Southern Origins: Gumbo
THE STORIES BEHIND THE FOODS WE SAVOR MOST
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
Illustration by Jing Li
Gumbo is sometimes used as a catchall to describe a hodgepodge of individual items fused in a multi-layered mix. It’s most often a positive descriptor. Whatever the result of the blending—music, art, food—if it’s described as a gumbo, it was a successful (if polygamous) marriage.
Gumbo may have taken on different meanings, but each use springs from the same roots: the concept of commingling multiple, sometimes disparate, things into a harmonious whole. This is certainly true when the word refers to gumbo, the dish which itself can’t be confined to any one definition.
The hearty, thick stew chock-full of any number of ingredients, is perhaps the most popular contribution of Louisiana cuisine and is an amalgamation of multiple ethnic traditions and heritages. There are Creole gumbos, drawn from the Creole culture of New Orleans. And there are Cajun gumbos, concoctions that hearken back to the assorted peoples, including those of Acadian, French, Spanish, African, Portuguese, German, Croatian, Irish, Native American, Cuban, and Pacific Island descent, who settled side by side and made lives together in the bayous and marshlands of southernmost Louisiana. Gumbo is, as New Orleans chef Melissa Martin says, “history in a bowl.”
Yet, as Martin, born and raised in Chauvin, in south Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish—the heart of Cajun country—explains (here and in more detail in her new cookbook, “Mosquito Supper Club”), gumbo’s exact history is hard to map, owing to its varied culinary and cultural influences. The ingredients contained in any single pot of gumbo are incredibly diverse and highly personal to each maker. Martin’s favorite gumbo may vastly differ from someone else’s idea of the “perfect” gumbo.
To stir the gumbo pot even more, like the region that pushed it to prominence, gumbo is still evolving today. Still, in all its forms, gumbo proves that, when we’re willing to come together, the differences that divide us can dissolve and unite to create something more enlightened and enriched than if we were to stay separated.
Where and when did gumbo originate?
It’s really hard to pinpoint any specific date and any specific place, and it can’t be attributed to any one culture, but the gumbo that I make and grew up eating in Chauvin [in south Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish] is based on a gumbo from Africa, from the Senegal area, and thickened with okra, which came to America with the enslaved. The word gumbo is based on the West African word for okra. Then there’s roux-based gumbo, and some point to its origins in French cooking. You’re not that likely to find this type made in many Cajun homes. I’d never had a roux gumbo until I moved to New Orleans. And then there are filé-based gumbos that have their origins in Native American cuisine. Filé is a powder of dried and ground sassafras leaves, and the Choctaw word for filé, kombo, has been linked by some to the word gumbo. They were making gumbo and using filé as a thickener, and for flavor, before we were ever on the continent. I believe the first gumbo written about in a cookbook was in Virginia, but that’s by no means the first gumbo; that’s just the first time it was written down. But for me, whenever I think of gumbo, I think of the gumbo I ate and learned to make from the women I grew up with, and it is a distinctly southern Louisiana dish and very associated with our area.
How many varieties of gumbo are there?
I included recipes for seven different gumbos in my cookbook, but there are, so, so many different kinds, and what we call gumbo can be very personal. It's like language: There’s English, and then there’s the way you speak English. My gumbo, again, what I grew up with, is very minimalist. But others are “kitchen sink” gumbos with so many things in them. But gumbos most often have chickens, ducks, quail, or seafood like shrimp, crabs, and oysters—so things that fly and swim. There are some beef gumbos out there, but I’m not so sure about those.
Some gumbos use a roux for thickening, others use okra, others filé. What’s your preference?
For me, gumbo always has okra. I never make a gumbo with a roux. Filé was always on the table at my house, so we’d add it afterward if we wanted to, but for flavor, not to thicken. Some folks do use all three; they may start it with roux and then add okra and/or filé. Again, it’s quite varied and mixed.
What does gumbo mean to you?
I have actually taken gumbo for granted for a good part of my life. But I guess that’s like anything. For the person who grew up in a Vietnamese family, they probably don’t get giddy about pho like I do, because they have always had it. It’s the same with gumbo for me: we just always had it. My mom mostly made chicken or shrimp-okra gumbo that we ate at least once a week. Now though, the things I find I am most attached to are those things, like gumbo, that we ate all the time. Now, gumbo means comfort to me; it means home.
With such a long history, why does gumbo remain so popular?
Because, for starters, it is delicious. Also, it is part of the rhythm of so many people’s lives; it’s entrenched in their traditions. For women down on the bayou, not making gumbo would be like not going to church anymore. Making and sharing gumbo is a sacred act for so many. It’s truly a ritual, and for people who’ve grown up down here (southern Louisiana) and grown up with it, to not have it would be losing a part of their heritage.