The Sacramento Delta, “California’s Holland:” Seafood gumbo

No wonder Walt Disney chose California to be the location of his Magic Kingdom. From the north to the south, California stretches the imagination: ever-so-hip San Francisco, Yosemite—an American rock climber’s Mt. Everest, Big Sur, avocados, Lake Tahoe, In-N-Out Burgers, Hollywood, Steinbeck’s Monterey, Gidget’s surfer dudes, and 1,100 miles of man-made levees. Yes indeed, levees as in Holland and New Orleans. I was as surprised to drive along the levees above the Sacramento-San Joachin Valley River Delta as I was to see container ships packed into Houston’s wharfs and docks. I was never very good at geography. 

The levees on South River Road, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, wind along the Sacramento River past miles of agriculture to one side and bridges, boats, and ferry crossings on the other side.

Given California’s popularity as a tourist favorite, you would think that two small towns along the Delta levees, Locke and Walnut Grove, would be bustling with families, strollers, artisan beer, and upscale restaurants, but not so much. What we found on our weekend drive was one ghost town and one quiet, picket-fenced town.

When the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad were then hired to build the levees that converted the Sacramento Delta into some of the richest farmland in the world. Chinese laborers were welcomed into the work force and settled throughout the West, building towns and establishing communities. 

When the levees were completed and the gold rush economy faltered, the Chinese were blamed for stealing jobs and depressing wages. Responding to public pressure, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which specifically forbade any Chinese immigration. Then came the “Driving Out” as vigilantes forced Chinese residents to flee, burning and looting their towns and businesses. Many of the Chinese found safety in Walnut Grove and Locke where they worked in the fields, renting houses from rich American landholders. 

In its heyday, Locke had restaurants, markets, a Chinese school, flour mills, slaughterhouses, and gambling halls; then the exodus began. The second generation found new futures at UC Berkeley, the State of California forced the shutdown of the gambling halls, segregation lifted, and Chinese residents left Locke and moved to the suburbs. Today, only 10 of the 80 people who live in Locke are Chinese Americans.

Walnut Grove has stayed pretty much the same since 1950, with the central district relatively untouched.

Mural of Walnut Grove in the 1880s

Walnut Grove, 2013

Seafood gumbo

Authentics will insist that a gumbo must be started with a dark roux and finished with filé powder, but I usually don’t.

  • 4 oz. margarine—don’t substitute butter. Margarine has a higher heating point and will allow you to brown the spices/vegetables properly. If you don’t have margarine, use vegetable oil. 

Spice Mix:

  • 2 t. paprika
  • 1 t. Coleman’s dry mustard
  • 1/2 t. cayenne
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1⁄4 t white pepper
  • 1⁄4 t. black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 t. thyme
  • 2 c. chicken or fish stock
  • 1 diced large onion
  • 2 T minced garlic
  • 3 stalks celery—diced 
  • 1 diced green pepper 
  • 1 diced red pepper 
  • Tabasco (better wait and taste before adding—we may have gone over the edge already)
  • 3 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1⁄2 c. tomato sauce
  • 1 c. chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
  • Filé powder to sprinkle on at the table

Combine spices. Melt margarine in heavy pot. Add onions, celery, peppers and turn heat to medium-high. Stir in garlic and dry seasonings. Cook, stirring constantly for five minutes, constantly scraping bottom of pot.

You want the spices to stick a little to the pot. Scrape with a wooden or metal spatula and scrape constantly while temperature is hot. Reduce heat to medium, and add tomato sauce, tomatoes, Tabasco, and chicken stock.

Simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour

Once the vegetable/tomato mixture is finished, you first add firm fleshed fish—snapper, cod, catfish—then shellfish, and/or oysters. Some seafood gumbos start with making a roux which serves as a thickener. Filé powder is added just before serving for the flavor. Andouille sausage (polish sausage makes an adequate substitution) can also be added before the seafood for an even more robust taste.

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