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Rouxs, stews, and the holy trinity: An education in gumbo

A bowl of gumbo is displayed at a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Served with jasmine rice and potato salad, this version of gumbo has andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken and a savory broth.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

A bowl of gumbo is displayed at a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Served with jasmine rice and potato salad, this version of gumbo has andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken and a savory broth. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

A pot of gumbo simmers on a tabletop burner during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Gumbo is a classic Cajun dish typically served with okra, shrimp, and andouille sausage in  a savory broth. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

A pot of gumbo simmers on a tabletop burner during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Gumbo is a classic Cajun dish typically served with okra, shrimp, and andouille sausage in a savory broth. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Andouille sausage cooks in a skillet before being added to a roux made of butter, onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Traditionally served with andouille sausage and shrimp, gumbo’s versatility allows almost any meat to be added or substituted to the stew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Andouille sausage cooks in a skillet before being added to a roux made of butter, onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Traditionally served with andouille sausage and shrimp, gumbo’s versatility allows almost any meat to be added or substituted to the stew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Chicken thighs brown in a skillet during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Traditionally served with andouille sausage and shrimp, gumbo’s versatility allows almost any meat to be added or substituted to the stew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Chicken thighs brown in a skillet during a gumbo cooking class held by the 81st Force Support Squadron’s Single Airman Program Feb. 26, 2015, at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss. Traditionally served with andouille sausage and shrimp, gumbo’s versatility allows almost any meat to be added or substituted to the stew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Sometimes I like trying new things.

While my friends back home in chilly Illinois may not think I'm too adventurous, living on the Gulf Coast has opened me up to new life experiences . . . specifically in the food and social interaction departments.

Back home is red meat and potatoes country; we don't have Cajun/creole, seafood or Vietnamese food like they do down here - this is all new territory to me.

And I'm in no way a shut-in, but I definitely enjoy quiet evenings over going out. So when my major told me about the 81st Force Support Squadron's Single Airman Program, it was suggested with a wink and a nudge that I go to their Thursday night gumbo cooking class at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to see what this program was all about.

So, what's gumbo?

Before I was stationed at Keesler, I didn't pay much attention to gumbo. Okra, on the other hand, well that's a different story. It's just one of the many deep-fried vegetables my fellow Midwesterners enjoy snacking on.

As I would learn from our instructor, Chef Danie Rodriguez, the two words are actually synonymous. She told us 'gumbo' literally means 'okra' in Bantu; an African language whose people had a hand in shaping the Cajun/creole culture and cuisine of the South.

Once we had the history of gumbo, it was time to cook. The kitchen/classroom had about 10 stations set up, each with different ingredients vital to the success of our stew.

Amongst all the chatter, Chef Danie told us about the holy trinity of Cajun cooking: Onions, bell peppers, and celery (or garlic, depending on who's cooking). It smelled great, it tasted great, and it was the base of our gumbo.

Everyone was settled in at their stations, diligently tending to their tasks like worker bees. The stew was starting to come together. My partner had our chicken-browning station under control, so I set out to capture the class with my camera.

Who are all these people?

I could tell mostly everyone was around my age, and aside from Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st Training Wing command chief, and Lt. Col. Sharon Nickelberry, 81st Force Support Squadron commander, I had never met any of them before. Come to find out they were mostly lieutenants at Keesler for technical training.

It didn't really matter that mostly everyone was a young officer, though. They were there to have fun. Everyone I talked to was interested in my career field and the path I took to joining the Air Force.

Maybe meeting people isn't that hard after all.

Despite the chaos of 17 people all talking and moving around while cooking, Chef Danie kept us on track. The chicken was browned, our stew base was simmering, the rice was cooked, and the eggs for our homemade potato salad were done boiling.

Wait, why were we making potato salad?

Apparently it's a thing to eat potato salad with gumbo.

You know the standard yellow mustard and mayonnaise picnic potato salad that frequents summer cookouts? They just put a scoop right in there.

That seemed weird to me, but who am I to question the chef?

With all our ingredients in the pot, it was time to simmer for a few hours. Unfortunately for us, the bus was supposed to pick us up in about 20 minutes. Chef Danie came prepared, though - she made a batch of gumbo earlier that day to feed us! Our batch would be used the next day in the college's café.

I hope it turned out edible enough.

With the class nearing its end and our bowls full of jasmine rice, potato salad and gumbo, it was time for the moment of truth.

Did the Cajun holy trinity do its job? Was this going to be amazing, or am I going to be too off-put by the deli salad in my stew?

I took my first bite.

Then I took a few more.

It was amazing.

The conversation I was having with a classmate came to a screeching halt as we both chowed down on this Cajun creation. I needed to keep eating. Nothing was going to stop me from eating as much gumbo as I could stomach . . . except for one thing.

As a member of the millennial generation, I think it's almost required I take photos of my food. Good thing I can blame it on my work instead of wanting to broadcast my meal to all my social media followers. After a few quick snapshots, it was back to eating.

It's amazing how quiet a room gets when 17 hungry people are served the greatest gumbo on the planet.

Success.

Chef Danie didn't lead us astray; she led this Midwesterner outside of his comfort zone to some real Cajun cooking.

After the gumbo was gone, it was time to leave. We stacked our bowls, exchanged thank-yous, and Chef Danie's bearded helper suggested I 'like' his band on Facebook. Thanks to gumbo class, I made some friends, and got over the weirdness of adding potato salad to my stew.

It's a pretty safe bet I'll be attending the Single Airman Program's next bowling night to see what sort of eye-opening experiences the lanes have in store for me.

After the miracle of potato salad in my gumbo though, bowling's going to have to pull out all the stops.

Now, it's time to post some of these gumbo pictures to my Instagram. #GulfCoastLife