1 Young Cajun, gender is optional
1 Unfamiliar Landscape
1 Serving of food-services “gumbo”
1 Extra serving of corn
Take Young Cajun and place into Unfamiliar Landscape. Let simmer for two months. (Important: During this time, do not add seasoning or spices of any sort.)
After Young Cajun has simmered long enough and is on the verge of Ragin’, separately heat the food-services “gumbo.” Add extra serving of corn to food-services “gumbo.”
Once all ingredients are ready, mix.
Serves absolutely no one.
That last bit about serving absolutely no one might be a little bit over the top. It all depends on how people feel about my writing. Over the years, it may have brought a little bit of joy to some people. But would the world have been worse off without me writing rants and screeds and, eventually, mildly humorous novels? Highly unlikely.
Still, if I’ve convinced even 10 people outside of Louisiana that gumbo does not have corn in it, then my work on this planet is done.
A reaction to faux gumbo may seem an odd route to becoming a writer. But it was, perhaps, the main catalyst that set me on my way. Yes, there were other steps along the way, including a poorly-thought out petition in sixth grade at Opelousas Catholic demanding the teachers quit giving the girls preferential treatment. There might even have been a rhyming poem or two in high school, records of which – thank God – no longer exist. But the fact was, after my dreams of being a military pilot had crashed, I was dead-set on marine biology and if I ever got around to writing, well, it’d be a nice hobby.
Then I went to college in Southampton, New York, at a Long Island University branch that has since ceased operation. In the early 90s, the “off season” for this playground for New York’s monied set really meant the off season. Once October rolled around, the sky turned gray and everyone except the students and the locals ran away. Grand Isle on Christmas Day was more happening. And the little bit of Southampton we occupied made Opelousas seem like a metropolis. Opelousas, after all, had McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Popeyes, Church’s, a Pizza Hut and two movie theaters. Southampton had a McD’s, a BK and a movie theater. Sure, it had some real restaurants but those weren’t accessible to kids who were scraping change out of ashtrays and couches to buy $1.00 packs of generic cigarettes at the Shinnecock Reservation.
But Southampton College did have something else: a cafeteria run by, if I remember correctly, Marriot’s food-services arm. And the food was unlike anything I’d ever had. My prior experiences with cafeteria food had been at Opelousas Catholic, Opelousas General Hospital and Piccadilly. I probably don’t have to tell any southerners about the delights of Piccadilly. And I should explain that the lunch ladies at both the school and the hospital could probably all beat Bobby Flay at any number of things. Their rice and gravy? Good lord. When Sonia, the woman who punched our meal tickets, shouted out “Beef stew, come on frew!” (I remember her with a British accent), it was music to my ears.
Southampton’s cafeteria was not like this. At all. They were good at cereal. And chicken cutlets defrosted in a microwave. But the “real” food was hopeless. It was beyond even the help of Tony Chachere’s and Tabasco.
The kids from the Midwest didn’t notice anything. How could they? But I certainly did. Raising a kid on Louisiana food and them dumping him into a situation such as this is cruel. (At this point, I didn’t know how to cook. Not that it would have mattered as there were no kitchens that semester to cook in. Also of note: no TVs or phones in the rooms. And the internet hadn’t been made public yet.)
As the days grew shorter and the nights colder, my spirit started to sag.
And then one day, they served gumbo.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I’d heard the Italian kids from the city and Long Island mocking the lasagna and other pasta dishes served. But the desperate have only optimism to cling to.
Gumbo is supposed to be as brown as bayou water. This was not.
Gumbo is supposed to be chock full of chicken and sausage. This was not.
No, this was a watery soup with a tomato base.
And corn. CORN! And green beans, too, I think.
It might have been a fine chicken soup, but all I could taste was heartbreak – heartbreak and rage.
This could not stand.
So I grabbed a pen and one of the cafeteria comment cards, rated its efforts a big fat zero in everything and when I arrived at the write-in section started scribbling like a mad man. I’m pretty sure I ended up taping three or four of the cards together. I explained what gumbo was. I sang the story of gumbo. This, I tacked to the cafeteria cork board, where it fluttered like a flag.
It wasn’t pure, unfiltered anger. It wasn’t the sort of outraged ranting you once found in the letters-to-the editor section of a print newspaper and now find in every comment section on the web, written by someone completely lacking in self-awareness and perspective, but abundantly overflowing with mouth-foam and spittle.
It had a fair amount of humor to it. How could it not? I realized I wasn’t tackling world peace or racism, but rather a mediocre soup with trying to rise above its station.
I’d like to think it read somewhere on the spectrum between Mark Twain and Ignatius Reilly. Of course, that’s giving myself entirely too much credit. I hadn’t read much Twain at that point and I’m not sure I understood what Ignatius was supposed to be.
Still, I wrote it. More importantly people read it. And they laughed. So I wrote a few more. And then a few more. Gary, the guy managing the joint for Marriot, likely hated me. And when the election came around the following year – between Bush and Clinton – I did the same thing for the school newspaper. It made sense. Forget Twain and literary illusions. I was likely more in line with old-school newspaper columnists who’d fight to right wrongs – or “wrongs” in this case – while entertaining the masses. It’s more fun to be that guy. While you’re making a slight fool of yourself and making people laugh, you can sneak in a few serious points at the same time. I’d like to think that even back in the day, while ranting about “gumbo,” that I slipped in some commentary on cultural appropriation in the lip-service of marketing multi-culturalism. Maybe I didn’t, but that’s how I’m going to remember it. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, etc.
Eventually, I dropped the marine biology charade (before the school dropped me for woeful performance in math and science) and became an English major. I don’t know if that was the wisest move in the world. I’m not complaining. I’m a lucky guy, one who’s found a way to make a paying living with an English degree. And I learned a lot about writing and fiction and art.
But for a long time I forgot that early lesson about leavening things with humor. I became one of thousands of serious, angry, literary young men on a mission to bore the world to death with his worldview.
I found my way back, eventually realizing that humor and that slightly unhinged outrage had been missing for far too long.
And it all started with the worst bowl of “gumbo” ever served.
Ken Wheaton will be with us on Thursday, October 6, 2014, 6:00 P.M. to read and sign his newest book, SWEET AS CANE, SALTY AS TEARS. He was born in Opelousas, Louisiana, in 1973. Raised Catholic and Cajun, Wheaton aspired to one day be a navy pilot but was sidelined by bad eyesight and poor math skills. He graduated from Opelousas Catholic School in 1991 and went off to Southampton College-Long Island University in Southampton, New York, intending to study marine biology. An excess of drinking and (again) a dearth of math skills led him to become an English major. From there he returned to Louisiana, where he received an MA in creative writing from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette).
Wheaton is also the author of THE FIRST ANNUAL GRAND PRARIE RABBIT FESTIVAL and BACON and EGG MAN, and is the managing editor of the trade publication Advertising Age. A Louisiana native, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York.