How would Kenyatta Ashford act if he happened to catch me in Main Street Meats slurping a bowl of gumbo that had a scoop of potato salad plopped in the middle?
I'm blessed to know a handful of extremely talented, highly touted chefs, and Ashford is one of them. Born and raised between the Carrollton and Algiers neighborhoods of New Orleans, he's the only Big Easy native I know on a first-name basis, and when it comes to Creole food, I respect his authority tremendously.
Would he dart to my table in a fit of rage and slap the bowl of gumbo on the floor? Or would he just block my number in his phone? Would I be able to have a clean conscience while I party in a second line down Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, drink jungle juice-flavored daiquiris and eat chicken wings from Manchu, if the natives of New Orleans knew I swapped out rice for potato salad in my gumbo?
Let's not misconstrue things, I love potato salad (not the eggless kind). It's exalted alongside candied yams and collard greens in my holy trinity of side dishes. However, plopped atop a bowl of gumbo seemed appalling, unforgivable, horrendous or any other synonym for "egregious." Until now.
I immediately texted Ashford and was relieved whenever he replied, "Yes, I've had it. I like it because it showcases the dynamics of Louisiana cuisine."
Two years ago on Oct. 12, National Gumbo Day, WVUE FOX 8 in New Orleans asked its viewers, "Does potato salad belong in a bowl of gumbo or on the side?"
Of course, there were gumbo zealots who said the combination was "Russian propaganda" and others who replied, "Potato salad in your gumbo is like putting tomatoes in your gumbo, it just doesn't belong."
The same year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stirred things again on social media.
"Looks like we're in store for some cooler weather in the next few days, and you know what that means," he said. "It's time for Gumbo, Louisiana! And with that comes the age old question: What belongs in Gumbo, potato salad or rice? Let me know what you think."
That inquiry prompted The Advocate, the state's largest daily newspaper, to conduct a "very unscientific" survey. Out of 758 people, 376 said rice only, 90 people said potato salad and 281 people said both. The rest didn't favor rice or potato salad in their gumbo.
Despite Ashford's co-sign, I'll admit I was still iffy about whole thing. It wasn't until the night before I ate the gumbo that it dawned on me: Culturally, I didn't have a horse in the race, a dog in a fight or a finger in the pot.
My apprehension finally subsided whenever I found out the guy behind the gumbo — Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Ferguson — was from Mobile, Alabama. I thought back to when my good friend, pastry chef and Mobile-native Cynthia Wong, passionately explained how Mobile was criminally underrated for its Creole cuisine.
It all started making sense. Fifteen years before Louisiana was ever established in 1718, Mobile was the capital of Louisiana and the home to the country's first Mardi Gras celebration.
Ferguson harkened back to the first time he'd had potato salad in his gumbo, in Houston, around 200 miles from Lafayette, Louisiana and the neighboring Vermillion Parish — the heart of Cajun country and widely believed to be the birthplace of putting potato salad in gumbo.
"Before I was in Chattanooga, I lived in Houston," Ferguson said. "One of my sister's friends, who was from Southern Louisiana, was known for throwing these really big parties on Christmas Eve. It was a random group of misfits, restaurateurs, artists, musicians and chefs. That's the first time I had gumbo with potato salad, and it changed my life! I don't think I've had gumbo with rice since then."
From the taste of things, it seems like Ferguson has mastered the art of gumbo, but he openly admits that it's far more nuanced and complex than those outside a kitchen could ever imagine.
"I probably made my first batch of gumbo 20 years ago, but I didn't make a batch of gumbo that I was really happy with until about four years ago," he said. "It's just one of those things. You just keep making it and keep making it. You make mistakes, you learn things, you talk to aunts and friends and grandmothers and pick up things that they do.
"You start tweaking your recipe based on generations and generations of people that have been making gumbo," he said. "I've finally got it to a place where I'm happy with it."
Cooking for some people (myself included) is therapeutic. It's not just stirring, sauteeing, frying, braising, mixing and broiling, it's much deeper. Some people find a yogi and get into meditation, some seek a psychiatrist or religious council, some join a gym to thrash punching bags and lift kettlebells. Ferguson escapes to the kitchen.
"I learn something about myself every time I make gumbo," he said. "When you got that chocolate roux going and you're trying to take it to that next place, it's almost like a challenge in your fortitude and your ability to hold a little bit longer to get that roux to where it needs to be and how much courage do you have to take it to that next place, where it needs to be. When I'm going through difficulties in life, there's nothing that helps me more than making gumbo."
Growing up in Mobile, Ferguson thought seafood gumbo was the gold standard until about a decade ago, when a trip to Gumbo Shop in New Orleans inspired him to make the chicken and andouille style he serves at Main Street Meats today. He credits the restaurant's lofty attention to detail with how delicious his gumbo is.
"When you're making chicken and andouille gumbo, it's so much about proper technique and high-quality ingredients," he said. "We make the andouille and smoke the farm-raised chickens in-house. We use local okra and peppers. I wouldn't be able to make this gumbo as good as we're making it right now if it wasn't for the guys in our butcher room making the best andouille I've ever had in my life or the farmers raising those chickens in a healthy, happy environment and growing the best produce possible. All these things create a gumbo that's greater than the sum of its parts."
With what I know and what I've tasted, I feel more comfortable being one of the people who would have voted "yes" for a scoop of potato salad in my gumbo. I no longer fear being ostracized on my next trip to New Orleans. I've made peace with the bizarreness of it all by likening it to throwing a cool dollop of sour cream on a bowl of chili or coleslaw fresh out the fridge on a chili dog.
Furthermore, this dish is fleeting. It's a once-a-year pleasure, like the Daytona 500 or when a grandma goes through the tedious and burdensome task of cooking that pot of chitterlings only because it's Christmas. It's a dining experience that shouldn't be happening this far away from the marshes, bayous and swamps of the Gulf Coast, and most importantly, it's a dish that squashed everything I thought I knew about gumbo. And for those reasons, count me in.