Gumbo Day

Thanksgiving has officially come and gone. Our bellies are still full from the feast, the detritus of which lingers on the dining room table. And in my house, my dad is busy cooking up the traditional Day After Thanksgiving Turkey Gumbo. It’s a time-honored tradition in the Zelda household, handed down from one generation to the next (the recipe — which is really more like general guidelines — is in fact scrawled on a tattered and well-stained piece of stationary, dictated by my father’s father to him and with interjected advice from one great aunt or another). Thanksgiving for me isn’t really complete until I’ve got a steaming bowl of spicy Cajun stew in front of me, complete with oysters, andouille sausage, rice, plentiful filé, and a healthy splash of Tabasco.

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My contribution to the Thanksgiving bounty

There are many reasons Scout likes to make fun of my family for being “ridiculously wholesome.” I grew up with story time and song time and summers in New Hampshire and Friday night dinners where we each say what we’re thankful for that week. This is not to say that my family is a picture postcard vision of hand holding and tranquility 24/7. Like any family, we fight and push each other’s buttons and can drive each other up the wall like no one else. But most days, there’s nobody else I’d rather hang out with, which on more than one occasion has led Scout and others to engage in a little light mockery. For example, a few years ago, I found myself home for the holidays and having coffee with a former editor. He asked me how my break was going, and I enthusiastically replied that it was going great, it was so good to be home, I’d been spending lots of time with my family…at which point he stopped me with a raised eyebrow.

“So, you guys actually enjoy spending time together?” he asked.

I shrugged and told him that yes, unbelievable as it might sound, it was true that dinner with the five of us is usually a good time.

“You realize that’s weird, right?” he responded.

Other folks can mock all they want (haters gonna hate, y’all), but I love my sassy yet wholesome family, in all our weirdness. And nothing brings out our peak levels of Norman Rockwell-worthy H-Team-ness like the holidays.

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My father, the apron model

We’re big on traditions in my house (see story time, song time, and dinner traditions above), and the holidays are when we really go all out. I wrote last year about some of our December traditions — tree trimming, carol singing using custom (personalized) songbooks my father made one year for each member of our extended family, you get the picture — but post-Thanksgiving gumbo is really where it all starts. As soon as everyone has licked the last bit of pumpkin chiffon from his or her plate, the dill rolls have been bagged up, and the remaining green beans and sweet potatoes have been tucked away in the fridge for later on, my dad begins the task of deconstructing what remains of the turkey. All Friday long, he boils and skims and seasons. My mom, usually the culinary maestro (or rather, maestra) of the house, clears out, at least until it’s time to whip up some rice, toast a baguette, or throw together a salad if we’re feeling really fancy that year.

My father is an enthusiastic genealogist. Few things give him as much joy as discovering some forgotten family artifact or tracing a line of ancestry back another step. For his birthday recently, he asked for “an hour in which to sit down with me and my siblings to show us family trees and discuss our heritage.” That’s the level of ancestry nerd we’re dealing with here: In another life, the man could have gone pro. And so I think that’s why this particular tradition is so close to his heart, and to the rest of ours, too. His dad, my grandpa, died when I was 5. I don’t remember much about him, but what I do remember is this: He loved music, he loved food, and he loved family. Gumbo Day is his legacy in our house, when my dad throws on his Tabasco or New Orleans apron and fills the kitchen with the smell of his childhood — summers in the bayou with a grandma who made jambalaya and étouffée and, yes, gumbo, and cursed in Creole French when she was frustrated (another tradition my father has continued, to the best of his not-really-French-speaking abilities).

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The Maestro at work

Thanksgiving is the day when we take stock of the things we’re grateful for in our lives at this particular time. We catalog all the moments of joy and love that have brightened the 365 days since we last gathered together. But Gumbo Day is about reaching back a little farther. It’s a day for celebrating our roots, for remembering that a quarter of my blood is seasoned with sassafras and okra and Tabasco and the salty breeze off the bayou. That even though my speech is largely twang-free, my roots are draped in Spanish moss and sprinkled with beignet sugar.

Every night before dinner, my family says grace. On an average night, we go with a quick Madeline, a reminder of how much we love our bread, our butter, etc. But on Fridays or Sundays or special occasions (which these days is any time all five of us are together), my dad will go off the cuff. We groan and roll our eyes as he gets long-winded. But at the end of the litany is a chorus that we say tous ensemble. Whatever else we may give thanks for this night or this week or this year, we are always grateful, most of all, for how much we love each other.

Happy Gumbo Day,  y’all. May your stew be well-seasoned, may your bowl be full, and may you be surrounded by family and love, in whatever form it takes.

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