The last Sunday in the Season after Epiphany has gone by many names throughout the years, including Fat Sunday and Egg Sunday. Those titles refer to its place of prominence in the season of carnival, which literally means “farewell to meat.” This celebration developed almost accidentally as people began to use up all the things that they were giving up for lent—meat, eggs, sweets, and fat. This practice eventually led to great celebrations that often are a foretaste of the Easter feast. Most of these carnival celebrations were outside of the liturgical life and control of the church, yet the church sought ways to give these events theological purpose.
The traditions that follow the Revised Common Lectionary designated this Sunday as the best day to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. That feast had been celebrated at various time of the year, but most commonly August 6th. It is a pre-Easter view of Jesus in glory and serves as a perfect bookend to a season that began with the parallel story of the Baptism of Christ. The food that is most historically linked to the feast is grapes, because the grape harvest began in August. Many throughout Europe celebrate by eating grape jams and jellies or red wines. The way that humble grape juice transforms into quality wine through the process of fermentation has been thought to be a symbol of the power of transfiguration.
Our recipe recommendation for this special day is gumbo. It relates more to the end of the carnival season as celebrated on the Gulf Coast. You can’t have Mardi Gras without gumbo. We think that it also is a transformative food that epitomizes the deeply layered American life. It has origins as a Native American stew served over corn, a French bouillabaisse and roux, African okra and cooking style, and Caribbean seasoning, all transfigured into a dish that is a uniquely American treat. In some parts of the Gulf Coast, people go from house to house ceremonially collecting the many ingredients needed for gumbo before converging with all the neighbors at a central square where the cooking and revelry begin. Dance parties called fais do-do, often last until midnight on Tuesday, when lent begins.
As children of the Gulf Coast and heirs to this great tradition, we think that gumbo is the perfect way to end the Season after Epiphany and celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ. Our recipe is one that we learned from childhood, but there are as many gumbo recipes as there are shrimp in the bayou. Use our recipe or one of your own, but don’t forget to “laissez les bon temps rouler!” (pronounced “Lay-say le bon tom roo-lay” – “let the good times roll! – in cajun French”)
The Transfiguration by Raphael, c. 1520
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 lbs)
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Fresh oregano (for seasoning)
Fresh thyme (for seasoning)
Fresh rosemary (for seasoning)
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of pepper
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon of curry powder (optional)
8 cups of water
1 1/2 lbs of smoked sausage, sliced into 1/2 inch thick coins (Use andouille or Cajun sausage for best flavor)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 large yellow onions, 1/4 inch dice
7 stalks of celery, 1/4 inch dice
3 bell peppers, 1/4 inch dice
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 lb of fresh okra, caps trimmed, pods cut crosswise 1/2 inch thick
- Combine 6 chicken breasts, 2 – 3 cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary, 2 bay leaves, 2 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of pepper, 1 tsp of cayenne pepper, 1 tsp of curry powder in a dutch over or other large pot. Add 8 cups of water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down the temperature to bring the pot to a light simmer.
- In a separate skillet or pot, cook the sliced 1 lb smoked sausage until browned over medium-high heat, about 6 – 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked sausage to the simmering pot of chicken and seasonings.
- The Holy Trinty: Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the sausage fat in the skillet and then sauté the diced onions, celery, and bell peppers (known as the “holy trinity” of gumbo.) Sauté over medium-high heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the trinity of veggies from the skillet and place in the simmering pot with the chicken, sausage, and seasonings.
- The Roux: In the skillet of leftover sausage fat and olive oil, add 3 tablespoons of vegetable shortening over medium heat. When it reaches medium heat add 2 cups of all-purpose flour. Stir constantly until the mixture reaches a creamy texture. You may need to add a bit more shortening to get the right consistency. Continue stirring constantly until it turns deep brown. Be careful to not burn the roux. If it burns, start over. Once it is a deep brown, remove from heat and add to the simmering pot of chicken, sausage, veggies, seasonings, and stir to combine.
- Add the 1 lb okra to the simmering gumbo pot and stir to combine.
- Simmer the gumbo for 1 – 2 hours (stirring occasionally) or until your desired flavor and consistency has developed.
- Serve over rice.