A native New Englander, Erika Marks fell in love with New Orleans while studying architectural preservation at Tulane University. She also fell in love with a native named Ian, who taught her to make exotic dishes like gumbo. Hurricane Katrina drove the couple from the city in 2005, but New Orleans stayed on Erika’s mind through a move back to Maine and another to the Midwest. The story of a woman who leaves New Orleans with her two teenaged daughters for the quiet shores of an island off the coast of Maine became Marks’ first novel, “Little Gale Gumbo,” published October 4.
Marks says she wanted to explore the experience of a native New Orleanian sharing their culture – and food – in a new place, as so many people had to do after Katrina. That gumbo would come to factor so heavily into the story wasn’t a surprise for Marks. Now living in Charlotte, North Carolina, she and her husband both love to cook, and after several years of marriage she’s learned to “make a mean gumbo.” Marks is also exited that her original title for the book stuck, and she hopes it suggests a taste of the delicious content inside its pages.
We came across “Little Gale Gumbo” while scanning the shelves at Barnes & Noble for titles to include on our Fall/Winter Reading List. Its charming cover and promise of recipes inside drew us in, and we just had to know how why an author living in the Carolinas was writing about gumbo. Thanks to Erika Marks for chatting with Editor Erin Z. Bass by phone, sharing a few of her cooking secrets and revealing the subject of her next book.
To win a copy of “Little Gale Gumbo,” click here.
How did you come to be living in North Carolina and writing about gumbo?
Actually, the novel was written in Indiana. My history with New Orleans is that I lived there in 2002 to go to Tulane to get my master’s in historic preservation. I’d fallen in love with city after visiting it in my early twenties and went back to go to school there and met my husband there. Ian is a native New Orleanian, and we got married and were planning to stay on there. We were there when Katrina hit – I was actually seven months pregnant at the time – so we stayed through the storm and then we evacuated and moved up to be with my family in Maine and stayed there for about a year. We weren’t able to move back to New Orleans, unfortunately, so my husband took a job in Indiana, and that’s where we ended up. That’s primarily where I wrote the story of “Little Gale Gumbo” in the middle of a cornfield, sort of channeling all this wonderful energy from New Orleans, and then of course the other setting in the book is Maine. It was quite a journey and a trip to be sitting in the Midwest writing about these two very different places.
How long had “Little Gale Gumbo” been developing in your head? Is it something you’d been thinking about for a while or did it come about after Katrina?
I’ve always known I wanted to write a story about New Orleans, but it really didn’t gel until after Katrina and the experience of not just myself leaving the city, but watching over the months afterward how people I knew, my husband’s family, people who had never left New Orleans, had never lived anywhere else, were suddenly thrust out into all these different strange places. New Orleans is such a remarkable place and its residents are so remarkable that this idea that they would be moving out into the world, bringing this incredibly rich culture to these new places and what that would mean for the residents of these places where they ended up, it would be this remarkable experience for both sides. That’s really what was sort of the driving force behind the story, and then the characters came out of that core idea of somebody from New Orleans moving to a very different place and starting to build a new life.
How did gumbo factor into the story?
My husband is quite a good cook. I love to cook. One of that things that we really felt very strongly about when we knew we weren’t going to be able to move back to New Orleans and my first daughter was born (and then we had a second daughter), Ian and I spent a lot of time thinking what are the ways that we can make his family and his background a part of their lives. We sort of came back to food, because that was very much a part of his experience growing up in New Orleans.
That was sort of the personal background there and then I love the idea of bringing that element into the story, having Camille come to Maine with this very exotic type of food, this Creole recipe that people in Maine had never heard of and never tried. What a neat way to sort of immerse herself into this very strange new world, because food obviously is a great common thing that we all kind of agree on. People come from all different backgrounds, but everybody loves to sit around and eat good food, so I really like the idea of bringing that element and the idea that she would open a cafe, and it would be a way to sort of bring her friends together and people together in this very small, coastal town.
Have you personally experienced, maybe with your own friends and family members in Maine, reactions to gumbo and these types of foods?
Absolutely. When my husband and I were first dating, he came to Maine to visit. He actually made gumbo for my family, and it was a really, really neat experience. It was this wonderful way to kind of bring all of the elements of his background, although I should say my family had been to New Orleans to visit me and they totally fell in love with it, but in terms of just our neighbors in Maine, it was a really wonderful way for them to be introduced to Ian as well as just this very different culture. People just fell in love with the food, so then they wanted to know more about the culture.
I read in your website bio that you can make a “mean gumbo and a praline that peels cleanly off a sheet of waxed paper.” Will you share your secrets?
I do now. My husband was the one who taught me his recipe. Most of his family is actually from, and still in, Ponchatoula [Louisiana] and they definitely make what he would say would be more of a Cajun-style gumbo. In the book, Camille, she’s Creole, so I thought it was really interesting to talk about the differences. Everyone’s always like, Creole, Cajun, it’s the same thing. Actually, it’s very different and that’s what’s really neat about it, but the recipe I drew from from my husband’s experience was probably more of a Cajun base. It doesn’t use the file, and you talk to people and there’s different schools on that, but it’s more the roux. In the book, it’s a seafood gumbo, but he and I over the years, we’ve made not just seafood.
The praline recipe, I have to say that one was really tough. The story behind that was that I had gotten a reipe from Ian’s great grandmother who’s no longer living, but she was a Cajun who spoke French until she was 15 and was just a neat lady. Of course she’d been making it for like 50 years, so she essentially rattled it off and then just said oh you do one of those little balls and put the praline syrup into the cold water and that’s how you’ll know when it’s ready. So, I thought that’s easy enough. Of course I spent probably the next two years botching up batch after batch. I was getting so frustrated. Like I confess in the back of the book, I finally had to use a candy thermometer and then I was able to find the sweet spot, no pun intended, of just the right time to take it off the heat.
I love that story, because to me that was what was so charming about this idea of getting this great recipe from someone who’d been making it so many years. Obviously, she didn’t even need the recipe, let alone a candy thermometer. I finally was able to fight my way through and make a successful batch, but it’s tricky. Honestly, with the gumbo too, I think the hardest part really is the roux and I went through a series of burned rouxs. Even today, I enjoy learning about the different tastes of the roux depending on the color. This idea that if you’re really, really good at it, you can get this really rich flavor because you get it sort of to the edge of burning. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, but I’m very proud to be able to say I can make a decent gumbo.
I know your book hasn’t been out for very long, but what’s been the reception so far?
The reception’s been wonderful. I’ve been hearing a lot of things from a lot of different people, certainly people in Louisiana, which is obviously very special, and then people in Maine, which is also very special, that specifically they feel like I’ve done a good job of presenting authentic settings and details. On the whole, I’ve been getting really strong reviews, and I’m thrilled. I haven’t had anybody email or send word that they’ve tried the recipes yet, so I’m still waiting for that.
I love that you’ve offered to Skype or chat with book clubs and are sending those who schedule a call-in a box of your homemade pralines. Have any clubs taken you up on your offer yet?
I have my first book club call-in tomorrow night, and I just sent them a box of pralines. I’m really just very excited to talk face to face or on the phone with people who read the book and get their thoughts or their questions. I’m excited about that part of the process.
Where is that first club located?
It’s actually in Sandusky, Ohio. I’m assuming there’ll be a lot of talk about the food and the culture of New Orleans.
Since this interview coincides with our Fall/Winter Reading List, can you tell us what you’re reading now and who some of your favorite Southern authors are?
I just started Elizabeth’s Berg’s new novel “Once Upon a Time, There was You,” and I just recently reread Beth Hoffman’s “Saving CecCec Honeycutt.” That’s a really, really fun one. I tend to sort of go through spurts where I’ll read a lot of works by the same author. I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Hoffman.
In terms of Southern authors, I definitely am somebody who needs to do much more focusing on the classics, and I’m very aware of that in terms of Faulkner. I just read “Last Light Over Carolina.” Now that I’m here in North Carolina, I find myself reading a lot more sort of lowcountry, Carolina coast authors like Mary Alice Monroe. I’ve been working on the second book in this contract, so I’m looking forward to getting back into reading.
What can you tell us about your next book?
The next book takes place solely in coastal Maine. It’s about a small town that has a legend that involves mermaids, and as a result they have a mermaid festival every year. On this particular year, a pair of brothers arrive at the town to take over the town’s historic lighthouse and there’s a great deal of mystery surrounding them and a great deal of romance too. It’s different than the first book in the sense that it isn’t heavy into the food by any means, but it’s still very character driven and very romantic. There’s an element of mystery, but because it has a subplot of sort of a mermaid legend, it’s probably a little more whimsical than the first book, although “Little Gale” does have elements of voodoo, and I think it’s sort of impossible to write about New Orleans and not have that wonderful quality of mystery.