Feb 20, 2023

WAITING FOR GUMBO - a short story by Roger C. Lubeck



Wilson picked out a white plastic spoon from a paper cup stuffed with spoons and rolled napkins. The corners of one napkin had someone’s barbeque fingerprints. Around him, the crowded room groaned with the sounds of black and white people devouring whole sides of beef and pork. Ordinary folks eating family style at Carmen Lee’s Southern Café. With the gospel brunch over, the afternoon jazz lunch was in full swing. Sitting at a single long community table, Wilson listened to complete strangers share stories of their lives in between plates of Etouffee and bowls of seafood gumbo, while Miles Davis’s muted trumpet added background to the soulfulness of the food.

            The owner and chef, Carmen Lee, moved in and out of the room, greeting everyone with the warmth of her smile, hugging the regulars, and kissing a few of the older men.  Carmen Lee’s legend went beyond the comfort of her food.  Married three times, rumor had it her first husband died on their wedding night and the second she shot for cheating on her with a bow-legged white waitress in a chicken shack in Kansas City. Bernard, Carmen’s third husband was still new to the cafe and Carmen’s ways. A lean, older man with white whiskers, Bernard stayed close behind Carmen carrying bowls rice and plates of Carmen’s delicious Creole creations. Bernard liked to joke that he was no saint, but neither was Carmen Lee.

            Carmen stopped at the table behind Wilson and gave him a wet kiss to the cheek and hug.  Her blue cotton dress and stained white apron smelled of sweat, garlic, and love. Wilson stood and gave her another hug. She was an armful of woman.

            “It’s been too long, Sugar,” Carmen said.

            “I just got out of Angola.”

            “Youse do the crime, youse do the time,” Bernard said, ready with a platitude for any situation.

            “Yes, but a whole year without Carmen Lee’s cooking, that’s capital punishment.”

            Wilson and Carmen laughed together. They were old friends; at one time more than friends. Carmen gave Wilson another hug and kiss, this time on the lips.

            “Have you met Bernard? We got married after you left.”

            Bernard set down a bowl of dirty rice, a plate of red beans, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the table in front of Wilson and offered his hand. His grip was firm.

            “You’re a lucky man,” said Wilson.

            “I knows it,” Bernard said, looking at Carmen Lee.

            Wilson sat wondering what Carmen saw in the old hound dog. His understanding of women was a black hole. The smell of the beef and livers in the rice brought him back to reality. Wilson’s mouth watered. He wanted to dig into the rice and beans, but he had come to Carmen Lee’s for two things. Now, only one was available, the shrimp gumbo.

“How soon?” he asked Carmen, when she passed by again, this time with a bowl of greens.

“Bernard’s adding the Gumbo File’ right now, Sugar,” she said, lightly touching the back of his neck. “You have to be patient.”

Wilson knew that the ground sassafras leaves made gumbo what it was. That and the okra. Not every New Orleans or Creole cook included okra, but Carmen’s recipe called for fresh okra added at the same time as the shrimp and sausage. At the last minute, Carmen sprinkled slivers of roasted okra and a pinch of Gumbo Filé on top of each bowl to thicken and brighten the Creole stew.

            Wilson was working on his second glass of brown ale when Mama delivered a black iron skillet full of bubbling gumbo. Behind her, Bernard set down an empty soup bowl, and a bowl filled with white rice. Customers could decide how much rice to mix in with their gumbo.

            “This is on me, Sugar,” Carmen said, giving Wilson a soulful look as Dexter Gordon’s “Round Midnight” came on the jukebox. “When you're done, maybe we can have a dance.” 

            In the skillet, the brown-green gumbo bubbled; thin wisps of steams emerged up from the bottom of the skillet. Plump shrimp and pieces of sausage floated on the top of the southern delight. Savoring the first spoonful, he realized the waiting had been worth it. Fat Tuesday wouldn’t be complete without a bowl of Carmen Lee’s Gumbo.

One time, Wilson asked Carmen what made her gumbo so good?

“Patience, timing, and a little love,” she answered. “The roux can take over an hour of constant stirring. You have to wait for just the right moment when the color of the roux changes from brick red to dark brown. Too soon and you have a tasteless soup, too long and the stew will taste burned. When the roux is just right, and only then, can you cook the carrots, celery, peppers, and onions followed by the fish stock, and tomatoes. Gumbo is a labor of love,” she added.

Tasting another spoonful, Wilson knew Carmen was right. Gumbo, like love, was all about patience and knowing when the moment is right.

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