Gumbo has always been a part of Derek Hicks’ life. But for most of his life he didn’t like it.

“My grandmother (Sadie Dean) made gumbo as long as I can remember. And her gumbo is fantastic. But I had finicky tastes.

“I didn’t like watermelon, black-eyed peas. I didn’t like a lot of soul food.”

Later in his childhood, his tastes changed and he got to the point where he could enjoy at least some of the gumbo.

“I realized I had a taste for the rice, the chicken and the sausage. But my grandmother was heavy-handed with the crab legs, the shrimp. And she had okra in hers. I would dig around the seafood and the okra to get the chicken, the sausage and the rice.”

Hicks, 42, has come a long way. He now makes his own gumbo. Like his grandmother’s, it has become a New Year’s tradition.

Gumbo also figures into Hicks’ professional life. He is the Henry Luce Diversity Fellow in the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, and his research often finds him studying the role of food in black culture and religious life.

Gumbo, he said, is an apt metaphor for the diversity of black culture and religious life in this country.

“I’m pushing back against the melting-pot thinking in America, where we all blend into one flavor,” he said. “Gumbo has all these distinctive things that create a single dish, but still within the context of the dish you can taste all these individual flavors.

“And there’s not just one black religious life. There’s Christian, voodoo, Islam, and others. Like gumbo, it becomes more robust the more complex it is.”

In January, he will teach a course called Culinary Culture in the Black Religious Experience. Word is already out that he plans to treat his students to a pot of gumbo. “I think that’s why some of them signed up,” he said.

Hicks grew up in Los Angeles, but his family is from central Louisiana. “My grandparents were part of the great migration after World War II,” he said.

He grew up with his grandparents because he never knew his father, and his mother suffered from a series of illnesses.

Gumbo made from scratch can be a big production. “My grandmother would start thinking about it before Christmas. I could always mark the time by my good friend Robbie who would call or come over and say, ‘When is Mama Dean going to make her gumbo?’”

Though Hicks gradually came to admire and enjoy gumbo, it wasn’t until the last few years that he made the leap to being a gumbo cook. It became a matter of necessity one year when he was living in Pennsylvania and was unable to travel to Louisiana for the holidays.

He didn’t want to make his grandmother’s gumbo because he still didn’t care for seafood, but his wife’s uncle made a good chicken and sausage gumbo, so he called him to get him to explain it over the phone.

“It was OK,” Hicks said of his first attempt. “But the next year I saw him after Christmas and he said, ‘I’m going to make gumbo. Why don’t you come by?’”

Hicks’ gumbo made a big leap then. “Just seeing the roux and how he did it, that was it.”

Hicks has continued to make and refine his gumbo.

Perhaps because he doesn’t make it often, he makes a lot of it. His recipe makes upward of two gallons and can feed 25 or more people. Fortunately, the recipe also works when halved.

It’s typically a two-day affair that starts with making a big pot of chicken stock.

“I’ll go to every store in town that sells andouille to find as many kinds as I can,” he said. “I just like all the different tastes.”

He also uses an array of seasonings that includes lemon pepper, basil, Worcestershire, hot sauce, Creole seasoning and Southwestern chipotle seasoning that ebb and flow “with the mood” and with his constant tastings as he cooks.

He has yet to make a seafood gumbo. “I still can’t eat crab at all,” he said.

“But this year, I just might put in shrimp because I know that would light my wife’s fire.”

Chicken & Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Makes 25 to 30 servings

For the stock:

3 pounds chicken thighs (preferably bone-in)

4 pounds bone-in chicken breasts

1 onion

2 celery ribs

Handful of fresh parsley

1 tablespoon Tony Chachere or other Creole seasoning, or to taste

1 tablespoon Lawry’s seasoned salt

For the gumbo:

2 large yellow onions

1 red onion

2 bell peppers

1 whole bunch of celery

1 bunch of green onion (use just the white part)

3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs

4 pounds bone-in chicken breasts

2 to 3 packs andouille sausage (about 3.5 lbs), sliced

3/8 cup vegetable oil

½ cup all-purpose flour

4 quarts of store-bought chicken broth (in addition to homemade broth)

½ cup Worcestershire sauce, or more to taste

½ tablespoon minced garlic

2 to 3 bay leaves

½ cup fresh parsley leaves (about 1 bunch), chopped

¼ to ½ cup dried basil, to taste

1 tablespoon Southwest chipotle Mrs. Dash

1 tablespoon Tony Chachere or other Creole seasoning, or to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon pepper or to taste

1 tablespoon Kitchen Bouquet (gravy darkener)

Louisiana hot sauce to taste

1 to 4 small chicken bouillon cubes, optional

Gumbo File to taste

Hot cooked rice

1. For the stock: Roast the chicken thighs in the oven until brown. Place thighs and any juices in pot with onion, celery, parsley and Creole seasoning and seasoning salt. Add 4 to 5 quarts cold water to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer 1½ hours. Add chicken breasts and simmer 1½ hours more.

2. Cool to lukewarm. Strain, remove the skin and bone. Chop and reserve all of the breast meat and some of the thigh meat, as desired. Refrigerate meat and broth overnight. (See Note.)

3. Scrape excess fat from the top of chilled broth and discard fat.

4. For the gumbo, chop the onion, bell pepper, celery and green onion. Set aside.

5. Brown the sausage in a large skillet. Set aside.

6. In the same skillet, add the oil to the grease left over from browning the sausage. Heat over medium-low heat. Drizzle in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for 30 to 45 minutes, until tan to chocolate in color. Watch closely because the roux can burn easily. Lower the heat if needed.

7. Mix the veggies into the roux and stir for 10 minutes.

8. Transfer the veggie-roux mixture to a large, 10- to 12–quart pot and add the homemade chicken stock and store-bought broth. Stir well and bring to a boil over high heat. Add ½ cup Worcestershire sauce, garlic, bay leaves, parsley, ¼ cup basil, Southwest chipotle Mrs. Dash, Creole seasoning, lemon pepper and Kitchen Bouquet. Stir and taste, then add hot sauce as needed. Taste and add 1 to 4 bouillon cubes if liquid needs more flavor.

9. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 1½ hours. If the mixture seems too thin or too brothy, sprinkle in some gumbo file to taste.

10. Add chicken and sausage to pot and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and adjust spices before serving. Serve over rice with gumbo file powder and hot sauce on the side.

Note: The full recipe takes about 4 quarts of homemade stock plus 4 quarts of store-bought stock, or a total of about 2 gallons of stock. The amount of stock does not need to be exact. A little more stock will make a soupier gumbo; less stock will make a thicker, more stew-like gumbo. If using already-made broth, simmer the chicken pieces in that broth until they are cooked before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. This recipe also can be halved, to serve 12 to 15 people.

Recipe from Derek S. Hicks.

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