You’ve probably never made gumbo z’herbes. You may have never even seen it.
In the pantheon of Louisiana gumbos, where Creole gumbo, chicken and sausage, and seafood gumbo reign supreme, gumbo z’herbes is an outlier.
You are probably not even pronouncing it right (it is gumbo zerb, not gumbo zey herbes).
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With its verdant color and its barely roux-thickened broth, which is fortified with meat, it doesn’t resemble any gumbo you’ve seen either. And unless you have a friend in the Catholic Creole community, your best chance to taste it is to visit Dooky Chase’s Restaurant on Holy Thursday (which is the Thursday before Easter for all you non-Catholics).
Why don’t we eat gumbo z’herbes year-round like we eat other gumbos? I posed that question to chef Leah Chase in the Dooky Chase kitchen during my customary pre-lunch visit. Chase looked at me with consternation as if I should already know the answer. She doesn’t suffer fools.
“Because it is hard to make!” Chase exclaimed and then proceeded to detail the history and the process of the dish.
“The Catholics,” she explained, “on Holy Thursday we go to Mass and then we have one dinner, this big dinner where we can eat meat and everything. And then on Friday they wouldn’t give you anything to eat, you’d be stealing a piece of bread. They want you to fast all day Friday, so on Holy Thursday you cook these greens and you put a whole lot of meat in them.”
This sounds easy enough, but the process is arduous, and like so many other New Orleans traditions, it is steeped in superstition.
“You have to have uneven numbers of greens. Five greens, seven greens, nine, 11… like that. No even numbers. That’s bad luck,” Chase offered.
According to lore, the number of greens used in the dish would equal the number of new friends you would make that year. I’m not sure why it is bad luck to meet two, four or six new friends but I was assured that it was.
Not only are the number of greens important, but the choice of greens as well. Chase uses nine different greens in her gumbo z’herbes: collard, mustard, turnip, spinach, beet tops, carrot tops, cabbage, watercress and kale (which apparently you can find in New Orleans despite reports to the contrary). Watercress is a substitute for peppergrass, which according to Chase, used to grow wild in the neutral ground.
“Years ago you would see the old people – and those were white and black alike – digging in the neutral ground out there. Digging for a certain kind of grass. And that was peppergrass. It had a little lemony flavor. But now it’s hard to find,” Chase explained.
But picking the greens is only part of the process. They also need to be cleaned, then boiled, and then ground, while the cooking liquid is reserved to be used in the finished dish. While that process is underway, the meat is browned in a separate pan.
“Now the meat is the big thing in here,” Chase said, belying the name gumbo z’herbes.
“We have two kinds of sausage, a fresh sausage that we call chaurice, and smoked sausage, and ham, veal stew, and chicken. You have all that meat in there. You sauté that and then you put a little flour in there to make a light roux… then you add your greens,” she expatiated.
If all this sounds impossibly rich and extremely involved, remember that this meal is essentially designed to deliver you to Easter, with two long days of fasting in between.
Holy Thursday at Dooky Chase is a New Orleans tradition and the toughest reservation in town. The crowds are large, and fed in two seatings. Chef Chase makes so much gumbo z’herbes that chef John Folse grinds the greens for her. Upwards of 240 gallons of gumbo are made for just one day. For those that can’t score a table, takeout is available. But get there early because the lines are long and the menu is limited.
“All we serve is the gumbo z’herbes and rice and chicken on Holy Thursday. That’s it,” Chase said with a smile. “And if you don’t want that, tough toenails.”