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Where Y'Eat: Roux the Day at Gumbo Fest

Gumbo in its many varities satisfies more than just a hunger in Louisiana.
Ian McNulty

With a new venue in Congo Square, a young festival showcases the very long roots of gumbo in New Orleans culinary history.

First you make a roux, sure. But from there, opinions on how to make a great gumbo vary widely from one New Orleans kitchen to another.

This is of course true of home cooking, but it’s probably underscored even bolder in restaurants. For instance, the signature gumbo at the contemporary Cajun spot Cochon has hunks of roasted pork and black-eye peas. In Metairie, the very French Chateau du Lac has been known to slide some foie gras into its gumbo bowl, from time to time. Meanwhile, at R’evolution, the ultra-lux new restaurant in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, the attention-grabbing dish called “death by gumbo” involves a whole roasted quail that’s been stuffed with the normal gumbo fixings of rice, oysters and sausage. The dexterous diner is meant to cut this bird open, disgorging its savory cargo into the roux.

But these are all contemporary renditions at high-end restaurants. This weekend, November 10 and 11, we have a chance to taste our way across a half-dozen somewhat more subtle gumbo variations from more traditional neighborhood eateries at the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival.

This event is one of the neighborhood festivals put on throughout the year by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit behind Jazz Fest. It started in 2009, and this year it seems poised to break out pretty big. For one, it has a new venue in Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park, and that’s a higher-profile location than in previous years. There’s music, with a line-up of 10 of the city’s leading brass bands performing over the two-day span. And then there’s the food.

Six food vendors is not a lot compared to the cornucopia we find at some of the larger local festivals. But each of the half dozen taking part in this weekend’s Gumbo Festival is particularly distinctive, each has its own story to tell, and each tells at least part of it through its gumbo.

One is Li’l Dizzy’s Café on Esplanade Avenue, where proprietor Wayne Baquet carries on a family restaurant tradition that stretches back to 1947. Today, Baquet serves a gumbo with roots reaching nearly as far, at least half a century, he reckons. It’s a gumbo with home-made hot sausage, smoked sausage, crab, shrimp and chicken, all in a roux that is tended by one single restaurant staffer — Tina Cockerham — who has been in charge of that Baquet family roux for some 35 years.

Also at the Gumbo Festival will be NOLA Foods from Tremé, Brocato’s Eat Dat from New Orleans East, Olivier’s Creole Restaurant in the French Quarter, and Ms. Linda Green, a.k.a. “the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady,” a fixture at second line parades who has, more recently, been showing national TV audiences what Creole cooking is all about. And finally, the festival will also feature a comeback of sorts for Celestine Dunbar, of Dunbar’s Creole Kitchen, a pre-Katrina destination for Creole soul food that is now planning its long-awaited reopening next year in Gentilly.

They’ll all be serving gumbo, and, if we know anything about how this classic dish moves people, they’ll all be talking gumbo too.

WHAT: Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival

WHEN: Nov. 10-11, 11 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Congo Square, at Louis Armstrong Park

601 N. Rampart St., New Orleans

Visit the festival’s web site here.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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