Word had gotten out that my Swedish wife, Christina, could make a pretty mean Louisiana Creole gumbo, with a perfect sauce (roux) and that led to a gumbo night here recently at Chez Swafford for several Newport emigres from the South.
Our dinner guests were from Georgia and Florida, and they had made forays into New Orleans, where they had been exposed to that polyglot culture and its cuisine. I had also taken Christina to New Orleans where I had many cousins and where our daughter, Rachel, had earned a scholarship to Tulane University.
On one trip down for a family reunion, we learned of a tourist attraction that the cousins thought Christina and I should visit. We got up one morning and took a streetcar (named Desire?) down to a nondescript storefront in the French Quarter. It was 9 a.m., and the sign welcomed us to The New Orleans School of Cooking. Inside, we joined about 16 or 17 others in a classroom setting where the instructor stood behind a stove-top with an angled mirror suspended overhead so we could see what he was cooking. For the next three hours, we were treated to a lesson in history, in culinary techniques and a stand-up comedy performance better than a lot of late-night TV.
Joe Cahn, the founder of this "school," gave us the history of the region, the people and their many cuisines — all while preparing a meal that included jambalaya, pralines and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. The marvelous food influences came together from the French, Spanish, West African, Haitian, German, Italian and the indigenous people of the Southern U.S.
His lecture was side-splitting; his cooking made us salivate. "Come on up and stick your finger in the pot and taste!" There was no final exam. The lab demonstration became our lunch, and printouts of the recipes were our diplomas. Today on the website of the NOSC, I found pictures of Joe Cahn with Julia Childs and Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme. And sadly, an obituary reporting Joe's death last year. He was an original.
Gumbo is a variation of an African word, gombo which means okra, the vegetable that is a thickening agent for this spicy stew of andouille sausage, chicken and prawns served over rice. Normally one drinks beer with spicy gumbo, but there were several sturdy red wines we wanted to match with dinner. Sweeter white wines often go well with hot, spicy food, such as Thai dishes or Indian curries, but we wanted to experiment.
I had a Maryland Merlot (not Marilyn Merlot — that's another story) from the state where I grew up. I brought a bottle from Boordy Vineyards where I visited several times out in beautiful Maryland horse-country a half-hour northwest from Baltimore. This 2012 vintage that we opened with the gumbo certainly delivered what the label promised: black cherry, white pepper and plum from this full-bodied wine. There aren't many wineries in Maryland, but Boordy occupies a unique niche in this country's wine history.
The late Phillip Wagner came home from World War II, where he was exposed to wine in France, and planted vines at Boordy in 1945. His initial efforts were not very successful due to the difficult humid climate (which I remember as a boy). But Wagner stubbornly studied and experimented until he overcame the obstacles and began to create memorable and successful wines. He later became editor of the Baltimore Sun newspaper, and books he wrote on viticulture have become invaluable to the success of winemakers on the Eastern wine map of this country.
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Wine cellar of note: For 41 years, the wine cellar at The Bay House Restaurant has been growing, and today it can claim to be one of the best, not only on the coast, but in the state of Oregon. However, changes are coming. Steve Wilson and his partners, owners of this destination restaurant where many of us for years chose to celebrate special occasions, have decided to sell the property. The plan is for The Bay House to be reincarnated in a new location, near the present Siletz Bay site, as an eco-friendly inn and restaurant with overnight accommodations on 36 dramatic hillside acres. The next chapter will begin after October, so we have little time to help lighten the load on the wine cellar before the move.
Joseph Swafford [email protected]