Monday, May 21, 2012


Please welcome my guest and friend,Gretchen Craig. As you will see from her post, Gretchen knows how to hook readers. Here she is:

Gretchen Craig

A lot of the research for my books has centered on antebellum New Orleans.  Would you like to know who the governors were? Yeah, I figured that would not be particularly interesting. But I think all of us who ever had to feed our families day after day are interested in the usual kitchen in 1820s Louisiana.

Start with fuel. They burned wood and coal. Wood was plentiful, as you can imagine, and our imaginary Cook – let’s call her Lucienne -- would have preferred that in her brick oven and grill. But charcoal had its uses, too, for heating the house for instance. We always think of how steamy New Orleans is, and it is, but two of the most miserably cold days of my life have been spent in New Orleans in December (1968 and 2011), and I lived in Maine for ten years.

Lucienne might have cooked
on a stove like this
Lucienne would have had a cistern in the courtyard behind the house.  Rain, as you know, is also plentiful in Louisiana, and drains from the roofs into the cisterns, many of which were big, big as my Camry turned on its nose, maybe. She used cistern water for laundry and bathing. She could have used it for cooking, too, but mostly, she bought her drinking water from vendors who did not get it from the nasty Mississippi river. Even in 1820, it was a sewer for the town and for the scores of ships docked at the levee at any one time. There is/was a bayou north of town whose water was much cleaner, fresher, and clearer. Other streams abound as well. So some enterprising fellow would have loaded his wagon with barrels of water and hawked eau through the streets of the Vieux Carre.

The French Market, the same one along the river that’s there now, busily serving beignets and coffee, had everything. Cocoanuts from Cuba, bananas, grapes, peaches, rice, okra, live chickens, watermelon, sausage, French bread, corn, and on and on. Lucienne had no refrigerator, of course, nor an ice box. They could get ice once the steamships started speedily delivering it in the 1820s, but it was a costly luxury. People were not accustomed to icing their drinks, anyway, so no keeping foods cold in Lucienne’s kitchen.  Instead, she shopped often, and what she bought was fresh. Organic, in fact.

New Orleans French Market, founded 1791

Lucienne had a safe in her kitchen. My grandmother had one, too, and likely so did yours. It was a wooden cabinet with punched tin facing so air could circulate. It kept the mice and most of the bugs from getting the food, and seemed to work quite well. Today, I wouldn’t think of leaving leftover fried chicken or ham on the counter for several hours until the next meal, but my grandmother and my aunts did it all the time and none of us seemed any the worse for it.

Antique pie safe with punched tin panels

Lucienne seldom baked bread. It’s a lot of work, heats up the house, or the courtyard if she cooked out there, and it was readily available at the market, delicious, and fresh. She did make beignets for a treat, sometimes, and if she was an interested cook, not just a feeder of children and husbands, she probably made pralines.  She squeezed fresh juice for her children, sliced up pineapples and mangos and bananas every day. And she made soups and stews – gumbo!

Gumbo comes in as many varieties as there are cooks. And as for my own gumbo, it’s different every time I make it. For one thing, one is meant to use what one has available. Lucienne, and I, feel we must have okra for our gumbo, though if you go to some very nice restaurants in New Orleans today, they will tell you okra is not the thing. Well, humpf. I want okra in mine.

My husband makes gumbo with an actual recipe and puts file in his. I don’t much like file, myself.  (It’s dried sassafras and it’s gray and you can buy it in cute bottles in most any grocery, even here in Texas.) Rather than give you a precise recipe, I’m going to tell you what I like to put in mine without bothering with measurements. Who measures? As for the rice, you can cook it in the pot with everything else, or you can cook it separately and spoon the gumbo on top of it. Whatever. New Orleans, after all, is known as the Big Easy. 

Yum! Gumbo...but it's
best with cornbread or French bread

Most Creole cuisine starts out, “First you make a roux.” I’m sure that’s delicious, but it’s also too much trouble for me.  So I start by sautéing onions, garlic, and green and red bell peppers in olive oil. Butter is gooood, but olive oil is healthier.  Then I pour in a box or two of chicken broth.  A can or two of diced tomatoes, with or without the spices. As for adding my own spices, depending on what I have, I add basil, garlic, black pepper, salt, and cilantro. If I’m going to add sausage, which I recommend, I add the cut up pieces now and let it all simmer together for a while.  You can add canned or frozen corn. How much? Some.  (Now don’t go adding beans of any kind. That is just wrong! Save them for your beans and rice dish.)  If you can get fresh okra, and you have the blunt, as they said in Regency days, to pay for it, that’s super. Otherwise, frozen cut okra is great. Don’t worry about overcooking the okra. It is also your thickener.  All of this can simmer for anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  If you want the rice in there with everything else, be aware you want lots more liquid than the rice package calls for. Your gumbo should be fairly soupy, but not too soupy.  Otherwise, go ahead and start the rice about twenty minutes before you mean to serve it. Then, just a few minutes before the rice is ready in its own pot, add the shrimp to the stew and cook just until they are curled and pink.

Serve with a salad, if you must. And serve with French bread, or corn bread. And iced tea and/or wine. Bon appetit.

Gretchen Craig’s lush, sweeping tales deliver edgy, compelling characters who test the boundaries of integrity, strength, and love. Told with sensitivity, the novels realistically portray the raw suffering of people in times of great upheaval.

Gretchen was born and raised in Florida. She’s lived in climates and terrain as diverse as the white beaches of the Gulf Coast, the rocky shores of Maine, and the dusty plains of Texas. Her awareness of place imbues every page with the smell of the bayous of Louisiana, the taste of gumbo in New Orleans, or the grit of a desert storm.

Gretchen writes historical novels with romance elements. EVER MY LOVE and ALWAYS AND FOREVER are set in Louisiana among the Cajuns, Creoles, and slaves. Her latest two manuscripts, now making the rounds of the Publishing gods in New York, are also set in New Orleans. Setting inspires her writing, and she has conjured up the heat and aridity of the pueblos in CRIMSON SKY as well as the heat and the humidity of the Everglades in THEENA’S LANDING. She’s yet to write anything set in a cold climate, but she’s thinking about those frozen steppes in Russia.

Learn more about Gretchen and her books here:

Amazon Page:

Mmmm, now I'm hungry for gumbo, aren't you? Thanks to Gretchen for her interesting post. 
Thanks to you for stopping by and reading.!                       


Tanya Hanson said...

Howdy Gretchen, what gorgeous covers! Congrats! Louisiana and New Orleans are definitely on my Bucket List. Thanks for the wonderful pix and insights.

Paty Jager said...

Fun post, Gretchen. I met a Louisianan this weekend and he told me to find your way out of the woods in Louisiana you follow an armadillo. He said they always find the roads!

Anonymous said...

Tanya, go to Beaux Bridge, eat at Mulattes, and dance the Cajun two step! Very funny about the armadillo, Paty. Thanks for commenting!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Gretchen, I love your covers as well as your writing. Thanks for being my guest today and tomorrow.

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Gretchen, I enjoyed your post so much! I just never pictured women at that time serving fruit juices and using fresh fruit so much -- or even that they had such a variety. One of my all-time favorite movies is "Saratoga Trunk" with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Reading about gumbo and your recipe reminded me of Ingrid in search of the best gumbo in New Orleans. And, yep, she soaked up the last drops with French-type bread. :). - Ashley

Ruby Johnson said...

Your post is a guidebook for any author who wants to give authenticity to their setting. I always loved the pie safe in my mom's kitchen. It now sits in my own. Although I don't store pies and bread in it like my mother, it's amazing how far we've come from the 1800's. Thanks for a great post and the gumbo recipe.

Gretchen Craig said...

(I'm the Anonymous posted above. I didn't think I had told it to call me that, but must have.) Anyway, setting, as you mention, Ruby, is important to me when I'm reading a novel or writing it. Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux, for example, couldn't take place anywhere but Central America, or so it felt when I read it. Thanks for writing, everyone.