Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King, the Dinner Party & my mother's okra gumbo
Growing up in New Orleans makes food connoisseurs of us all. Who makes the best red beans and rice, jambalaya, shrimp étouffée or bread pudding? We are all experts on these matters of monumental significance and usually have to look no further than our mothers or grandmothers for the answer. In my case, I’m blessed to have also partaken of the culinary delights prepared by my great grandmother, Marguerite Victor Johnson, and of course, there’s my uncle Kenneth. Many of the staple dishes in my family have been passed down for generations and my family roots in this city go all the way back to the 1700’s. Today I’m sharing my family’s recipe for okra gumbo as well as the story about the time my mother, Yvonne, served the gumbo at a dinner party she held for Martin Luther King, Sr. and Coretta Scott King.
I’m pretty sure the year was 1971 when my mom and I went to Atlanta with a group that included her very close friend, Lydia Vallerie and her two children, Vaughn and Krystal. The Corpus Christi Elementary School Girl Scouts sponsored a bus ride to Six Flags in Georgia. The trip included tours of a few places around Atlanta, one of which was Ebenezer Baptist Church. The great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. co-pastored there with his father, who was known to all as Daddy King. I was very young, about 3, but I remember my mom telling me how important it was to honor Dr. King. I cannot tell you her exact words, but even at that tender age, facing the spot where Dr. King was laid to rest, I understood we were standing on sacred ground.
It was there at Ebenezer Baptist Church, that we met Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. He struck up a conversation with my mother after noticing the bus she exited was from New Orleans. He said he would be in town that weekend and asked her if she could make okra gumbo. She said yes, of course and the rest is a proud part of our family history.
The bus trip ended on a Thursday and Reverend King was scheduled to have dinner with my parents the following day on Friday. Fleeting moments of the trip to Atlanta are still vivid in my mind. I remember some of the amusement park rides, my friends, and seeing the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of the dinner party. I’m grateful for the pictures that survived Hurricane Katrina, and I’m happy to share them with you now. After agreeing to host Reverend King, my mother went right to work making phone calls to invite family and friends. Upon returning to New Orleans, there was a lot of shopping and cooking to do. Along with the gumbo, my mom served a roast, green peas and a tossed salad. Dessert was a choice between vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream along with almond flavored cake from McKenzie’s Bakery. It was quite an event considering there was only a day to prepare.
I have to warn you that my mother’s okra gumbo does not begin or end with a roux. Served in the warmer months, okra is deemed to be a coolant and a thickener. I could tell you this is the reason the roux is not necessary, but she doesn’t make a roux for filet gumbo either. In my family, okra and filet gumbo are all about the tomato paste. The tomato paste is what gives the gumbo body.
The dinner party was a success. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Coretta Scott King raved about my mother’s okra gumbo. Others who accompanied the Kings to New Orleans, but didn’t attend the dinner, called the next day to inquire about getting a taste because they heard how good it was. Well here’s your chance. The weather is warming up and it’s the perfect time of year to make it. Okra gumbo is also a great addition to any Easter dinner. I hope you try it and enjoy!