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Bill Wharton did not get into the gumbo groove overnight. First, he had to work through the logistics. Onions, for example, are powerful things, hard on the eyes, and Wharton had to find out for himself that cutting bagfuls at a time creates an awful mess, wreaking havoc on the pacing of his performance. And then there’s roux. It’s hard to blame him for preparing it in advance. If you think the stuff’s hard to make, try this trick: Stir, play guitar, taste, adjust heat, guitar again, stir again, sing.
Today, Wharton’s got gumbo down to a science. Or is it a religion? Wharton doesn’t really make gumbo; he plays it into existence, summoning the spirit of Lightnin’ Hopkins to share pot space with his own Liquid Summer hot sauce. As an artist, he’s borrowed from the recipes of the Chicago blues as well as Julia Child. He takes a guitar, a pot, and a burner onto stages of blues festivals and juke joints all over the world. When the gumbo needs onions, the onions appear, pre-chopped. He adds them. He’s cooking for an audience. His band, the Ingredients, respond. The music swells and intensifies along with the contents of his kettle. At the end of the show, everyone eats.
“Our shows are heavily choreographed,” explains Wharton, whose fans know him as the Sauce Boss. “We try to weave the two mediums [cooking and the blues] together as much as possible. We have tunes,” he says, and then breaks into song: “‘Time to stir the gumbo. Time to stir the gumbo.’ The performance has evolved into almost a tent revival of rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood. It’s this kind of message of gumbo. It’s the gospel according to gumbo.”
The Sauce Boss has been spreading the gospel for just under 10 years, but the 51-year-old Florida native has been a professional musician for most of his adult life. And he’s no hack. When Wharton first started cutting records (he has five to his credit) in the ’80s, his goals were fairly common, given his profile as a gifted guitarist, soulful singer, born bandleader: He seemed destined to ply his trade in the juke joints and beer halls that christen legends in exchange for a life’s commitment to the circuit. Wharton played the blues well and, as he puts it, speaking with the fervor of a true believer, “humbly.”
But then the slow fusion of Wharton’s two passions—blues and food—led him on the path to a different sort of destiny. He’s always been a gastronome of the Southern variety: What’s the point of a feast if you can’t exhale hosannas among friends once it’s through? Wharton and his wife, Ruth, have long dabbled with a hot sauce made from datil peppers, a cousin of the habanero and Scotch bonnet, which they used to grow in their back yard. In the late ’80s, Wharton began peddling his home brew at shows, earning himself the Sauce Boss moniker. Then, while he was recording in Baton Rouge, his friend and fellow musician Kenny Neal, a onetime Buddy Guy sideman, took to hanging out in the studio with his family. Neal’s mother taught Wharton how to make gumbo, and whole new kind of act was born.
Wharton says he “wanted to show the people, at least one time, how good my sauce was when you cook with it. Sixty thousand bowls later, we are still making gumbo.”
Wharton doesn’t mind that some people dismiss his Sauce Boss routine as schtick; his true fans, he says, understand. On stage, he dresses like a chef, with a guitar strung over his neck and a ladle close at hand. Wharton claims he’s “not on a Jesus trip. I’ve always just liked to share.” Author and gourmand Bob Shacochis has written that Wharton is “a fellow who takes from the kitsch and gives to the pure.” Which he does, lining up the spiritual sides of cooking and the blues along the way. Just as blues standards take different shapes through different voices, no two gumbos are exactly alike.
“My whole thing,” says Wharton, “is putting your hands on it, getting your energy in it, kneading the bread. That’s what makes it good. It gives things your own personal touch. And it tastes, you know…It’s like the wine in southern France. You can taste the ground in it. You can taste the fact that these guys did the whole thing by hand.”
Wharton’s too busy to make his hot sauces at home anymore; he lives in Tallahassee but tours all over the world. (He says that the response the band gets in France is “monolithic.”) He’s currently pushing the latest Bill Wharton and the Ingredients disc, Recipes, a hard blues collection that doubles as CD-ROM cookbook.
But it’s the datil pepper sauce, which Wharton sells at his shows and on his Web site, that binds all of his work. The datil pepper, he says, is like his music: “It’s got a real funky kind of flavor. It’s got a warmth that comes up slow, but it’s got a lot of mid- and low end to the warmth. More than any other pepper or sauce, it really bridges the gap between the meat and the vegetables. It makes things more homogeneous. It gives things an identity. It’s heavy.”
Bill Wharton and the Ingredients play Madam’s Organ on Aug. 20.
The Sauce Boss’s Gumbo Recipe
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
1 chicken, cut up and cooked in one gallon of water (reserve the stock)
1 pound smoked sausage, sliced
2 large onions, chopped
2 large green peppers, chopped
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 pound okra, sliced
1/2 bottle or more Liquid Summer hot sauce
1 pint oysters
1 pound shrimp
Blue crabs and crawdads, if available
First make a roux: Heat vegetable oil and then slowly stir in flour. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mocha-colored, about 30 to 45 minutes. To the roux, add cooked, deboned chicken, chicken stock, zucchini, okra, onions, peppers, sausage, and hot sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for at least an hour. Just before serving, bring back to a boil and add seafood. Cook for 3 minutes or until seafood is just done. Serve over rice with Liquid Summer hot sauce on the side. Serves 15 to 20.
Adapted from Bill Wharton’s Recipes, available at www.sauceboss.com.—Brett Anderson
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