The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Johnette Downing


Photo by Elsa Hahne

“I learned to cook from my grandmother who lived in St. Amant, near Gonzales. She was Creole—French, Spanish and Native American—and she was the best cook. The only thing I didn’t learn to cook from her was gumbo because she’d always say, ‘Start with a roux.’ And I’d say, ‘What’s a roux?’ And she’d say, ‘You know what a roux is! Just start with a roux!’ But I didn’t. She wasn’t patient enough; she would just exasperate.

The first time I made a roux, I got the jar of roux. I still use the jar because I really don’t know how to make a roux the way you’re supposed to do it. I’ve made it before, just with flour and oil and onions, but it doesn’t come out like her roux so I’m not happy. I always stop too soon because I’m afraid I’m going to burn it.

In Louisiana, music and food go hand in hand. I mean; that’s what we’re all about: music and food. No surprise that my music, since I’m from Louisiana, a lot of my songs have to do with food. I wrote this song called ‘Today Is Monday in Louisiana.’ It’s based on a traditional song, but I was looking at the ingredients, all the dishes in the traditional song, and they were Monday roast beef, then chicken and string beans, and I said, ‘I have to do this for Louisiana. We have the best food in the world!’ So I did Monday red beans, Tuesday po-boys, Wednesday gumbo, Thursday jambalaya, Friday catfish, Saturday crawfish and Sunday beignets. That song was a really big hit; it’s still one of my biggest hits. And because of that song, a lady was in the audience with her son and she came up to me and said, ‘Can I illustrate that song and make it into a book?’ and that’s how the books started. We did My Aunt Came Back from Louisiane and Chef Creole and both have food in them.

I do about 250 shows a year so I travel a lot, but anytime I’m home, I like to cook. I do it as often as possible. I use my Today Is Monday in Louisiana book when I travel, and I travel internationally and use the book as a cultural bridge. I’ll sing my version and then, whatever country I’m in, let’s say I’m in Oman, we’ll do their version. They might have biryani, shish kebab, or whatever foods they have in their culture, and then we’ll talk about the foods we have in common. Food is a great way to reach other cultures. Food doesn’t have an agenda.

When I give concerts and workshops in other countries, I’ll say ‘What do we have in common?’ and usually it’s rice. Or fish, depending on where it is. But usually rice, so I say, ‘See, children? We’re really all just rice. We can be brown rice or jasmine rice or saffron rice; long-grain rice or short-grain rice, but really we’re just all rice.’ Food is non-threatening, non-political, and it’s just a nice way to connect the world, I find.

The funny thing about traveling and being from New Orleans is that wherever I go, I’ll eat anything. I went to Morocco and I had camel. I’m not sure I want to eat camel again, but I tried it. It was kind of spongy, almost like tofu, and it’s a camel color. People like when you’ll try. I’m not a picky eater because I live here. We’ll try anything and people appreciate that. It’s a way of being accepting and open to new ideas and concepts and traditions and new ways of living, different from your own culture. I’ve learned that. My grandmother always made hogshead cheese and just the idea of it, ‘I’m not eating hogshead cheese.’ So I never tried it, but the other night my boyfriend and I went to Cochon and they gave us a complimentary piece of hogshead cheese, so I tried it. And it was so good. All this time, I never tried it! I know my grandmother’s, it must have been great because people would come over when they found out she was cooking. I missed the opportunity to try hers.”


Johnette’s Sausage Mambo
Johnette enjoys this dish by itself, but you could easily serve it over rice or pasta. Actually, this recipe constitutes half of Johnette’s jambalaya recipe as well. The other half is Zatarain’s jambalaya mix. “Like they say, don’t fix what ain’t broke. It works and it’s great. Just add an extra handful of plain rice.”

1 link Polska Kielbasa sausage (Hillshire Farm)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning

1 yellow onion, diced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 yellow bell pepper, diced

1 orange bell pepper, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1/2 tub sliced mushrooms

Slice sausage into doubloons. Heat oil and Worcestershire sauce in a skillet. Sauté sausage until deep red in color, adding parsley and Tony Chachere’s. Add onion and garlic. When onion becomes translucent, add bell peppers and mushrooms. Sauté until vegetables are tender.

  • Hamdiya

    i think we have Gumbo too in Indonesia, its Capjay 😉