I’ve never actually made gumbo, which as an LSU graduate and the daughter of two Louisiana-born natives is embarrassing to admit and liable to have my “Cajun card” in question.
That’s why when my parents came to visit, I figured it was the perfect time to learn. Not to mention a great opportunity to introduce a little Cajun culture to some of our new friends in Mexico.
While Natalie and I have met some wonderful people here, two in particular have been unbelievable blessings to us; Claudio, our neighbor, and Susana, our Spanish teacher.
An Italian-born Frenchman, Claudio speaks 5 languages, and spends his weekends riding his Harley motorcycle with Solo Angeles (formally Hells Angels of Tijuana.)
Despite the seemingly tough exterior, he’s a big softy at heart with a flair for the finer things in life. He makes incredible pasta dishes, ice cream sundaes and cappuccino (which he drinks each morning with his chocolate croissant), and has taken us under his wing to ensure we don’t starve, get into too much trouble and also, that we have the complete Baja California experience.
A father-figure of sorts, he is a 15 year-old boy in a 67-year-old body and just as funny and entertaining as he is generous. He has served as our tour-guide, chauffeur (making several trips with us to the border, the San Diego airport and multiple stores around town) and also our stand-in dog sitter. Nimitz and Mugsy – especially Mugsy – adore him. (Probably because he feeds them pasta too!) 🙂
He keeps threatening that it’s time for us to leave the nest and “fly on our own” but we think he secretly enjoys having two stand-in daughters to look after. At least we hope he does!
A blonde German born in Mexico, Susana speaks 4 languages (yes, Natalie and I clearly need to up our language skills) and is as sweet as a sugar cookie. She gave us a hefty discount on our lessons so that we could afford to see her 3 times a week. An excellent Spanish instructor, she not only teaches us the language but also expertly educates us on pronunciation and Mexican culture so that we don’t embarrass ourselves too badly while here.
She and her husband, Jose, a gregarious local with an infectious laugh, treated us to a delicious dinner last week at their favorite restaurant. They have also escorted us to another border crossing, are a wealth of information about the local area and continually offer to help us in any way they can.
Needless to say, these folks have truly helped us over the last 6 weeks and while I know a dinner party isn’t much, I figured it would be a small way to say thanks.
After picking up my parents from the San Diego airport, we did a grocery store run to get all the necessary ingredients to make this most authentic Louisiana dish: Okra, chicken, sausage, shrimp, green peppers and onions, celery, rice, and also oil and flour for the roux (which starts the whole process and largely determines the flavor).
“You don’t have vegetable oil and flour?” my Dad asks when he sees them in my cart. “Only olive oil,” I answer without hesitation. How do I explain to him that my cooking these days comes down to scrambling eggs, stir-frying veggies, throwing a frozen pizza in the oven or microwaving a bag of popcorn?
“Do you even have Tony’s?” he asks with a look of serious concern. “Of course I do,” I respond. (Tony Chachere’s cajun seasoning is a household staple for all Louisianians). “I may not know how to cook Gumbo, but I haven’t forgotten my roots,” I reassure him.
“Ok, good. Well we brought the file seasoning (ground sassafras leaves) from home,” he tells me.
Getting all the ingredients in San Diego cost a small fortune, but apart from a tiny bit of crab boil we couldn’t find, we had everything we needed. My mom chopped all the veggies and my Dad supervised with making the roux and coaching me on how to put it all together.
It was a lot more labor intensive than I imagined, but after several hours, I officially made my first gumbo!
Now, while my name may be Rachel, I’ve never pretended my last name is Ray. But there was a time in my life when cooking and hosting get-togethers was a regular occurrence. When I tried new recipes looking for the ones that would “wow” my guests. When I loved pulling out my white china, setting placemats, arranging napkins with rings and silverware on a beautiful table that could easily seat 10.
Before I’d bring the hot dishes to the server, I’d invite guests to sip wine and sample appetizers on our two-piece wine bar. The music and lighting would be soft. The temperature just right. And if I did my job as a hostess correctly, no one had to ask me for anything throughout the course of the night and no one left without a fully belly, a huge hug and the warm feeling of being loved inside.
But all of that changed a few years ago.
Between a divorce, 4 moves and paring down from a 4-bedroom house to a single bedroom worth of stuff, I didn’t have the space nor the energy to entertain. But over the last few months I’ve realized how much I missed opening my home and sharing a meal with others. So, I vowed that when I got settled into our place in Mexico (and actually knew some people to invite), I’d start doing so again.
Of course, I don’t have any fine china here. Forget about a wine bar or server. I don’t even have 6 place settings that match! Our rustic wooden table only seats 6, so we squeezed in a folding chair I found stashed in my closet and asked Claudio to bring over two more wine glass so we would have enough. (I already had to borrow a pot from him to cook the gumbo!)
The plan was to make this incredibly yummy baked cheese appetizer but apparently Mexicans don’t eat havarti cheese or crescent rolls since I couldn’t find them anywhere. So, we we settled for cheese, crackers and apples which I displayed on the only available space in our tiny kitchen – the side of the counter.
I insisted on fixing everyone’s plate, not only because I was born and bred to embrace Southern hospitality, but also because once everyone was seated around the table, there wouldn’t be enough room for anyone to get up again.
Finally, we were all gathered snuggly around the table. There was a hodgepodge of dishes and glasses and a random assortment of silverware placed neatly on our make-shift paper-towel napkins.
It wasn’t fancy or impressive, but as I asked everyone to bow their head so I could pray, I was thankful. Thankful for each person. Thankful for the blessing of each life and the fact that I know mine is richer for having the privilege of sharing it with these people. And that’s exactly what I said.
As we ate, drank, shared stories and laughed, I realized it was the merging of two worlds – my upbringing and family life back home and the new community of friends I’ve made here. And that despite the differences in ages, cultures, language and religion, sitting around that table we were a family of sorts.
Considering everyone wanted seconds, I think the gumbo was a hit. And based on the feedback from Claudio and Susana the next day, they did indeed leave with full stomachs and full hearts. My only regret is that I was so caught up enjoying the evening that I forgot to take pictures!
Oh well. I know the memory of that night will not soon fade. Nor will my relationships with Claudio, Susana and Jose. And even though they were only here for 5 days, I know my Mom and Dad feel the same way.
This Christmas day I’ll be sitting at my parent’s large dinning room table with perfectly matching place settings, a gorgeous centerpiece and an exquisite meal that will rival anything from a 5-star restaurant. And while that will be wonderful, what I am most looking forward to are the people who will be around me; my family. These are the people who have been with me through countless ups and downs, know all of my failings and continue to love and support me unconditionally despite them all. Even when I do crazy things like cash out my retirement to spend a year traveling the world.
What I’ve come to understand after selling, packing up and leaving nearly everything I own behind is that the stuff in life doesn’t really matter, the people do.
Oh sure, there’s nothing wrong with nice things and I can certainly appreciate ambience and impressive decor in the moment. But what ultimately makes my life rich and beautiful are the people I spend it with. The people who laugh with me and cry with me. The people who disagree with me and love me enough to challenge me. And the people who will always be in my heart, even if we are thousands of miles apart.
The only real downside to this whole “Enlivening Adventure” is that I probably won’t get to see my family much over the next year as Natalie and I galavant across the globe, which is why I’m going to cherish every moment I have with them this Christmas.
The good news is that through people like Claudio and Susana, God has shown me that family can have a broader definition. And that if I’m willing to embrace those He divinely connects me with (and maybe even cook another Cajun meal or two), I’ll have family wherever I go.