The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Ben Jaffe

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Ben Jaffe. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Ben Jaffe. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“These are amazing, aren’t they? This is chard, and the color is awesome. What we’re cooking is a recipe my godfather taught me, Harold Dejan. He was at our house a lot. He and my dad played in the Olympia Brass Band, and Harold was a Creole and he still spoke Creole. He really lived that life. In fact, this is Harold’s ring; my wedding ring. It’s in all his pictures. He gave it to me before he passed away. When Harold would come pick my dad up at the house, it was kind of a ritual. They were never in a hurry; they would have a glass of wine and double-park on the street. We lived in the Quarter so there was always commotion. Harold was one of those guys; there was always a pot on the stove. Harold mostly cooked stews, like Shrimp Creole, dirty rice, a lot of red gravies and brown gravies, and then gumbo. That was his thing, gumbo, different kinds; seafood gumbo, filé gumbo, and then around Lent, he would always cook what he called Zeb. I’ve heard people call it different things [gumbo aux herbes, gumbo z’herbes], but he always called it Gumbo Zeb.

Harold grew mirlitons and mustard greens in his backyard, always fresh greens. He would cook Gumbo Zeb with meat, or seafood—it wasn’t a green gumbo—he’d cook shrimp into it, and sometimes he would cut up sausage in it as well. I hate to say this; he might have been a bad Catholic.

So this is what we’ve got here: chard, spinach, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, collards. You’re basically just making soup. Green soup. Someone would argue with me that therefore it’s not gumbo, because I’m not making any kind of roux, or adding any filé.

There’s so much similarity between our music and our food because there’s a rhythm to it. Like right now, Harold might stop and make a phone call, and come back. It was a very slow, all-day thing. He would forget something and we would have to go to the grocery store, come back, the pot would still be cooking, and it was just a beautiful day together. I don’t think there was ever an exact science to it. Like music; people just say there was. [laughs]

As long as the food is cooking, you don’t have to put it in the refrigerator. Harold was always cooking because he didn’t have to refrigerate it. He would keep it warm, and it was always ready to eat too.Ifhecamehomefromagigat2 a.m., he could eat. So his house was always hot. Even in the summertime, he would have the oven on and the stove on in the house.

I cook on the road. I cook all the time. I always have a suitcase full of food with me. If I’m not at the venue and doing sound check or performing, I’m at the grocery store. My whole thing has been trying to get my band to eat healthier, and find new ways to cook New Orleans food. [The Preservation Hall Jazz Band] is mostly older gentlemen who’ve grown up with a very traditional New Orleans diet. They ask, ‘What are you eating?’ ‘Oh, this is hummus.’ ‘What’s hummus?’ ‘It’s garbanzo beans.’ ‘What’s garbanzo beans?’ ‘Chick peas.’ ‘What are chick peas?’ ‘It’s beans, it’s beans!’ They really can’t believe that I don’t partake in fried food. I don’t eat bread, I don’t eat white flour or sugar, I don’t eat any nightshade vegetables, like squash, zucchini, mirliton. I don’t eat any potatoes, no tomatoes. And I don’t eat bell peppers, so I don’t eat a lot of things that are in the New Orleans diet, traditionally.

I don’t like to think about what I don’t eat; I like to think about what I do eat because when I start to think about what I don’t eat, I get a little sad. Everyone is like, ‘You’re crazy man, you don’t eat cantaloupes and honeydew melon?’ And it’s not like I don’t love fried food; it’s just a choice that I’ve made in life because of the way I feel the minute I’m finished eating. But it’s hard, man. It’s hard to eat in moderation here because everything tastes so damn good, you know. Everything tastes so damn good.”


Gumbo Zeb

1 gallon water
2-3 bay leaves
1/4 cup Paul Prudhomme’s Vegetable Magic
black pepper to taste
2 large two-handed grabs each of finely cut mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage, kale, chard and spinach (cut out and discard tough stems)

Bring water to a boil with bay leaves and Vegetable Magic. Add greens, and simmer, covered, over low heat for about six hours. Add black pepper to taste. Add water if the gumbo is too salty.