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Le Ragoût Des Couleurs (The Stew of the Colors)
To la familie Dubois, Covid-19 posed no exception to every other serious illness their family had faced since their African ancestors were enslaved in French Louisiana.
“People live longer if they eat better,” Jean-Luc Dubois said to his wife, Ébène-Cerise. “God is the healer, and He denies no one His best medicines.”
The patriarch and matriarch of the Dubois family did not know in scientific detail about how lack of essential nutrients and vitamins led to worse outcomes for people facing any kind of disease, but they had grown up in the bayous of Louisiana and had learned how to use food to defend themselves and their community from any and all health crises.
The Dubois family now lived in Quebec, Virginia, Texas, and Louisiana, and all of them got the order from Père Dubois.
Let's go – they all knew what to do.
The process usually took two days, but on this occasion in 2020, it took a week: the Dubois family bought big freezers and quart-sized freezer bags in abundance first.
On the first day of the preparation in Virginia, Maman Dubois went to the farmer's market with her granddaughter Louisa for the morning's run of shopping.
“Les gens sont colorés et ils ont besoin d'une nourriture colorée pour se sentir bien,” she said to her granddaughter.
Louisa sighed gently, for the moment seeming much older than her nine years of life.
“Remember, Grandma, I'm your English-speaking assistant,” she said. “Please try!”
Maman Dubois stopped walking in her attempt to form the sentences properly: “People are colorful, and they need to eat colorful food to be well.”
That opened new vistas to Louisa's mind … now, the golden sunshine of a deep blue spring day and the pink of plum and cherry blossoms mingled with the many, many colors of health in the markets … of green and white, in the long, slender roundness of each green onion, with the little root-feet, and their big sisters in a bunch of leeks, with their long, shining green leaves like locks of hair, their thick white trunks, and longer root-feet.
Then there was the rainbow of swiss chard … the deep green and curly leaves combined with stems pink like the cherry blossoms, red like the sunset, orange like oranges, yellow like lemons, and purple like the juice of blueberries that would be in the markets later in the spring.
Spinach … flat and round and common, and yet when fully grown, the pattern of veins reminded Louisa of the structure of trees in the winter when they had no leaves, of that simple but sturdy geometry in glowing green, as if the sunshine and the sky had blended their colors.
Then there were beets, the red of the beets flowing up the stalks into the leaves with an even more vivid geometry … as if a maple leaf had gotten longer and thinner and more fringed, and then sunset had run in ribs through the brightness of blended-green sunshine and sky.
Turnips were a more demure version of the same idea … the purple and white of the turnips flowed up more delicately into the oval-shaped and numerous leaves of the greens, only marked on the backside with a paler green on the front … they seemed to add coolness to all the warm, deep colors already in the basket, like the first cool morning in September that said that fall and its relief from the summer's heat were coming.
Celery too – tall and slender but between the green onions and leeks in stoutness, and more ribbed than both – struck Louisa the same way, but with a bit more spirit … the many fresh and frilly leaves at the top were like little fans, and they at that moment still sparkled with the water sprayed upon them.
Mama Dubois handled all these with great care as she put them into her basket, and then into the trunk of the car … all of them in their place made Louisa marvel at all the shades of green, and all the other colors that went with green every day that people rarely noticed. Of course, she had also selected many small but plump red strawberries and vivid orange tangerines, and they were in the back of the car, giving their sweet smell – but it was something to see different types of greens of like that.
Once at home, Maman Dubois and Louisa went about the task of cleaning all those fresh greens while Père Dubois took the car and went to the general store and the farmer's market. He came back with heavier things, bursting with color: green, red, and purple heads of cabbage, shining vividly in the morning light streaming gold through the kitchen, sacks of onions in white, yellow, purple, and red, and also smaller red shallots and white pearl onions. Also he brought garlic in white and red, carrots in their vivid orange, and jars of green, yellow, orange, and red peppers preserved in olive oil. He would have preferred fresh peppers, but it was spring, not summer.
“This jar is bell and sweet peppers, not hot,” he said to his granddaughter. “I have bought many of those. These three jars are slightly hotter peppers – not too hot, but you will know they are there with the spices tomorrow!”
For the day, the greens and cabbage were all cooked down with the celery, some of the yellow onions, and butter – one quarter of those would be moved into the skillet with okra, andouille, and some of the mild peppers, to be eaten by the Dubois family that day. The rest was left in the rich vegetable stock they had created as a base for the next day's work.
Early the next morning, Louisa smelled something she smelled her mother and grandparents making all the time: a roux. She remembered what that was made of and imagined her mother, her strong brown fingers shining with the shining, creamy yellow butter she used to brown the white flour until it was her own color … that was the base of many a dish served in French Louisiana. This was the fourth of the ingredients – after the sliced beets and turnips and carrots – to be added on the second day to the “Stew of the Colors” that the Dubois grandparents had taught their family to make – sort of a big vegetarian gumbo.
Louisa had one job, since she was still too young to handle the knives; her grandparents sat her between them and let her peel all the onions and garlic so they could get them ready for the stew.
To Louisa, this was like Christmas … the bright wrapping of the red, yellow, purple, and white onions peeled away every time to a brighter, shining onion underneath, its round shape feeling cool and good to Louisa's fingers. Her grandparents made short work of cutting them into piles of colorful onion rings … like half a rainbow piled up on a table cloth. The crying was kept at minimum because all of the onions had been refrigerated overnight, and Louisa took out one bag at a time to work on. Last of all, Louisa peeled the pearl onions – all the little globes of shining white – and put them in a big bowl.
After this, Louisa peeled all of the garlic. Each little head produced several cloves, like butter grown more interesting in color and feel and smell. Maman Dubois did not cut these, but just pressed them down against her cutting board with the flat of her knife like slightly cold and thus hard butter could be pressed. She did this while Père Dubois added the onions to all four stew pots on the stove … tall, thick, sturdy, and yet graceful cast iron pots out of which much good would be ladeled and served in the coming years.
Maman Dubois got up and put the garlic in the pots, and then invited Louisa to join her at the sink, where she had placed a colander over a huge, deep bowl.
“We are draining all the peppers in here,” she said, “but we will not waste a drop of the oil, which has much of the color and taste of the peppers left behind. We will put most of that back in the jar, but also add some at the finish of the stew.”
Meanwhile, Père Dubois ladeled out a cup of hot stock into a cup, and left it before him as he took down his mortar and pestle and spices … green file gumbo, bright red cayenne, smoke red paprika, rich brown chili pepper, and black peppercorns. These he put into his mortar and pestle and ground together, crushing the fresh peppercorns with the other spices until the smell was what he wanted. He put his spice blend in the still-warm stock to bloom it out, and then added the spice and stock back to the pots and covered all four.
Six hours of simmering passed. Louisa went to do her schoolwork after having oranges and strawberries for breakfast with her grandmother, and had all her work done by the time her grandparents added the already cooked greens, fully drained peppers, and chopped parsley to the pots, and by the time their neighbors in Tinyville, VA began to gather outside in little groups.
Who were these new neighbors, anyway? They had brightened up the red and white on the red barn they had converted into a home, and planted the front yard with irises … the sun smiled in golden splendor with extra warmth because it could shine down upon a field of flowers as blue as the sky, with the green of spring all wrapped in it.
But now, there was this odor … sweet, savory, spicy, like nothing anyone in those parts had ever smelled before … coming from the bright red house beyond the field as blue as the sky and green as spring … in which lived the new family in the rich, deep shades of brown that were Black.
Louisa, of course, got the answer – le ragoût des couleurs, presented in a blue bowl to complete the rainbow, and more … the stock was a deep brown, and was as smooth as velvet to the tongue and to the eye as a background upon which to present the greens, oranges, yellows, reds, and whites of all the good things that were in that stew. Maman Dubois mixed the orange-colored pepper oil with lemon juice to add brightness to eye and taste as a drizzle on top, and Père Dubois's spice blend, though unseen, added depth and lingering, comforting warmth to the finish.
“I don't see how anyone could get or stay sick after seeing and eating that,” Louisa said.
“Well, we do not claim all that,” Père Dubois said, “but, we do all we can.”
Late that night, after Louisa's uncle Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois had come home from work, changed, and had dinner, the Dubois family in Virginia took all of the remaining stew, ladeled it into all of the of the quart-sized freezer bags they had brought, and put the bags in the freezers they had purchased.
“We cannot stop la maladie,” Père Dubois said, “but we are now ready to help ourselves and our neighbors, and now you know how too, Louisa.”
"Yaaaaaaay!" said Louisa.