The last time I gathered with my family at a restaurant was in February to celebrate my niece’s 18th birthday.
I remember well the young waiter eager to make the occasion special, down to supplying candles for my niece’s dessert. I fondly recall the feel of the hard-cover menu and the beautiful chaos of my large, far-flung family playing musical chairs as we tried to catch up on each other’s lives, then quieting down to dutifully listen to the recitation of specials.
I remember being pleasantly surprised that this particular restaurant hadn’t abandoned white tablecloths, as so many other fine-dining establishments sadly have.
The evening was perfect, and underscored why I love the communal breaking of bread, social engagement and ambience a restaurant, be it five-star or dive, can deliver.
I’ve returned to restaurants during the pandemic, but with far fewer people under more sanitized circumstances and less often. Enjoyable, intimate restaurant dinners are still to be had, but I miss the pre-pandemic days.
Maybe it’s magical thinking, but I respectfully call B.S. on dreary predictions that our restaurant habits will never be the same, that we’re sentenced to a life of grubby sweatpants and scrolling food-delivery apps. Restaurants nourish us, but also feed our need for community. Plus, someone else washes the dishes.
One positive thing about the pandemic is that it made 2020 the year of the home chef, many of whom have more time than they probably wanted to make meals from elaborate recipes.
With those home chefs in mind, this issue features some of the most coveted gumbo recipes on the upper Texas coast, though coax as we might, we couldn’t pry loose some long-guarded proprietary secrets.
Gumbo felt perfect for this issue and for everyone craving the communal components of good food. Brett Otteman, general manager of Katie’s Seafood House at Pier 19 in Galveston, put it this way: “I believe gumbo was invented to feed family and friends with the passions of camaraderie to enjoy the friendliness, goodwill and conviviality of all that we hold dear — food, hospitality and celebration.”
One of my favorite gumbos was created by Clary Milburn, a Louisiana sharecropper’s son who rose from waiting tables to launching the venerable Clary’s Seafood Restaurant in Galveston. Milburn was known for his Southern hospitality, Stetson hat and skill at preparing Louisiana-style gumbo and shrimp dishes.
Before his death in 2016, Milburn invited me to his restaurant to watch him make gumbo. He wanted to teach me some tricks. Even as I took copious notes, I knew I’d never make gumbo like he could. It was like Renoir trying to teach me to paint. Clary’s Seafood Restaurant is no more. But the memories are with me.
So, though I plan to try some of these gumbo recipes, I also plan to enjoy them at their home restaurants with family and friends.