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Willie McGee's California Gumbo

My last Cooking With the Cardinals entry for this season was, well...

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St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

I'm reading David Wondrich's Punch, wherein he notes that every recipe leaves some things unsaid, relying on certain shared understandings between the writer and the cook. This becomes especially clear with historical recipes, such as the ones from the 1600s in Wondrich's book, but it can also happen with a 30-year-old gumbo recipe from a ballplayer's wife.

This week's recipe is my final one this season from Cooking With the Cardinals, the cookbook (actually two of them) put out in the late 80s by the "St. Louis Cardinals baseball wives."

Willie McGee - the Cardinals legend who won the 1985 MVP Award - is joining the club in some kind of coaching role this season, seemingly expanding his previous work with the organization. What kind of impact will he have on the current club? That's yet to be determined. But there is a question we can answer today:

How's his gumbo?

California Gumbo

Vivian McGee

10 chicken wings or drumettes

Crab bodies, if obtainable

12 lb crab meat

1 lb shrimp

Chicken bouillon cubes, as desired

3 cups flour

2 12 Tbs gumbo file

Herb seasoning, to taste

Seasoned salt, to taste


Boil chicken pieces in 2 quarts water with bouillon until almost tender and set aside. Boil crab bodies in separate pot in 2 quarts water for about 30 minutes and add crabmeat and broth to chicken. Add crab meat and shrimp to chicken mixture also, and season this to your taste as it simmers, cooking until tender.

Gravy: Mix together flour, gumbo file, and seasonings in skillet. Brown slowly over low heat, stirring constantly. When flour mixture is browned, add 1 cup at a time to the gumbo and simmer 30-35 minutes. Serve over rice.

So... I had concerns about this recipe on paper. As I read this, it's asking you to toast flour in a dry pan and then pour that browned flour right into your liquid. Most gumbo recipes would instead have you make a roux, where you mix the flour with some kind of fat. Then you add the roux to the liquid (or vice-versa).

I was presented with a dilemma: Adjust the process to what I expected would work better or try to execute it as-written. As David Wondrich might put it, I suspected that Vivian and I perhaps lacked a certain shared understanding about what was going on here. That happens a lot with these recipes. Even just 30 years on, the way we cook and the ingredients we use are so different, to say nothing of the cultural differences that sometimes emerge.

Ultimately, I decided that in the interests of JOURNALISM, I would stick to the recipe as written. And it worked out exactly as I suspected it would.

Adding dry flour to the gumbo - especially the huge amount the recipe specifies - caused significant clumping. Even though whisking the gumbo eliminated many of the clumps, what I was left with was a glue-like consistency... and I probably only put half the specified flour in. Had I put it all in, the gumbo would have been a brick.

The other issue with this recipe was the chicken, crab and shrimp all wound up over-boiled and tough. I would suggest first browning the chicken in a pan, using the chicken fat and possibly some added oil to make a roux, and only adding the crab and shrimp very close to the end of the total boiling.

The seasoning of the gumbo was pretty good, so if you'd like to give this a shot, I think you'll be okay there.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not especially well-practiced in the art of Creole Cuisine, but I did consult one dinner guest who was from New Orleans as something like a UN Observer through the process. But even with his help, I could not rescue the gumbo.

"A rare strikeout from Willie McGee," as Site Manager Emeritus Ben Humphrey put it.

But hey, let's not end things on a down note... instead, let's remember how great Willie McGee was as a player and watch his emotional goodbye to Busch Stadium.