Anticipating Christmas: Shrimp and Okra Gumbo
This season find joy in the ‘ho-hum’ of life
BY JEFF YOUNG
In November 1971 Carly Simon released her second studio album, Anticipation. The title track of that album soared to No. 3 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, and the following year it nabbed her a Grammy nomination for best pop female vocalist. It’s a song, she later revealed, that she wrote on the guitar in about 15 minutes while waiting for Cat Stevens to pick her up for their first date. It’s a song that has endured and is still one of her biggest hits. Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this in 1971, since I was not quite 18 months old when “Anticipation” hit the airwaves. And yet this song played a big, big part in my childhood … thanks to Heinz ketchup.
In 1974, Heinz ketchup picked up the chorus of “Anticipation” and, changing just one word, they transformed it into not only a catchy jingle, but also a very effective marketing campaign that continued to run through 1979. It went like this: “Anticipation, anticipation, it’s makin’ me wait.” I can hear it now, just thinking about it. And I can see that thick, rich red ketchup slowly moving toward the opening of the glass bottle. And I can feel, well … the anticipation. It was very effective. (You can watch the commercial on YouTube at CDmag.net/2xEIBVr.)
The impact of Heinz ketchup on my early culinary development should be appreciated. You could argue that Heinz ketchup is what caused the development of my palate, because in my early years, there was not much I would eat if it were not first topped with, or dipped in, Heinz ketchup. Mercifully, my palate did develop. But my craving for anticipation did not. Let me explain.
When I reflect back on the Christmases of my youth, what I remember most is the anticipation, the excitement of waiting for what was to come. Not just the morning of or the day before, but starting with the return to school after Thanksgiving. From that point everything focused on Christmas and fueled my anticipation: the crafts we made at school, the Christmas specials on television (such as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas), the lights and decorations throughout my neighborhood and town, the colorful Santa-themed ads for toys and games inserted in our local newspaper … everything was Christmas. And I was excited.
Yet invariably, whether I received everything on my Christmas list or not, my anticipation, my excitement, would end in a sense of crestfallenness … of disillusionment or disappointment. Not that I would have described it that way. I didn’t know those words back then. What I knew was this Christmas had come, and Christmas was now gone for another year, and I felt disappointed … because the anticipation, the excitement, was gone. Life now reverted back to being ho-hum. And I was not OK with ho-hum. It has taken me decades to learn the lesson (and I’m still learning it!) that I did not learn at Christmas time when I was a kid: The best that life has to offer is found in the ho-hum, not in the anticipation.
By getting caught up in the excitement of anticipation, I missed so much “real life” in the here and now. The same thing happened at the first Christmas. For centuries and centuries, the people of God anticipated the savior. They awaited him with eager expectation. Yet when he arrived, they missed it. Born in a humble stable, in the ho-hum of life, he was welcomed only by poor shepherds and a few foreigners. And his own people continued to miss him for the next 33 years.
Obviously things didn’t work out between Carly Simon and Cat Stevens. Despite the fact that she protested in the lyrics that she was not a prophet and didn’t know nature’s ways, she said those were the good old days.
Right now, these are the good old days. This is where life happens, not in the excitement and anticipation of what may come. For me this has been a hard lesson, but one that has been worth the wait.
And speaking of waiting, a good Christmas gumbo is worth the wait, too. This is one of our cherished Christmas traditions: shrimp and okra gumbo. Making a roux is tricky, and takes patience, but it is worth the wait. The trick is to stay in the here and now and not get distracted.
- 1 cup oil with a high smoke point (anything from bacon drippings to goose fat to vegetable or canola oil)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 or 5 yellow onions, chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 6 strips of bacon
- 2 pounds of frozen okra, cut and thawed
- 2 cans diced tomatoes with chilies
- 8 cups of shrimp stock (can substitute chicken stock)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 pounds medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 cup green onions, chopped (plus extra for garnish)
- ½ cup parsley, chopped (plus extra for garnish)
For the roux
- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add oil and heat until it begins to sizzle.
- Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Continue whisking until the roux reaches the color of dark chocolate. Be careful not to burn the roux.
- Once the roux has reached the desired color, add the onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic. Stir well, and allow to cook down for about 5 minutes or so. You want the veggies to soften and become translucent.
- Remove from heat and set aside.
For the okra
- Heat a high-sided skillet over medium-high heat, then add the bacon and cook until crispy. Remove and set aside.
- To the drippings from the bacon, add the okra and cook it down (“brown” it) for about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add tomatoes (including the juice). Then remove and set aside.
For the gumbo
- In a heavy stockpot over medium-high heat, add the roux and the stock. Stir to incorporate, then add the okra and stir again.
- Add the wine, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, salt, and cayenne.
- Stir well and bring to a simmer. Allow the gumbo to simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, continuing to allow the gumbo to simmer.
- Taste for seasoning and thickness. Make adjustments as necessary.
- Make rice according to package directions. Once the rice is done, add the shrimp to the gumbo. Be careful not to overcook the shrimp; they only need about 5 minutes to cook completely.
- Once the shrimp are cooked, you are ready to eat! Serve the gumbo over rice in a bowl. Keep hot sauce on hand in case anyone wants to add it to their bowl. Have extra chopped parsley and chopped green onions available to garnish individual bowls.