Grief leads us into the kitchen. There, we craft the most tangible offerings of comfort. Yet the physical and emotional devastation surrounding September 11, 2001, had us all at a loss: How could we console the thousands we'd never met, yet with whom we felt a kinship?
Simplest solutions included donating much-needed blood or money, and proudly flying U.S. flags. But five south Louisianans took their compassion 1,200 miles farther. Following their best instincts and a map, they headed toward the ruins of New York City's World Trade Center towers. Their mission? To serve the rescue workers healing bowls of chicken-andouille gumbo.
"Gumbo is the ultimate comfort food-it's good for the stomach, but also the soul," says Danielle Bradley. She and husband Shawn, his brother Jarred, and friends Amanda Smith and Kari Andrews decided to share Shawn's grandmother's recipe with the exhausted firefighters, police officers, and "bucket brigade" workers they'd seen on TV.
"Shawn got tired of seeing them surviving 18-hour shifts on nothing but hamburgers. He thought they needed more uplifting food. So we all took off from work to go give 'em some."
Hauling 10-gallon stainless-steel pots,"cast-iron skillets, ingredients including New Orleans tap water "so it'd taste like
home," dozens of French bread loaves, 20 King cakes (Mardi Gras desserts), and more, the group headed out on the morning of
September 19 in a truck/camper/trailer spanning 47 feet. The journey from St. Charles Parish
to lower Manhattan took 34 hours-and a lot of determination. "We had two instances where the trailer wanted to break off, so we had to stop twice and get welders to make repairs. We thought we'd never get there," Danielle says. "But we did. And we were glad they were glad to see us."
Calling themselves "The Gumbo Krewe," the quintet began cooking on September 21, only a few blocks from the destruction. Based on their warm reception, they went back for a second visit on All Souls' Day (November 2); future visits are in the works.
So far, Danielle estimates they've served more than 50,000 bowls. Meanwhile, they heard haunting stories about the promising lives of lost loved ones, and nightmares the workers were experiencing, both asleep and awake. For the time they spent cooking in NYC, they're still getting appreciative letters.
"Gumbo is one of those foods that once you start making it, everyone gets 'round the pot and adds thoughts about what should go in it," Danielle says. "So there's a lot of conversation-and love-that makes its way into each pot."
And the gumbo itself stirred up some conversation.
"For a long time everyone was calling it 'jumbo,' " Danielle laughs, "or 'that soup.' And then they'd say, 'You all are from New Orleans? There aren't critters in there, are there?' What they seemed to love most is that we made it in front of them. They were amazed-the aroma would bring them in from everywhere, and they lapped it up."
In the 10 minutes they'd take to eat, the workers found a welcome respite from the chaos all around. "They seemed to completely forget about what they were there to do," Danielle says. "When we got there nobody was smiling. But after they'd eat the gumbo, we'd see at least a few smiles."
Louisiana families have known for generations that gumbo is the ultimate dish for peace and comfort. In this case, the steaming bowls of goodness united total strangers and sustained them. For the New Year, our gift to you is a gumbo for every season. Each recipe offers the best of winter, spring, summer, or fall. And the best of the person who makes it.