Category Archives: Just for Fun

Meet the Staff: Megan Ó Connell


Megan Ó Connell is the Rubenstein’s Reproduction Services Manager.  Megan has been a part of the Duke library system since 2006, when she served as a University Archives intern. She joined the library full-time in 2009.

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

I have always been interested in the cultural record left by humans. I studied Anthropology, with a focus on American archaeology, and I worked in Southeastern and Gulf Coast archaeology for many years. After studying what can be learned from the unintentional record left by artifacts, I wanted to interact with the intentional/communicative record, as it was left in the past and continuing into the “futurepast,” that is, the present. Rare books and archives satisfied that wish.

What are the main projects you work on at the Rubenstein?

I manage the patron reproduction requests, including those made by both onsite and remote researchers, ensuring that the most appropriate technology is used based on the specific items and desired output; liaise with onsite and offsite services; and deliver requests as efficiently as possible while maintaining high quality and providing RL’s acclaimed customer service. Exponentially increasing numbers of library users want digital versions of our materials, and these researchers often cannot do the reproductions themselves, so I help ensure that they get what they need for their research, whether they live in Durham or Durban.


What does an average day look like for you?
On most days I log new reproduction requests; route materials to be used in requests; examine materials for reproduce-ability; discuss options and approaches with technical specialists, RL staff, and my student assistant; and communicate with staff and patrons about technical considerations and goals. I may do some reading on specific media types, technologies, or techniques; troubleshoot imaging equipment maintenance issues; train staff on processes; or communicate with vendors. I assist researchers about 12 hours a week on the Reading Room desk, and also work on general reference questions, many of which  lead to reproduction requests.

What do you like best about your job?

I love seeing (and hearing) the panoply of treasures we hold at the Rubenstein — pamphlets, photographs, beautiful bound volumes, maps, vintage sound and film recordings, broadsides, artists’ books, zines, ads, papyri… and I enjoy learning about how researchers are using this richness to ask intriguing questions and shed light on cultural phenomena. People might be surprised to know that our library is so busy that we produce around 20,000 digital reproductions per year for patron requests! I enjoy helping our diverse researchers, from students to professors to authors to genealogists, and working with people all over the globe, learning about their lives – and often connecting with them on a personal level. It is gratifying to be able to be a part of so many efforts to illuminate aspects of human existence.

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?

I love the H. Lee Waters films because while Waters intended to create a record, unlike most documentaries, the intended audience was the subjects themselves. The films’ subjects were caught in their everyday activities, yet they were very aware of the camera’s presence, and many behaved as if they were amusing their friends, rather than consciously creating a historical record. It’s just fun to watch the subjects ham it up, although the quick cuts can be a bit dizzying after a while.

Where can you be found when you’re not working? 

I enjoy nature walks, photography, reading, hiking, canoeing, gardening, fishing, and playing music.

What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?

The John McPhee Reader.

Interview composed and photographs taken by Katrina Martin. 

Praline Thumbprint Cookies (1989) – Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen:

Now that we’re all moved into our new building, we’re excited to bring back our test kitchen series! New here? On the fourth Friday of every month we share a recipe from our collections that one of our staff members has found, prepared, and tasted.

The Campus Club has been around since 1914, starting out as a social and educational group for the wives of faculty members. Open to all women of Duke, the Campus Club is a social and activity group that hosts a wide variety of events and interest groups. Interest groups meet regularly, allowing members to explore new foods, drink, activities, and culture. A long-lasting and highly active group within the Campus Club is the Morning Gourmet group, which selects a particular topic or theme and invites members to prepare a dish related to the topic or theme, bring the dish, and share the recipe with the group.

Processing a recent accession from the Campus Club, I was distracted again and again by the many intriguing recipes this group has tried over the years. Some themes were related to national or cultural cuisines, others to parts of a meal or an ingredient. But when I stumbled across the Praline Thumbprints, I found my personal winner.

praline thumbprint


This is a very recent recipe from an archivist’s perspective, appearing in a 1989 Southern Living (I was actually alive when this recipe was published, so: recent). It seemed very simple and straightforward, with modern measurements and guidance, and seemed like no problem at all. I’ll admit here that the above image is a photocopy I made of the original item in the collection, which is itself a typed version of the recipe as it appeared in the magazine. After a bit of digging, I discovered the recipe appeared in the May 1989 issue of Southern Living, in an article titled “Moms and Daughters Bake Cookies,” and you can see a PDF copy of the original through Duke’s subscription to the electronic version of Southern Living here (libraries hooray!). This also led me to discover that the version in the Campus Club records includes comments, recommendations, and modifications by the person who typed it up, and which were very helpful.

praline thumbprint 2

I got my ingredients together and got rolling. The first thing I needed to do was grind up some pecans nice and fine. I bought some pecans in bulk at Whole Foods (this is cheaper than buying pre-ground or bagged pecans, but requires an extra step) and put them briefly through the food processor to get them finely ground.

praline thumbprint 3

Then I mixed together the cookie ingredients and got a pretty sticky dough, with lovely bits of pecan mixed in. I rolled it up into balls as instructed, but I am not so good at accurately replicating the size mentioned in recipes. I also only have one cookie sheet and a very tiny oven, so the shaping and baking part took me a while.

praline thumbprint 4

Eventually I shaped, placed, pressed, and baked the cookies until I had many scooped cookies. I ended up with probably close to the 4-5 dozen described in the recipe (I didn’t count, but it seemed like a lot). I don’t have a picture of the plain baked cookies, but it should be noted that since they do not contain any egg, they are a little powdery and can crumble very easily.

praline thumbprint 5

Due to underestimating the amount of time it would take me to actually get all the cookies finished, I didn’t get a chance to make the praline topping until two days later, at which time I had several fewer cookies to fill. I added the ingredients to a pan I usually use for candy-making (a regular, good-quality pan with a thick bottom).

praline thumbprint 6

The praline filling is essentially a candy, and candy-making can sometimes be tricky. I have a candy thermometer, but I recommend in this recipe paying a little more attention to the time passing than to the precise temperature. I was very concerned with getting to the recommended temperature, which took waaaaaay longer than the prescribed two minutes, and the candy set up before I could finish scooping it onto the cookies, leaving me with a pan like this:

praline thumbprint 7

Luckily, it’s pretty much just sugar and will dissolve in hot water. But even though it set sooner than I expected, it didn’t get really hard and I could still cram it into the cookies. And it was SO. WORTH IT. This stuff is AMAZING. All those little crumbly bits at the bottom of the pan were extra; the recipe even notes you’ll make more filling than cookies. Maybe I was supposed to make three batches of cookies and two of filling? LOL, no. That’s too much work and the extra filling was crazy good on its own. I recommend putting it on ice cream or just eating it with a spoon (no judgments).

praline thumbprint 8

I ended with some pretty nice looking and definitely delicious cookies. They were very popular when I brought them to work (safely quarantined from the materials) and had some friends take some home, which is the only thing that prevented me from eating them all myself. As mentioned above, the cookies are a bit crumbly and I accidentally made the praline a bit crumbly as well, so be warned: just put the whole thing in your mouth at once.

More recipes tried by the Morning Gourmet group and lots of other information about the Campus Club can be found in the records described in this collection guide.

Post Contributed by Tracy Jackson, Technical Services Archivist for University Archives

Accidental Collections part 2

Previously I have written about what I termed an “accidental collection” that occurred with collections of print ads cut from magazines, whereby frequently interesting and equally historical ads appear on the back side of the ad that was intentionally collected. Accidental collections remain hidden unless there is some way to document their presence. Unfortunately, there are not many mechanisms in current archival description “best practices” to document them.

Recently I’ve encountered another and quite different kind of accidental collection. I’m currently working with the Cause Marketing Forum’s Halo Awards collection recently acquired by the Hartman Center.  This award is given to projects that utilize marketing and media to promote social causes via partnerships between businesses and nonprofit organizations such as Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the USO among many others. While “cause marketing” as a term may not be a familiar one, the campaigns form a significant part of businesses’ and nonprofits’ marketing efforts and many are probably well known to you: Race for the Cure; VH1 Save the Music; Cartoon Network’s Rescue Recess; Lee National Denim Day; and at holiday time your favorite department store has likely teamed up with the likes of Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army or a local food bank or rescue shelter. That’s cause marketing.


The Halo Awards collection contains over a decade’s worth of the award’s entry forms and accompanying documentation, the latter which arrives in a wide variety of formats. One really interesting format here is an amazing variety of promotional thumb drives. Many simply feature a corporate logo or slogan, perhaps a website URL, but others feature artwork or have designs that can range from the emblematic to the whimsical. Time Warner’s “Connect a Million Minds” drive forms a bracelet, while the National Association of Realtors’ drive looks like a block of wood. A drive for New Balance imitates a running shoe where the heel pulls off to reveal the drive connection.  EMTec’s drive resembles a cartoon character whose head comes off, and a drive for Chevron is a toy car where the connection slides out from the rear.



Together these promotional drives form a collection of their own, as artifacts and ephemera representing a form of media belonging to a very particular time (in this case, the past 6 or 7 years). One day the design and promotional nature of these drives may take on an historical importance of its own apart from the significance of the contents of the drives for the collection to which they originally belong. This kind of thing frequently poses a dilemma for archivists and conservators: the relative significance and archival value of the contents of a document or medium versus the form of the media itself. How does one evaluate and/or value the vessel? Is it possible to describe collections within collections, or do the conditions of possibility of one mode of description preclude others?



Post contributed by Rick Collier; photographs by Katrina Martin

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush on the quality he values “more than all things”


While processing the Benjamin Rush papers, which will soon be digitized and available online, Alice Poffinberger, Archivist/Original Cataloger, came across a letter from Thomas Jefferson to fellow Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush. The letter, dated January 3, 1808, requests that Rush grant Jefferson’s teenage grandson his “friendly attentions” when he moves to Philadelphia the coming autumn.  Though unnamed in the letter, the grandson in question is Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who attended the University of Pennsylvania from  1808 to 1809.

Stating that he is “without that bright fancy that captivates,” Jefferson hopes the fifteen-year-old “possesses sound judgment and much observation” in addition to the quality he values “more than all things, good humor.”  Jefferson goes on to list the qualities of the mind he appreciates as good humor, integrity, industry, and science. Following this list, he claims “The preference of the 1st to the 2nd quality may not at first be acquiesced in, but certainly we had all rather associate with a good humored light-principled man, than an ill-tempered rigorist in morality.”



Randolph would go on to serve six terms in the Virginia House of Delegates and manage his grandfather’s sizable debts as the sole executor of his estate.

Post contributed by Katrina Martin, Technical Services Assistant. 

Move Diary: Week 4

Today marks the end of week 4 of the move, which included us passing the move’s halfway point!

The Rubenstein staff and the team of movers we’ve contracted have been sorting print materials into LC order as they move to their new, permanent homes. From the tiniest 12vos to behemoth folios, thousands of books are now on the new shelves.

One of the highlights of the move is getting to see such a large swath of our collections at once. From books that carry history in their margins to those with covers that are just plain pretty, it’s stunning to see the range and depth of our print collection passed in front of us day in and day out.

Here are some highlights from team #movenstein this week:

photographic history - meghan
Photo by Meghan Lyon
chafing dish - meghan
A prize find- photo by Meghan Lyon
dragon cover - kelly
All the pretty dragons, photo by Kelly Wooten
woman man's equal - tracy
Photo by Tracy Jackson
plant history
Plant history from 1644, photo by Katrina Martin


Manuscripts from all of our collecting areas are making their way onto the shelves, too. The Aleph Dream Team has been busy sorting boxes and flipping call numbers as the boxes move.

manuscripts - katrina
Katrina and The Boxes
farrell tracy
Tracy Jackson and Matthew Farrel troubleshoot some finicky shelves

The stacks aren’t the only place that saw some updates this week. The Gothic Reading Room is now outfitted with its tables and chairs. We can’t wait for August 24th when this place is full of researchers enjoying the new space. reading room

Until next week!

Remembering Harold Feinstein

The Rubenstein Library has learned that photographer Harold Feinstein passed away on June 20th at the age of 84.   Feinstein was one of the original inhabitants of the “Jazz Loft” at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City.  His singular photographic work, and his association with other occupants of 821 Sixth Avenue, including W. Eugene Smith, composer Hall Overton, and artist David X. Young,  led in 2004 to his being interviewed by Sam Stephenson for the Jazz Loft Project.  The Project was archived by the Rubenstein Library in 2012-2013, and includes streaming files of many of Stephenson’s interviews. We include the interview with Harold Feinstein here in its entirety.  See also the obituary in the New York Times.

Tape 1:

Tape 2:

Tape 3:

Post contributed by Craig Breaden, Audiovisual Archivist. 

Meet the Staff: Craig Breaden

CB devil's tale 017

The Meet Our Staff series features Q&A interviews with Rubenstein staff members about their work and lives.

Craig Breaden joined the Rubenstein as our Audiovisual Archivist  three years ago. Prior to his time at Duke, he spent seven years at the Russell Library at the University of Georgia. He has a BA and MA in history from Texas Christian University and Utah State University, respectively, and an MLS from UNC .  He works on everything from small single-film collections to grant-funded preservation projects involving thousands of audiovisual items.  He facilitates preservation work, provides access to obsolete formats, processes (inventory and catalog) collections, and functions as the go-to oral history guy.

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

I started out interested in frontier history particularly, and how popular images of the American West inform the way Americans think about themselves, their creation myths, the rest of the world.  I’ve also had a lifelong love of music and a fascination with recorded audio and video.  Our audiovisual heritage provides a different, animated view of the past, and can carry a unique emotional weight.

What led you to working in libraries?

I’d had some experience working in a special collections library while in college, but it took a long while for me to come to the profession.  Some folks are late bloomers, I guess.  After years of working in corporate atmospheres unrelated to my academic background, I’d come to the point where I wanted to start making a difference and make a living.  It was the idea that work should mean something, make some kind of contribution to the society as a whole.  There are of course all kinds of ways to do this, but I thought I should play to my strengths.  I had a challenging and satisfying year of teaching 8th grade social studies, but knew that I could give more outside the classroom by focusing on what we might consider the raw materials of educators, those cultural heritage resources that give voice to the past.  It so happened that one of the best library schools in the country (UNC-Chapel Hill) was just down the road, and I applied and fortunately got in.  I decided to focus on my background and my interest in A/V, and while in school pursued audiovisual archiving as an emphasis of my library education.  I owe a big debt to the Southern Folklife Collection and its director, Steve Weiss, in helping me on my way, and to the great librarians at the University of Georgia for giving me a shot.

How do you describe what you do to people you meet at a party? To fellow librarians and library staff?

I usually tell people I’m an archivist in Duke Special Collections.  Sometimes that leads to further conversation, other times not.  I think in general there’s a real disconnect, a misunderstanding about what history really is.  It’s hard to say to most people that what we think of as history is what it is because of what we do in libraries and archives like the one here at Duke.  Colleagues get it, but I think usually the best introduction for them is when they get a CD or tape or film as part of a collection and wonder, at the very basic level, what to do with it.

What does an average day look like for you?

One of the great things about my job is that there aren’t many average days, but most days hold some combination of digital preservation, inventorying collections, answering reference questions via email, figuring out how to run a film or a video or audio tape so that we know what’s on it, and advising colleagues on portions of their collections that hold AV.  Then there are often questions related to policy creation and the changing landscape of digital preservation.  And let’s not forget the meetings….

What do you like best about your job?

I like figuring out problems that fall into my domain of expertise.  I do a ton of troubleshooting and tinkering to get AV to simply play back in a way that it can be accessed, and these nuts-and-bolts successes are always satisfying and really essential to what I do.  I also enjoy meeting donors and getting to know the personalities behind the stuff, just as it’s always great to help a researcher plug into something they might not have been aware of.  And of course my colleagues – every one of them brilliant in completely different ways.

CB devil's tale 013
Craig with the Rubenstein’s newest flatbed film editing suite, the Steenbeck

What might people find surprising about your job?

The amount of time spent with spreadsheets and on email.  The first is part and parcel of what we do, that is, knowing what we have, the second is all about attempting to efficiently communicate (jury’s out on that, though).  Pleasantly surprising is that amazingly smart colleagues have something interesting to show or talk about every day.  Archives can be mind-blowing.

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?

The H. Lee Waters Films for their big heart, the Frank Clyde Brown field recordings for all the secrets they hold in their wax cylinder and lacquer disc grooves (and that will soon be secret no longer), the home movie collections we have that tell a story beyond what’s happening onscreen, and all the fragile and forgotten bits of film and video that share our shelves equally and continue to have a voice.

Where can you be found when you’re not working? 

With my kids, cooking, strumming a guitar (sometimes all three at once).

What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle; Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Wagner; and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois.

Interview conducted and edited by Katrina Martin.

Mad Men Monday – Season 8, Episode 12 “Lost Horizon”

The move to McCann is underway and a number of the SC&P staff are finding the transition challenging in their own unique ways.

Don is welcomed with enthusiasm by Jim Hobart, who expects Don to “bring things up a notch around here.” Later Don attends his first meeting in which Conley Research presents its findings on the market for a new Miller “diet beer.” Don seems out of his element in a room full of creative directors all taking notes. He watches a plane fly by high up in the air and walks out.

Joan was welcomed by two women copywriters who have interest in her accounts. They invite her to join them for drinks sometime.  Later she has conference calls with her clients and her ill-prepared colleague Dennis, who interrupts Joan and thinks he has better ways of handling her clients.  When she complains to Ferg about working with Dennis he promises to make it better, which means that she will work directly with him instead. His lecherous intentions quickly become clear.

Peggy’s move is thwarted by the fact that McCann has mistaken her for a secretary and did not reserve an office for her.  She refuses to move her belongings over until she gets an office and so spends a few surreal days in an empty SC&P working on Dow.

Don planned to drive Sally back to school, but found out belatedly from Betty that she got a ride from a friend instead. As he drives back to the city he impulsively takes a detour towards Pennsylvania and keeps driving all the way to Racine, Wisconsin. While his colleagues wonder where he is over the next few days, he tries to find out where Diana is from her ex-husband by posing as someone who has a prize for Diana. Her ex gets irate and sees through Don’s charade. He tells Don that Diana is a tornado who destroys everything.

Peggy and Roger drink too much vermouth and talk at SC&P before they make their official moves over to McCann.  Peggy is later seen walking confidently into the office with her belongings and Bert Cooper’s artwork that Roger gave her.

Joan meets with Jim Hobart and says she’d rather not work with Ferg on her accounts. Jim belittles her and her status at SC&P.  She says she’s willing to take the money she is owed and walk away, but he retorts that he will only give her fifty cents on the dollar. She threatens to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the ACLU regarding the sexism at McCann. Later she finds Roger waiting for her and he tells her to take the offer and that he can’t help her. She dejectedly agrees to the deal and walks out with her Rolodex and a photo of her son.

Don keeps on driving and picks up a hitchhiker headed to St. Paul.

Last night’s show featured references to Ladies Home Journal, Tampax, Miller, and Westinghouse, among other things.  Enjoy our selection of highlighted ads that reflect the brands and themes that Mad Men characters interacted with last night.

A gallery of our selected images may also be found on Flickr.

Post contributed by Jacqueline Reid Wachholz, Director of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History.

1 travelers insurance001

2 tampax001

3 contraception001

4 bahamas001

5 cash register001

6 dow overn cleaner001

7 miller high life001

8 truth well told001

9 salem001

10 maxwell coffee001

11 westing house fridge 12 ladies home journal001

13 organ001

Meet the Staff: Liz Adams, Collections Move Coordinator

LA - grin

The Meet Our Staff series features Q&A interviews with Rubenstein staff members about their work and lives.

Directly following the completion of her master’s studies in information science, Liz Adams joined The Rubenstein in 2013 as the Stacks Manager. Since January, she has served as the Collection Move Coordinator. She holds two degrees from the University of Michigan, a BA in English and an MSI.

We know you’re officially the move coordinator–what’s your unofficial title at the Rubenstein?

I’m a bit of a “gal Friday” in my attempts to alternately harangue or kindly beseech people to move forward on projects because collections can’t move without everyone’s involvement. No one would listen to me if I just said “move this!”

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

In undergrad, I worked in a public library. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my English degree and I knew I didn’t want to teach, but I liked books. I especially liked how tight-knit everyone in the library was and how we worked together to help people find what they needed. I went straight to grad school from undergrad, during which time I worked at a special collections library. Broadly speaking, my professional interests surround the idea of access and creating better, more useful access points for researchers and staff members alike. I think this can be accomplished through physical means—making things as physically accessible as possible– which is how my current job fits into that goal.

How do you describe what you do to people you meet at a party? To fellow librarians and library staff?

The people I meet at a party are generally familiar with the big construction project that’s happening on West campus and the Rubenstein. I tell them it’s my job to move our materials from temporary swing space to a permanent location and to figure out all that encompasses: good, bad, and ugly.

For people who might not immediately understand why there’s a whole position dedicated to this task, I’d highlight just how much material we have in our collection. Much like when you’re moving from one house to another, you find more things requiring your attention at every turn (and realize how much stuff you own!).  You have to decide what stays, what should move, and how you’re going to arrange things in a new space. No one likes moving and everyone else at The Rubenstein is so busy, there needs to be someone separate to help plot things out.


What does an average day look like for you?

It’s a lot of Excel! One of the big headings under the umbrella of the move is the reclassification of all of our materials. We’re going from a system of 125 legacy call numbers (some more intuitive than others!) to Library of Congress. Part of what I’m doing now is sorting through a list of our 280,000 print materials that have been reclassified. I figure out which of those things should move on-site after being housed off-site during the renovation and before we had all this space. I ask questions like, which materials are high-interest? Which materials are high-use?

What excites you about the move?

When I was the stacks manager, I saw the confusion experienced by our student workers when retrieving materials.  At times, it really required a fine-toothed comb to find items. When the move is completed, everything will be in the same classification scheme and organized by size. Students and staff will hopefully be able to find materials more easily.

It’s also nice to think of moving into a brand new space that no one else has lived in. You get to really make your mark. In fact, you get to make the first mark, which as a competitive person, I love. I like to imagine that I’ll be the first person to walk in – my moon landing. Although I doubt it will be me!

What might people find surprising about your job?

I think my job is a lot of what people might expect. It’s a lot of organizing things, talking to people, and making sure things are done in a timely fashion.

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?

I really like the Anna Schwartz collection. She was an economist who worked with Milton Friedman. It’s really interesting to see the personal and professional interplay of a female economist in the mid-twentieth century. She talks about comments made by a coworker and how she “took them to task” – you go Anna Schwartz!

Where can you be found when you’re not working? 

I enjoy a good picture show at the Carolina theatre. I can be found eating my way through the Triangle. You might see me huffing and puffing while running, and I sometimes pretend to be a yogi.

What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?

In my bag I have New Introduction to Bibliography by Philip Gaskell.

On my nightstand, of a totally different flavor, is The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos.


Interview conducted and edited by Katrina Martin, Library Assistant in Technical Services. 

Shrimp Gumbo Filé (1916) – Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen

Last week, I saw a student production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The play, famously set in New Orleans, immediately ignited memories of my time in NOLA. One moment, I was sitting under the green and white striped awning of Café Du Monde where I eagerly waited for the arrival of a small mountain beignets. Then, I was savoring every morsel of a roast beef po’boy from Parkway Bakery, blissfully unaware that rivulets of au jus were trailing down my wrists. After that, I drifted off even further and was reliving my first slurpy spoonful of duck gumbo. That dish made my heart sing!

Gumbo is one of the oldest and most iconic dishes served in New Orleans. In its most basic form, gumbo is a soupy stew cooked slowly over a low flame. It is served in a bowl with a heaping spoonful of Louisiana long grain rice. The simplicity of that description is misleading, though. Recipes for gumbo are so diverse that it is nearly impossible to define the dish in formulaic terms. Peering into a simmering pot of gumbo, for example, you might see any combination of the following meats and seafood: crabs, shrimp, oysters, ham, chicken, duck, rabbit, and sausage. You might also spot roughly or finely chopped onions, celery, and bell peppers—the so called “holy trinity” of Louisiana cooking. Often, you’ll catch a glimpse of the swirling, willowy tendrils of okra slime. Or, you might see a bay leaf bobbing along the surface of the stew as it slowly releases its tangy, herbal flavor into the stock. Gumbo, then, is anything but formulaic and reflects the amazing complexity of New Orleans’ Creole food culture.

picayune cookbookGumbo is also a dish that invites experimentation. In fact, I might characterize it as a “playful” one. Inspired by the vivacious spirit of this dish, I chose to modify some aspects of the gumbo I found in the The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1916). I’ve included both the original recipe and my derivation of it below.

The recipe:

Shrimp Gumbo Filé
Gombo Filé aux Chevrettes

50 Fine Lake Shrimp
2 Quarts of Oyster Liquor
1 Quart of Hot Water
1 Large White Onion. 1 Bay Leaf.
3 Sprigs of Parsley. 1 Sprig of Thyme.
1 Tablespoonful of Lard or Butter.
1 Tablespoonful of Flour.
Dash of Cayenne.
Salt and Black Pepper to Taste.

Shell the shrimp, season highly and scald in boiling water. Put the lard into a kettle, and, when hot, add the flour, making a brown roux. When quite brown, without a semblance of burning, add the chopped onion and the parsley. Fry these, and when brown, add the chopped bay leaf; pour in the hot oyster liquor and the hot water, or use the carefully strained liquor in which the shrimp have been boiled. When it comes to a good boil and about five minutes before serving, add the shrimp to the gumbo and take off the stove. Then add to the boiling hot liquid about two tablespoonfuls of the “Filé,” thickening just as desired. Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately with boiled rice.

(Ashley’s) Shrimp Gumbo Filé

¼ cup of vegetable oil
¼ cup of flour
1 large white onion, chopped
2 quarts of unsalted chicken stock
1 pint of oyster liquor
1 ½ pounds of unpeeled lake shrimp
1 pound chopped chicken thighs
1 smoked ham shank
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste

In New Orleans, there is a common phrase that marks the beginning of many gumbo recipes: first you make a roux. A roux is a combination of flour and fat (oil, lard, or butter) that is slowly toasted over a low flame, creating a rich, nutty flavor. For many people who are new to Creole cuisine, making it can be an intimidating process. After all, it takes at least 30 to 45 minutes to prepare a roux from scratch (no wonder people buy it in jars). The time investment is well worth it, though. The longer you toast your roux, the more complex and delicious the flavor of your gumbo!

I started off with a large soup pot (one with a thick bottom). Over medium heat, I combined equal parts oil and flour, stirring constantly (preferably with a wooden spoon). At first, the roux will be fairly thin and light yellow in color.

gumbo 1As the flour starts to toast, the roux will thicken slightly and air bubbles will begin to form on its surface. It will also appear slightly “gummy”—almost like mashed potatoes (if your roux is still thin, you can add another tablespoon or two of flour to thicken it). The key is to keep stirring.

gumbo 2After about twenty minutes, the roux will begin to smell like popcorn or toasted nuts. At this point, it will gradually begin to darken to a caramel color. Keep stirring! Over the next ten to fifteen minutes, the roux will become even darker. I always say that an ideal roux is almost the color of a Hershey’s chocolate bar (and that transformation can take over an hour). If you do not make it that far in the process, that’s OK. The most important thing is to cook the roux long enough to eliminate the “raw” taste of the flour.

gumbo 3Once you’ve reached your ideal coloring, add the chopped onion to the roux. You will hear a sizzling sound. Adding the onion stops the toasting process and will prevent your roux from burning. Allow the onions to cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. You want them to sweat and begin to brown.

gumbo 4Add the chicken stock, oyster liquor, shrimp, chicken, ham shank, and bay leaf. Bring the gumbo to a boil and then reduce the heat so that you have a steady simmer going for two hours. Stir every 15 to 20 minutes. You want the stock to reduce by a third.

A few notes: I prefer using unpeeled or partially-peeled shrimp because the exoskeleton gives the stock a really wonderful, shrimpy flavor. I also use smoked ham shank over hocks because the former has more meat, which I later pull off the bone and incorporate back into the gumbo before serving. In addition, I like to use the dark meat of chicken because it has a richer flavor that works well with the nuttiness of the roux. Last, but not least, if you cannot find oyster liquor, you can substitute it with unsalted chicken broth.

After the gumbo has reduced, take it off the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. (The stock will already be fairly salty because of the smoked ham shank, so you may not need additional salt).

I like to serve my gumbo over ½ cup of long grain rice. I allow my guests to add a dusting of filé powder to their own bowls before digging into their supper. I also encourage them to get up close and personal with their gumbo. I often find myself calling out instructions and encouragement: “Pick up that shrimp right from the bowl! Don’t be shy! You’re supposed to eat gumbo with your hands as well as your spoon.” At least, that was how I was taught to eat my gumbo when I lived in New Orleans. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

gumbo 5


Post contributed by Ashley Young, History PhD student and next year’s Graduate Student Intern for our Research Services Department.