Lately I've been branching out, not because Liuzza's has slipped (though no two gumbo batches are ever alike, even at the same restaurant), and not because I've found a dish more adept than gumbo at transmitting the city's character directly into the bloodstream. I've been branching out because there are enough crazy-good gumbos in New Orleans to humble a platoon of pompous gourmets, and I won't miss a single one.
Gumbo, both making it and enjoying it, is intensely esoteric: whatever style a person grows up eating -- okra or file, seafood or chicken, dark roux or no roux -- seems to remain his ideal for eternity. I fed samples of The Real Pie Man's blond, herbaceous file gumbo to two Louisiana natives. While it transported one back to his grandmother's gumbo pot, the almost-clear broth reminded the other friend of school lunches in New Iberia. Not having a genetic predisposition for a certain gumbo style myself, I'll sadly never fit into the society of Louisianians who were weaned on roux-thickened seafood stock and hot bits of andouille (full disclosure: my own mother excelled at heating cans of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup).
During moments of optimism, however, I'm content to appreciate the array of gumbos set before me without the hindrance of a gold standard. I may not have roux in my genes, but I do have the luxury of enjoying equally, without betraying any ideal, Liuzza's chocolate-brown gumbo, Willie Mae's light tomato and okra stew, and Leah Chase's refined equilibrium of sausage, ham, chicken, shrimp and medium-bodied broth.
If I'm partial to any gumbo style at the moment, it's the lusty, oily, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gumbos served on Fridays at soul food restaurants like Harbor Restaurant & Bar, The Inn Restaurant and Two Sister's Kitchen. A recent bowl at Two Sister's hardly qualified as a soup or stew: a heaping pile of smoked sausage, loose hot sausage, threads of crabmeat and crab legs, chicken and chicken bones, tiny shrimp, and okra towered well above the bowl's lip; the white rice supporting this magnificent pile soaked in just a shallow pool of orange-like broth flavored with dried herbs and tomato. Chef-owner Dorothy Finister calls this a seafood gumbo, but she doesn't use oysters, saying they turn sour as the gumbo sits. While it's true that the first whiff is of damp shrimp shells and brackishness, there's more meat in Finister's gumbo than you'll find in an order of her exceptional, long-cooked turkey wings, and I encountered a few animal parts I couldn't name but devoured anyway. When I asked about the wilted okra on top, Finister said it was probably skimmed from a nearby batch of stewed shrimp and okra.
There's a life force present in this no-holds-barred gumbo style that I find both comforting and electric. The portion at Two Sister's is so huge that reason demands you stop eating at a certain point. But that's impossible; the promise of each spoonful is too alluring to let alone. Two Sister's gumbo comes with a side of saltines and mostly-mashed white potato salad studded with sweet pickle relish. You take a bit on your spoon, dip it into the gumbo heap, and pull out a rendering of potatoes and gravy that somehow only makes sense in the South.
Gumbo is long not the only satisfying meal at Two Sister's. I talked to a local musician who's been eating there for 20 years and still feels "like a kid in a candy shop" when he reads the menu. You'll see people eating stewed hen, smothered rabbit, chitterlings, liver and potatoes and ham hocks. Mustard greens were gritty one afternoon but cooked so well -- wide leaves with bite but no bitterness -- that I ate them anyway. Salty fried chicken with a thin golden skin is best if you catch it fresh from the oil, though that's not easy during lunch when the wood-paneled room swells with customers and the kitchen holds loads of food in warmer pans. For side dishes, there's buttered white toast, crumbly cornbread that's not too sweet, honey-coated green peas, soft and buttery macaroni and cheese, and white rice smothered in a brown onion gravy.
Still, it was Friday's gumbo that got me. Dorothy Finister says she serves it again on Saturday when there are leftovers, but those are a gambler's odds.