into that of the spoiled child her adolescence struggled but failed to disguise.

"I will not consume amphibians, Thumper, ocean creatures, or any kind of sausage,” she declared. "There is no way to know what horrid things they put in that stuff. And boo-dine sounds absolutely disgusting. How can you put that in your mouths?”

"Boudin” was what Mimzie mistakenly spoke ill of—the tastiest sausage known to man, if you ask me. And certainly, I did know exactly what Mother stuffed into her hog casings—Great-Grandma Vermaelen’s secret recipe of the finest mixture of rice, spices and pork parts in Rapides Parish—that’s what. Heck, the finest anywhere east of Shreveport, if you ask me again.

Mimzie pushed her plate a little too forcefully away. Then she didn’t even react as the gold edge of my mother’s wedding china soup bowl clinked against the delicate stem of my great-grandmother’s (on my father’s side) water goblet. The stem snapped at the point of injury.

Its goblet toppled, dowsing Grandma Vermaelen’s crocheted tablecloth with pink lemonade. Conversation came to an almost deafening halt as the tulip shaped globe rolled across the table, leaving its stem in place beside Mimzie’s plate. The globe came to rest next to the platter of cornbread at the table’s heart. Thank the Good Lord Grandma Menard’s sugar bowl survived unscathed.

Mimzie wadded up her napkin, one of a set of twelve that had been handed down to my mother by the matriarch of the Longchamp family some twenty-five years ago, and tossed it into the place her plate once held. She crossed her arms over her barely-blossoming breast with a "humph” and a long sigh.

I could hardly believe my eyes or my ears. No adult had yet uttered a word. I sat there, awe struck. My head would have been the next thing rolling across the table, if I had tried to pull off that kind of stunt. I wondered how on God’s green earth this Yankee stuck-up could get away with manners like these. I knew things were different in New York City, but "manners are manners no matter where you are,” Mother always said.

And I had never dared to disagree—until now. I tried to justify my dumb cousin’s behavior, but to no avail. After all, this was the girl who had traveled about-as-far-South-as-you-can-get for Christmas, wearing a full-length wool coat and expecting to need it. She must not have a brain in her head. Suddenly, I realized that my spoon was still suspended in mid-air not two inches outside of my mouth. I eased it back into my bowl, careful not to make a sound that might turn all eyes toward me.

My mother dabbed politely with her napkin at the little parentheses around her mouth. "Sister, don’t you have anything constructive to say to your child?” she asked Auntie Jeanne. She folded her napkin neatly and placed it back into her lap. "And you might consider doing it before lemonade dribbles off the table and into the laps of my guests.” She cut her eyes toward Auntie Jeanne who sat to her left, her polite smile never wavering.

Auntie’s face flushed, but not from embarrassment; it was anger that rose scarlet from the "V” of her Fifth Avenue business suit. Her knuckles whitened around the handle of the 100-year-old silver knife she had just used to butter her cornbread. When the butt of it and her fist met the table, every goblet on the table shuddered. Eight iced teas quaked. A few even lost their lemons, which fell, kerplop, into the icy depths of their sweetened amber liquid.

"No,” Auntie Jeanne growled through her teeth, "I do not have anything to say to my daughter. I am not about to force-feed her road kill like Mama and Daddy did to me.”

I glanced around the table, keeping my head low and out of the line of Mother’s sights. Uncle Jed, Mother and Auntie Jeanne’s brother, looked up at me and grinned a big toothy grin. I smiled back. He reminded me of a kindly Jed Clampett, only with the mental capacity of a decidedly more dimwitted Jethro. Some said he was mentally retarded, but I didn’t believe it. I had always just thought of him as a tad-bit slow. He and his rotund wife, Ethel, now stared at their plates.

Mimzie glared across the table at me, as if daring me to open my mouth and stick my foot into deep doggy-doo. I just rolled my eyes at her. Daddy, sitting at the far end of our football field and well out of Mother’s range, chugged long on his red wine. He smirked at the commotion as if enjoying the possibility of another family free-for-all. Mimzie, still pouting, then had the gall to bring her shoeless foot up and place it in the chair seat with her buttocks. She hugged her knee. At this, it took great effort to keep my jaw from going slack.

"I don’t seem to recall any force-feeding from our childhood, but that’s not the point,” Mother said, leveling her gaze on her own plate. Her fingers now traced little curly-ques in the perspiration on her goblet. "I think there is something to be said for proper upbringing in the social arts, Sister, and your dear, darlin’ Mimzie seems to have no recollection of hers.”

"I have proper social arts,” Mimzie whined, daring again. "But I’m still not eating this creepy, crawly crap.”I inhaled so fast and so deeply I almost choked on the air. This girl had balls, as Daddy would say. I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, but it seemed appropriate in this case. For the puny little so-andso she appeared to be, Mimzie was either the bravest person I had ever met or the most likely to die without knowing how butt-dumb she really was.

Mother turned her head only slightly in the direction of the latest transgression. Her kind eyes fell upon Mimzie’s obstinate face. Her voice, soft and low, caressed the air. "Mimzie dear, I know your long trip from the North must have been difficult and tiring. I understand the trials of shuffling luggage from here to there, and deciphering airline hieroglyphics with all their abbreviations, schedules and such. But I had so hoped that this would be a pleasant family meal, devoid of hysterics and rudeness. It is our custom here in Louisiana to celebrate this special holiday with hospitality, courtesy and a good helping of respect for our place in life. You understand what I mean, I’m sure.”

Mimzie glanced over at her mother, who looked like she was about to oxidize. Then she glared back at my mother who was still rattling on. "In light of that, my dear, I would certainly appreciate it if you would kindly place the soles of your shoeless feet back on the Oriental rug beneath your chair, sit up straight so no one will mistake you for a pack mule, pick up your spoon like the civilized human being you have no other choice but to be, and eat something, anything that I have slaved in my hot kitchen to prepare.”

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