Holidays can end all at once, like the final jingle bell note on the radio’s last Christmas song at 11:59 PM on December 25. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, lingers on in most households. In fact, some would argue that the post-Thanksgiving uses of cooked turkey equal or top the big day’s feast.
Before the day is done, folks who eat their holiday bird on the early side are likely to throw together—and throw down—a bodacious turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing sandwich. The one time of the year when white bread is essential for any self-respecting lover of food.
By Friday or Saturday, many of you probably made turkey soup. The How and When of post-Thanksgiving soup, salads, sandwiches, etc. probably depends on family tradition and the culture where you live. I’ve never lived in Louisiana, but in our house we insist on making a post-Thanksgiving turkey bone gumbo, which I did Saturday. And oh, cher. It was some good.
For the last twenty or so Thanksgivings, I have made turkey gumbo. Sitting at the holiday table on Thursday I already could see that smoky gumbo that would grace our kitchen in the next days. And that’s part of the whole celebration. Gratitude for what we have and for what ELSE we will make of the fruits of the harvest.
So, the day after we ate the bird, I made turkey bone stock, and the next day, after freezing some of it and reserving a quart for turkey soup, I put two quarts of stock into this year’s gumbo. Here in northern New England, I used Gaspar’s Chorico instead of a Cajun sausage, but I’m getting ahead of myself because it all starts with a roux.
In the beginning, there was flour. And oil (some prefer butter). I turned that roux over and over with my wooden spoon (many prefer a whisk), cooking it long and slow, until its color reached just past the dark rust of our dear Roux’s ears.
I didn’t spend my youth in a kitchen, standing right beside a Cajun maman, but I was blessed to have some guides who let me work in the kitchen with them, and who shared some inspiring books. Like regular readers of this spot, I could apply Bandura’s reciprocal determinism concept to explain these learning experiences, but they invite reference to another great psychological theorist, Lev Vygotsky. Like Bandura’s explanations, Vygotsky’s lean heavily on social factors. As I sure did in so much of my own learning.
Guides play a role in Vygotsky’s perspective, and they don’t have to be formal teachers—just people who know more than you do and who work alongside you in a way that fosters learning. Typically, the learner starts by watching the more skilled person do the task that s/he can’t yet do alone. After observing the process, the learner begins attempting some of the tasks alongside the guide, and gradually the “teacher” does less and less, as the learner does more and more, until the novice can do it without the guide’s help or presence. Scaffolding is what we call the support and help that we get from others during this kind of learning. That guide in your learning process is providing critical Scaffolding that enables you to learn.
That may describe how you learned how to change a flat tire, or bake a pie, or do quadratic equations—a point I made to my students when they studied social learning theory.
I’ve gotten to do that with great friends in the Rockland, Maine soup kitchen. How many soup kitchens feature Paris-trained French cooks like my buddy Jean-Baptiste, who once cooked at the French Embassy in Washington? Love picking up bits and bobs about kitchen life while making a mid-day meal with Jean-Baptiste, Shirley, and Tina for people who need it. Their kitchen guidance and support was scaffolding for me. It was not the first I received.
I’ve also learned from other cooks who functioned in that Vygotsky guide mode, like teaching pal Paul McGarvey, whose French diaspora cooking knowledge took off when he served two years as a Peace Corps worker in Tunisia then reached new levels when he made trips to New Orleans, where his daughter worked in some of the city’s best restaurants.
He came back with experience, ideas, and books. In 1994, he gave me a copy of La Cuisine Cajun by Jude W. Theriot, which plunged me into the food of that part of the world. It’s a great resource I still use, but I probably learned more from pulling together meals as Paul’s sous chef.
Books vs. Buddies? Not at all. In most of life’s activities, we do not learn by relying only on books or only on other people. In fact, the two go hand in hand. In 2008, thanks to my daughter Anna, I read Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen, a fantastic book about the diverse worlds of New Orleans food. By then, I’d become a happy convert to Louisiana food. That set me up for richer collaborative learning experiences in the kitchen. That and other books—and Paul and other cooks—turned me around like they were wooden spoons and I was a roux.
Food culture does that to us: makes converts of us. To convert means to turn, and food conversions can be a very good kind of turning. Any serious personal learning involves being changed. And with food, going forward with our learning often entails going backwards in time.
People of a certain age often develop a keen interest in genealogy. They search for data, stories, artifacts, and photographs that make them feel connected with past generations of their own families. Food is part of that conversation. If you know and use recipes from Mom, Safta, or Aunt Flo, you are fortunate indeed. Eating the same foods our families enjoyed before our time is a privilege to be savored.
Learning about food that strangers from different cultures (or our own subcultures) have eaten also changes us in good ways, lessening the otherness about those people and their cultures, and connecting us as only food can connect. When we break bread with strangers, we often part as friends.
I’ll close with a passage from Roan’s book that catches the unique power of food in culture and how falling in love with food truly can leave one converted.
“Like born-agains of any denomination—Christian, Buddhist, Weight Watchers—New Orleans converts tend to exhibit a more innocent, rose-colored zeal for their church than the flocks who’ve yawned through the motions all their lives. This is how quixotic, goateed hipsters wind up sitting knee to knee with strawberry-nosed lifers in the city’s grittiest barrooms, like the Ninth Ward’s Saturn Bar and Uptown’s Brothers Three Lounge, regarding them as palaces of culture. It’s what moved Massachusetts-reared Emeril Lagasse to turn cayenne pepper into a sound effect. And it’s how I wound up taking fourteen pounds of mirliton, eight pounds of eggplant and two refrigerators’ worth of greens into my kitchen over the course of a single month.” Thus spake the author on the verge of cooking her first gumbo z’herbes. https://edibleneworleans.ediblecommunities.com/recipes/gumbo-z-herbes
Books and buddies can lead us to very good changes indeed.
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Ned Bachus is the author ofOpen Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love(Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.