The summer before I went off to Oberlin College, my family and I drove from South Dakota to New Orleans, and then on to Florida. At that point, my culinary leanings were still quite unformed and unacknowledged by my consciousness.
We spent the night in New Orleans and ate dinner in a really fancy restaurant—Arnaud’s. Why my father picked Arnaud’s over Antoine’s or Gallatoire’s, I don’t know. However, that meal was one of the events that changed my life.
I remember it fairly clearly. I had a seafood gumbo. I had never tasted such an orchestra of flavors! Every one of them spoke loud and clear. Crab. Fish. Okra. Filé powder. I had never had such a soup, and I haven’t had a gumbo to match it since. And it may be a while, as BP is now in the process of destroying the Gulf of Mexico.
Gumbo is an African and Native American dish. The word itself represents okra, a popular vegetable in West Africa. The soup is also thickened with filé powder, made of ground sassafras leaf. It is similar in appearance to Green-green, a stew that I tasted years later in Ghana.
I don’t remember any other part of that meal other than the dessert. I ordered a napoleon. As with the gumbo, I had never had one before. But I knew that it was lousy. The pastry was soggy. However, I could taste in it the elements of a great dessert—creamy filling, smooth, sugary fondant. At that point, I didn’t know what a crème pâtissière was. Or fondant. But I did know that such a dessert could be another orchestra—of flavors and textures. But it fell far short.
I think that, in the back of my mind, I knew from that meal, that my life would transition from music to cooking. But I wasn’t ready yet. I was still an unformed, confused teenager.