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Gumbo Can Make You More Creative

Ice Cube said, “I don't cook gumbo, but I just know it's a lot of good ingredients in it. And, with a movie, you got to have all those ingredients.”

He’s partially right. Let me explain.

Photo credit: LouisianaTravel.com

Photo credit: LouisianaTravel.com

We had guests for dinner this weekend and they requested “anything Cajun.” Now I’m not Cajun, but I grew up in Baton Rouge. I grew up eating Cajun food. A lot of Cajun food. We even ate Cajun food for major holidays.

And now I cook Cajun food. A lot of Cajun food.

While cooking over the weekend, I had a big a-ha:

 

COOKING GUMBO IS AN EXERCISE IN CREATIVITY—JUST LIKE MOVIE MAKING

This is one dish that doesn’t require that the cook slavishly follow the recipe.

It’s forgiving.

It’s malleable.

It’s receptive.

Yes, it requires good ingredients, as Ice Cube said. But the ingredients are more flexible than you’d imagine. And the real secret sauce is how the cook brings it all together. Just like in movie making. Or writing. Or composing. Or engineering. Or designing…

Why?

 

1. GUMBO’S ROOTS ARE ECLECTIC—Borrowing a dark roux from French cooking, okra from West African cooking (the word gumbo actually derives from the Angolan word for okra kingombo), filé from the Choctaw Indians, and the “Holy Trinity” of South Louisiana ingredients: onions, green peppers and celery.

From its earliest beginnings, New Orleans was literally a melting pot of cultures. Each borrowed ideas from the other—in their arts, their architecture, their music, their lifestyles, their cuisine.

This was early fusion cuisine.

Gumbo has deep roots in creativity.

We can learn from this.

 

The Lesson: Fusing ideas is a great source of creativity. Fusing ideas from other cultures adds even more possibility of creativity.

Here’s a great resource for ideas from abroad... TheFunTheory.com:

TheFunTheory is an initiative by Volkswagen. The site is based on a theory: people will change to a new behavior if it is considered fun.

Volkswagen’s objective is to design environmentally friendly cars that are fun to drive—thus hoping to lead more people to be environmentally friendly.

This site has a collection of innovative ideas submitted by everyday people from around the world. They are brilliant ideas! For example…

  • How do you get more people to exercise? Connect a step machine to a pinball machine. The steps control the levers. Fun!
  • How do you get more people to wear a seat belt in the back seat? Put a digital game in the buckle—it only works when the seat belt is connected.

Check out the collection of ideas. They will likely spark new ideas for you.

 

2. GUMBO IS ALL ABOUT CREATING A DISH FROM WHAT’S ON HAND, AND THAT’S OKAY—Whether that’s seafood or chicken, sausage or ham.

In the early days, that’s how families cooked. Father caught a goose today, so we are having goose tonight, right? (Actually, it’s not so different now: Time to make dinner. What do we have in the fridge?)

Sometimes the constraint of working with what you have is the perfect setting for creating. It becomes your own little lab to explore, ideate, experiment—even fail.

This reminds me of the movie, Apollo 13. First of all, fantastic movie.

Here’s the scene: An explosion occurred onboard. One of the oxygen tank lines ruptured, which meant it was losing oxygen—rapidly. The astronauts were in grave danger.

The engineers on the ground needed to find a solution fast. One of the engineers dumped a box of miscellaneous items on the table and said, in effect, “We need to make this part connect to this part, and this is all they have to work with. Figure out a solution.” And the engineers jumped in. 

Image credit: Erick Mohr

Image credit: Erick Mohr

That combination of a life-or-death situation, a time limit, and limited resources is a winning combination for innovation.

 

The Lesson: Constraints enhance creativity.

I’m a firm believer.

Creativity is like that. It’s about making something from the materials on hand. Or writing from the memories and experiences on hand. Or painting from the visuals on hand. Or choreographing with the music and dance skills available. Or designing a building with the materials on the market and the lot available.

Here’s an idea: if the project you are working doesn’t have any obvious constraints, then give yourself one as you ideate.

I do this sometimes with my writing. I know what I need to convey in a specific scene, but I need a creative way to show it. So I give myself a constraint, such as: this scene is happening at night OR this dialogue is happening in a crowd. The constraint usually opens up new ideas that make the scene stronger, more compelling.

 

3. NO COOK CREATES GUMBO EXACTLY THE SAME AS OTHER COOKS—The process is generally the same, but the ingredients vary. As does the viscosity and the level of heat.

The only consistencies I’ve found are

  • Start with a roux
  • Incorporate the “Holy Trinity” of Cajun cuisine
  • And serve it over a heap of steaming hot rice.

Everything else is lagniappe (meaning: bonus, pronounced: lan-yap).

For example…

  • The Cajun version of Gumbo does not include tomatoes. The Creole version does.
  • Some Gumbos are thickened with okra. Some with filé.
  • Some are dark like espresso. Some are lighter—like a brown paper bag.

Gumbo permits the cook to express himself.

So each pot of Gumbo may have similar tones, but could take on different character or enhancements. I kind of like that. It makes eating Gumbo an adventure.

Individuality adds great flair to any creation. In writing, we refer to this as the writer’s voice. His or her own way of storytelling. It’s not only what the author shares, but how he shares it. And given that each person experiences life in a different way, the author’s perspective on the story is where individuality thrives.

It’s about bringing the pieces together and looking at them from different angles.

Imagining the possibilities of the various combinations that could be created.

Settings aside fear and taking chances.

Expressing yourself.

“Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.”  Martin Villeneuve, Director

 

The Lesson: Don’t be afraid to bring a part of yourself to the creation. That touch of individuality tends to be the part that others latch onto. The part that brings it to life for other people. The thing that sets it apart. It’s the glue. The connection.

When I think of individuality and creativity, Pablo Picasso comes to mind. Whether you are a fan of his work or not, I hope we can agree that he pushed the limits of individuality and creativity—and I love that he did.

Here’s a little quiz. Which of these paintings do you think is by Picasso?

 

Actually, all four are Picassos—spanning 40 years. His individuality allowed him the comfort to explore new styles of work. His skill, his talent, and his technique evolved over time. As his experiences grew, he allowed his individuality to expand. (Photo credit: pablopicasso.org)

What are some new avenues of creativity that you’d like to explore? Maybe it’s time.

 

 

SO WHY DID I WRITE ABOUT GUMBO THIS WEEK?

I’m a historical fiction writer. Most of my writing tends to be influenced by the South. So Gumbo and Southern fiction are a natural combination. And as you can see, Gumbo and Creativity are a perfect fit as well.

As you’re ideating, creating, innovating, or problem solving, ask yourself:

How can I pepper the Gumbo this time?

Want to be more creative? Cook Gumbo. Or at least eat it. After all, Gumbo is a right, not a privilege.

 

A LITTLE LAGNIAPPE FOR YOU: MY SEAFOOD AND SAUSAGE GUMBO RECIPE

This is the recipe I created this weekend with the ingredients I had on hand, expressing my own individuality, based on the style of Gumbo I like to eat.

 

Start with a Roux:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup oil

Mix the flour and oil over medium high heat—stirring constantly. (And I mean constantly!)

Cook until the flour turns the color of chocolate. The darker the better. but if you burn the roux, you have to throw it out. Remove from heat and set aside the roux.

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb link sausage – Andouille is authentic, but I only had Italian sausage on hand this weekend. It was perfect!
  • 1 lb shrimp – frozen is fine, but should be defrosted (not in a microwave though)
  • 1 lb other seafood – your choice: crab, more shrimp, crawfish, etc.
  • 1 box seafood stock
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 bunch celery, chopped, including the leaves
  • ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 T Tabasco sauce
  • 2-4 Dried Chili peppers – I had 2 Thai chilis left over from another recipe. Chopped chilis can also work, but will make the gumbo hotter.
  • 1 cup frozen okra
  • Salt
  • Parsley, chopped
  • Green Onions, chopped
  • Cooked rice – at least 3/4 cup per guest

Slice the sausage into coin-size pieces. In a large stockpot, brown the sausage in a little oil. Remove pot from heat and remove sausage from pot. Add onion, bell pepper and celery to the pot. Stir until everything is coated in the oil. Add roux to the mix. Stir until vegetables are completely coated in roux. Add seafood stock, water, and sausage. Return to heat. Bring to a light boil for 45 minutes.

Add salt to taste. Add Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, dried chilis, okra. Simmer for 30-45 minutes. Add additional peppers/Tabasco/hot sauce to taste. You can cook the gumbo in the morning and simmer all day. You just may need to add more water if it gets thicker than you’d like. Gumbo is good served either thick stew or runny like soup!

Cook rice. About 15 minutes before serving, add seafood to gumbo until shrimp turns pink.

Serve hot over rice. Top with chopped parsley and green onions.

 

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Bryan Searing