I’m not a big fan of jazz. It lacks lyrics and drones on and on. But, I’d gladly fork out $70 for a ticket to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival just for the food and to solve a mystery. Of course once there, I’d stroll over to hear some zydeco (it gets me dancing) or some gospel (so I can sing along) and seek out the mysterious Dottie and Russ.
Every year Jazz Fest is on my Go-To list. Friends who lived there during the 1970s and the festival’s formative years first invited me. I never made it, but after reading Julie Smith’s Jazz Funeral mystery filled with thrilling chase scenes around the festival stages and interesting musicians, I vowed to go. Just not this year. Instead, I listened to live performances online thanks to WWOZ Radio – the Guardians of the Groove station featured in the HBO Tremé series.
The festival’s food lineup keeps the Creole and Cajun flavors honest and authentic with vendors only from Louisiana, hailing from exotic sounding places like Golden Meadow, River Ridge and St. Francisville as well as the New Orleans area. The dishes are even more exotic – quail, pheasant and andouille gumbo, muffuletta, crawfish bread, jambalaya, alligator pie, sweet potato pone, red beans and rice, boudin balls, shrimp, sausage and okra gumbo, shrimp po’boy, couchon du lait, beignets, pralines and lots of sno-balls (yes, they’re ”balls” not “cones” in New Orleans).
And while I listened to WWOZ, I flipped through the pages of the best jazz gumbo book ever written, a gift from a couple I never met, Dottie and Russ. Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz by the late Howard Mitcham features great recipes interspersed with vignettes on jazz musicians, song lyrics, historic photos, and Mitcham’s own illustrations and woodcuts.
I found my copy of the cookbook at an estate sale and it comes with an intriguing story. The book was a Christmas gift in 1987, according to the personal note inside. It was presented with two tapes recorded to follow the format of the cookbook to get the recipient “dancing in the kitchen.” The gumbo recipes are paired with music by Al Hirt and Pete Fountain but the note implies the gift givers recorded it themselves. How I wish I had the tapes (and a tape player) to know which numbers the clever Dottie and Russ chose for the following recipe. I’m intrigued, too, by their identity. The signature doesn’t match Dottie West, but could it be Dottie Rambo singing with Russ Taff? Dottie Rambo, the mother of Reba McIntyre? Or is it Dottie and Russ, the starving musicians who lived upstairs? It’s a mystery.
Making gumbo is no mystery to Mitcham, however. In Chapter 3 he calls Creole gumbo “la soupe divine.” He describes creating it like improvisational early jazz — a lot of blue notes, flatted fifths, discords, and glissandos for spice. The chapter includes six gumbo recipes – oyster, crab, crab-hominy, seafood-sausage-chicken, shrimp-tasso and creole. His recipe usually takes a crew to make, but you can make my version on your own with frozen seafood and boxed seafood stock, plus some long-playing music.
I could drive to New Orleans and back in the time it takes to make this recipe. I’ll bet, however, it took Dottie and Russ even longer to record such a loving Christmas gift for friends.