I collect words. When I find a good one, I copy it into my little black notebook, the one that also contains restaurants and bars I’d like to visit, directions, sketches, snatches of poetry hurriedly composed in a cramped hand, email addresses and phone numbers, Spanish grammar tips, post ideas, books to read, little moments I’d like not to forget. And words.
I carry them around with me all the time – since my little black book is always in my bag – and read through them on occasion, rolling my tongue around and into those verbal nooks. There’s “pullulate”: “to exist abundantly, to send forth buds, to increase rapidly, teem.” Or “sirocco”: “any hot, oppressive wind.” “Quisle”: “to betray, especially by collaborating with an enemy.” “Collop”: “a small slice of meat, a small slice of anything, a fold or roll of flesh on the body.”
Living abroad, my vocabulary shrivels. Here, English lives within the law of averages, and if I remember from long ago math lessons (one thing I definitely don’t write down in my little black book are equations), an average sucks up the best and the worst and plunks you somewhere in the middle.
There are some words left languoring that way – and good riddance to them. I think “plethora” is the worst word in the English language, like a dull goat in an academic’s gown. Goodbye “myriad” and “veritable” and “moreover.” And truthfully, I’ve found that simpler words, when fitted well together, are often better at expressing ideas than all the viperines, girns and borborygamuses combined.
That brings me to this little gem of a word: “slumgullion,” whose meanings are as myriad as what it means: “A meaty stew, a weak beverage, refuse from whale carcasses, a muddy mining deposit.” I mean, wow, what multitudes!
Winter itself is a slumgullion of things: grim weather and sparkling snow, stressful shopping sprees and shiny Christmas markets full of gingerbread and Glühwein. There are pretty advent wreaths and piles of cookies paired with all that end-of-year housecleaning that desperately begs to be done before the holidays begin.
But this winter’s greatest slumgullion was much more literal: a hearty stew à la chicken and shrimp gumbo. Gumbo is a thick mess of things – tomatoes, onion, okra, scallion, chicken, shrimp – and had I been able to find good smoked sausage and tasso ham, I would have thrown them in the pot as well. It simmers a long while on the stove, filling the kitchen with the woodsy smell of thyme and the warmth of garlic and bay.
It isn’t fancy; it’s comfort food. Something I’m sure that miner would appreciate after scrambling through his muddy deposit.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll board a plane and head back to my ancestral land, listening as my language changes, just slightly shifts, adapting to an American ear. And yet, my life here has crept into my speech in ways that won’t quickly be erased. There are direct translations from German into English that sound perfectly fine to me, like adding “or?” to the end of a sentence instead of “right?”: “You’re coming over later, or?” And then there are those Spanglishisms I’ve picked up from David.
But it’s fine and nice. I like the way my language reflects my life. It shows me where I am – just like my little black book shows me where I’ve been and where I still want to go.
Chicken & Shrimp Gumbo
As I mentioned above, I think this gumbo would be great with some smoked sausage (or Kielbasa) and tasso ham (bacon would even be a fine substitute, since tasso’s main contribution is flavorful fat). If you think so too, cook tasso/bacon in the oil before you cook the chicken and cut at least 1 tbsp. of butter. Add the sausage when you return the shredded chicken to the pot. 5-6 servings.
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 chicken breasts (460 g)
Salt & pepper
½ cup flour
5 tbsp. butter, divided
1 large yellow onion
1 green bell pepper
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. parsley
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 can pureed tomatoes
6 cups chicken broth
2 cups (260 g) sliced okra
3 green onions
½ lb. (225 g) shrimp
White rice, to serve
Tabasco, to serve
Heat vegetable oil in a deep pot or Dutch oven. Season chicken breasts with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, then add to hot oil. Brown on both sides (about 5 minutes per side), then remove from the pot.
Turn heat to medium. Add 3 tbsp. of butter and melt it in the oil. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly to make a roux. Cook for about 10 minutes, continuing to whisk constantly, until caramel-colored. Take roux off the heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes.
Return to medium heat and add remaining 2 tbsp. of butter. Once the butter has melted, add onion, green bell pepper, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add parsley and Worcestershire sauce, then whisk in pureed tomatoes. Gradually whisk in chicken broth to avoid clumping the roux. Shred the browned chicken and add to the pot.
Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add okra and continue to cook uncovered for 1 hour.
Turn heat back up to high. Add green onions and shrimp and cook for another 10 minutes until shrimp are cooked through. Serve with a healthy spoonful or two of white rice and season to taste with Tabasco.