"I've lived on the East Coast. I've lived on the West Coast. But there's just something about the Gulf Coast that beckons to me," says Lucy "LuLu" Buffett as she takes in the lapping waves of the Boca Chica Sandbar in Key West, Florida. Her legs hang over the side of a motorboat, feet dangling above friends paddling off that evening's spread of Caramelized Onion-and-Spinach Dip, a West Indies salad spangled with hunks of crab, and, of course, LuLu's famous gumbo.
The self-taught chef might have taken a circuitous path to the kitchen, but her dark-roux gumbo—a heady collision of cayenne, bacon fat, and filé powder—has been something of a culinary lodestar. It was there for her in the mid-'80s, when she ditched her job in Fairhope, Alabama, and headed to Belize to cook for Harrison Ford on the set of The Mosquito Coast. Later, it was her way out of SoHo, when cooking aboard an Antiguan yacht proved more appealing than a degree from the French Culinary Institute. And in the late 1990s, it was Buffett's ticket home to coastal Alabama, where she eventually opened the first LuLu's location on Week's Bay in Fairhope.
These days, her nomadic tendencies are behind her. Buffett's two LuLu's locations (in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Destin, Florida) are perpetually at capacity, with diners willing to wait hours for a taste of her Gulf-tinged fare. Is it the sweeping beachside views that draw thousands of nightly diners? Or could it be the Parrotheads who inevitably wash up, prompted by her older brother's on-stage endorsements? It's a question that stumps Buffett.
But not her dedicated clientele. Nor the cadre of friends who often pop into her home to find a cold cocktail and an impromptu platter of white Cheddar pimiento cheese whisked in front of them. Hospitality has been ingrained in Buffett's DNA since she was a child in her grandmother's Pascagoula, Mississippi, kitchen, where neighbors regularly dropped by for some good conversation, a slice of pound cake, and maybe even a shot of rum.
So when guests show up at Buffett's Key West home and see a serving of her grandmother's Cheddar-inflected potato salad—you know, just in case they're in the Creole habit of adding a dollop to their gumbo—is anyone surprised? Absolutely not. This is a part of Buffett's "gumbo love," a phrase she adopted years ago, which has since taken on a life of its own. Not only is it the title of her upcoming cookbook (the highly anticipated follow-up to 2007's LuLu's Kitchen, out next spring), it's a warm paean to Buffett's Gulf ancestry, and the dish that brought them all together on Friday nights.
"Gumbo love has evolved into a philosophy and a true connection to my past," she says. "It's synonymous with my outlook on life and how I share my love with people. And that's through food and entertaining. Gumbo love is supposed to be fun. It's not all about hard lessons."
"I always have some nibbles to start with while folks are milling around with drinks," says Lucy. After marinating in a collection of sweet, sour, and spicy ingredients for one week, this “sweet and sassy” appetizer does the trick.
Recipe: Sweet and Sassy Icebox Pickles
Dressed with candied pecans, radishes, olives, and parmesan, this simple tossed salad is the perfect opening number.