There is a communion of sorts that takes place when musicians gather together, combining their individual sounds. Notes, emanating from a variety of instruments each producing unique sounds that meld together, creating ditties, harmonies and masterpieces. I am not musically inclined, but I can testify to having been moved by music. More than once, I’ve considered the Beatles library and felt surely that God had a hand in putting John, Paul, George and Ringo together.
I was reminded of this sentiment this past Sunday at a screening of the film Live at Preservation Hall: A Louisiana Fairytale. Presented at the Carver Theater as part of the Sidewalk Film Festival, director Danny Clinch’s film documents a moment in the life of the revered musical institution on Peter Street in the French Quarter.
Members of the indie rock band My Morning Jacket collaborated with the gentlemen from the Hall, and this movie captures that brief union.
While God may have not been mentioned—frankly, I was too enthralled to recall specifically—there is no denying the comparisons to traditional religion:
Preservation Hall as hallowed church, the vintage microphone as altar, the swell of spirit not unlike that of a Baptist revival. It did not feel like a coincidence that the screening took place on a Sunday.
Watching the film, I was overcome with a feeling that life in the kitchen is not unlike what I was seeing on screen. The assembling of ingredients, the prep, thoughtful consideration and the application of heat all end in in a kind of alchemy. I’ve often quietly thought of the six-burner gas stove in my “big-girl kitchen” as an altar of sorts. I’ve supplicated over the cast-iron skillet and asked for divine intervention in creating the perfect roux (“Brown, dammit! Brown!”).
I was not the only one feeling this connection between great jazz and soul-satisfying food. There is a scene in the film which My Morning Jacket’s drummer, Patrick Hallahan, is in the kitchen of Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe, asking to be taught how to make good rice. The guys from each musical group are taking a break from jamming to enjoy some traditional New Orleans culinary fare. Gathering in the small galley kitchen, they are making gumbo z’herbes (“gumbo zeb”).
Most folks outside of the Crescent City may not be familiar with this version of the Louisiana classic. Gumbo z’herbes draws on the West African influence in the region and uses a heaping variety of greens (beet tops, collards, kale, etc.) to round out the dish. It is a labor-intensive recipe that will have you praying over the pot. Not always a vegetarian dish, the greens provide a cost-effective way to make a little meat in the pot go a long way. Served over rice, the pot might even be enough to serve the members of two collaborating musical groups.
The film goes back to Preservation Hall where the guys are finishing up their performance. Like that Southern revival, the show went on way longer that anyone had planned—4 a.m., by some accounts. The concert ends with something akin to the ecclesiastical recessional: the revered second line. The band members stream out into the streets of the Quarter, still playing their respective instruments, the congregation/ audience joyfully tailing behind, dancing all the way. I can testify that everyone at the Carver Theater that afternoon was moved by the same spirit and wished they too could fall right in line.
There are almost as many versions of this recipe as there are cooks in New Orleans.
I like this version:
Gumbo Z’Herbes (adapted from Susan Spicer’s Crescent City Cooking, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) Serves 10
˝ cup vegetable oil
˝ cup flour
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped 2 medium turnips, peeled and chopped into
1 cup chopped green onions (white and light green parts only)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced 6 cups washed, dried and chopped greens (use a mixture of turnip greens, kale, spinach, chard, carrot or beet tops, etc.)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
8 cups chicken stock, warmed
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon file powder
1. In a large heavy pot over medium-high heat, heat the oil until almost smoking. Slowly whisk in the flour; continue whisking until the flour is cooked, forming a roux. The color should be like that of peanut butter. This might take longer than you think, so be patient.
2. Add the onions, bell pepper, celery, turnips, green onions and garlic. Stir to coat, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the greens, stir and cook for about 10 more minutes, or until they are wilted. Add the thyme and 2 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil, add the remaining chicken stock and bay leaves, reduce heat and simmer for one hour.
Remove from heat and slowly add the file powder to thicken the gumbo. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce. Serve over hot white rice.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings online at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).