As the year comes to an end, as well as this marks my second year of my move home to New Orleans, I noticed that it has been a year of Gumbo Controversy.. Social media has been ablaze with Gumbo post and never-ending comments, yesterday I decided to jump on the bandwagon and some fuel of my own. I went live on Facebook, entitling my Vlog “Let’s Talk Gumbo” while I cooked my Momo’s Gumbo recipe.
Gumbo to New Orleans, well Louisiana is like Chili to Texas. I dare someone debate a Texan on what chili is, but as with everything else native of New Orleans, Louisiana the attempt to replicate it does not produce or shall I say in this case, “taste like New Orleans” cuisine. People living outside of Louisiana love our culture to the point of taking it and while taking it they will tell you how to do it. For instance, I know I am not the only New Orleanian who was told that she is saying “New Orleans” wrong?? If I say “N’awlins” I am corrected to pronounce every alphabet in New Orleans to satisfy them… My N’awlins tongue was under attack and corrected throughout my stay in Minnesota. To them my New Orleans tongue, dialect was a sign of ignorance, but it was actually the complete opposite.
Well back to Gumbo… There’s no definite proof that Gumbo originated from New Orleans, especially being that Louisiana is actually a big pot of Gumbo, our ancestors, our people come from all parts of the world, with blended cultures. Gumbo essentially means the blending of several ingredients in one pot with the result of a taste that is deliciously indescribable as with our people. The dish itself is a mixture of French, German, Italian, and African cooking traditions. While scholars are relatively uncertain of the exact origin of the food, it is widely accepted that its etymology stemmed from the word okra in West African.
New Orleans was established in 1718 and quickly became the first French colony in Louisiana. Soon it became one of the most diverse and culturally rich environments in the United States. Germans migrated there in the beginning of the 18th century and introduced the art of sausage making. Spaniards settled there in the middle of the 18th century and brought with them their love of spices and their fisherman abilities. By the beginning of the 19th century, most families in New Orleans purchased slaves, who brought with them okra and hot pepper plants from Africa.
In several West African languages, the word for okra is ki ngombo, or, in its shortened form, gombo.” Early on, the word was frequently used alongside “okra” by English writers. In the 1840s, when okra was just starting to be grown widely outside the coastal South, newspaper ads commonly offered seeds for “Okra or Gombo.” “Gombo” is still the French word for okra today.
The roots of gumbo do run deep in Louisiana. Enslaved Africans were brought to the French colony in large numbers starting in 1719, and by 1721 more than half the residents of New Orleans were African. The first known reference to gumbo as a dish was uncovered by historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who found a handwritten transcription of the interrogation of a 50-year-old slave named Comba in New Orleans in 1764. Suspected of being associated with other slaves who had stolen clothes and a pig, Comba is asked whether she had given a slave named Louis un gombeau, and she replies that she did.
Though well entrenched in Louisiana, gumbo was by no means a dish unique to that region. Indeed, during the colonial era and the early 19th century, similar okra-based stews and soups could be found anywhere a large number of enslaved Africans and their descendants lived—and, in fact, those dishes can still be found there today.
Tracing gumbo’s roots is complicated by the fact that no African-Americans recorded their recipes in cookbooks until after the Civil War, but in the early 19th century, recipes for gumbo started to pop up in writings by white authors. In 1817, the American Star of Petersburg, Virginia, ran an article describing okra, which it noted “is common in the West Indies.” It provided two recipes. In the first, an equal amount of cut okra and tomatoes are stewed with onions, butter, and salt and pepper. In the other, okra is stewed in water and dressed with butter. “At St. Domingo,” the writer notes, “they are called gambo.”
Mary Randolph included a similar recipe for “Gumbo—A West India Dish” in The Virginia House-Wife (1824): okra stewed in water and served with melted butter. An 1831 article on okra in the New England Farmer noted the plant’s “known reputation in the West Indies” and that, “a very celebrated dish, called Gombo, is prepared in those countries where okra is grown, by mixing with the green pods, ripe tomatoes, and onions; all chopped fine, to which are added pepper and salt, and the whole stewed.” The 1841 edition of Webster’s Dictionary defined gumbo as “A dish of food made of young capsules of ocra, with salt and pepper, stewed and served with melted butter.”
In the mid 19th century, gumbo shifted from being a dish associated with the West Indies to one associated with New Orleans, perhaps thanks to the extent to which cooks and diners of all races had embraced it in Louisiana. The cookbook, Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Carbell Tyree, was published in 1879 and contains the first known gumbo recipe. This gumbo was filé-based and utilized oysters, chicken, spices, and vegetables. Since then, there have been many different recipes for gumbo, which include chicken, seafood, and sausage, and are thickened by pods of okra, roux, and filé powder.
Speaking of File’ which in my opinion is the reason we, New Orleanians stake claim as the rightful owners of Gumbo, especially “New Orleans Gumbo.” One can not go into any grocery store outside of Louisiana to purchase File’. Why is that? File’ is only used in Gumbo here in Louisiana, but if you know of any other recipes calling for File’ please correct me.
Another theory contends that gumbo originated with Native Americans. That idea draws support from the use of the ground sassafras called File’powder as a thickening agent in some gumbos. According to this account, File’ was introduced to the French by the Choctaws, whose word for sassafras was kombo. The establishment of New Orleans in 1718 marked the beginning of the French colony of Louisiana. French settlers allied with various native tribes including the Choctaw, Alabama, and Cherokee, from whom they learned new methods of cooking and ways to identify edible indigenous plants.
We can agree that the Natives where here first, therefore with the use of File’ being noted in the 1700’s we can safely assume that Native Tribes of Louisiana could have been the originators??
Recipes for gumbos made with filé start appearing in print just before the Civil War, suggesting that using powdered sassafras as thickener was starting to spread outside of Louisiana. The Carolina Housewife (1847) includes a recipe for “Okra Soup” made with beef, okra, and tomatoes, as well as one for “New Orleans Gumbo” made with turkey or fowl and onion, to which a hundred oysters and “two teaspoons of pulverized sassafras leaves” are added. A similar chicken-based “Filet gumbo,” thickened with filé powder, appears in Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book (1857).
So here we are, with a West African dish having taken firm root in the American South, most deeply in Louisiana but with a significant footprint in other coastal areas, too. That footprint can still be found today outside of Louisiana, though many diners may not necessarily make a connection between it and Louisiana-style gumbo. When considering gumbo’s broader impact on the South, it helps to look to regions beyond Louisiana, such as the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina.
A lot of okra-based dishes in Gullah Geechee cuisine likely have a direct link to 19th century “gombo.” Many involve a thick tomato-based sauce in which meat or seafood are cooked along with onions, spices, and, of course, okra. There are plenty of recipes for “okra and tomatoes” and “shrimp and okra”, too, that are almost identical to the more basic gumbo recipes being published in the 1820s and 1830s.
Traditionally, gumbos have been divided into two large categories—those thickened with okra and those thickened with filé. According to some accounts, before the advent of refrigeration and freezers, okra was the preferred thickening agent for gumbo, while filé was a substitute used only in the off-season when okra wasn’t available. That sounds plausible, but I’ve also come across references to dried okra as an ingredient in 19th-century gumbos. By drying okra, cooks could use it in their gumbos year round.
In some respects, putting gumbo into either an okra or a filé category is still valid, but for many cooks, a brown roux is the only thickener, and filé has virtually disappeared from their recipes. Often roux-based gumbos do incorporate filé, and to my taste they are the better for it. Filé is used both for thickening and for flavor. It is usually added to a gumbo just before serving, or at the table. Many okra gumbos also incorporate a brown roux and some roux-based gumbo contain a small amount of okra, often cooked until it virtually dissolves.
If all those variations aren’t confusing enough, there are also raging controversies over what constitutes a proper gumbo roux. Roux, of course, is flour that has been browned in oil or some other fat and has its origin in French cuisine.
As I mentioned in my Vlog, I use all three. I start with my roux, which has a very dark caramel color and compliments my three stocks of shrimp, chicken and gizzards. What I do not understand is why most people steer away from making a roux? I have heard various excuses one being that it takes too much time. I recall Emeril stating on his show years ago, ” How I judge the right color for the roux for the perfect gumbo. Is two beers, it’s generally the time that it takes to having the perfect roux. And on Sunday sometimes when I really wanna sprawl myself I purposely burn the roux so I can have another two beers and start again.” That doesn’t sound like a long time to me, a lil cocktail will make time go by with ease.
Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, published in 1885, contains recipes for several gumbos made from a variety of ingredients—chicken, ham, bacon, oysters, crab, shrimp, and beef, among them. Some of the recipes are made with okra, others with filé. Although there is no mention of a roux in any of the recipes, some of them call for the addition of flour or browned flour as a thickener. Recipes vary according to the cook, I believe the best Gumbo has a roux.
Aside from the origin of Gumbo, what has been the heat of the Gumbo controversy is what to put in it beyond the normal… At one point the use of tomatoes was at the center of the Gumbo debate. Tomatoes are most often found in okra gumbos, but I’ve had roux-based seafood gumbo that also contained tomato. Recently, the raw eggs being poured into a boiling pot of stock has gone viral on social media. Now, I’m seeing recipes with boiled eggs. Why? Experience has taught me, if you drop raw eggs into hot liquid the eggs will cook. Why is this an exception? It seems to me that it should be considered an Egg Drop Soup and Not Gumbo.. Please do not call that Gumbo. The matter of the boiled eggs, I love Yaka Mein which consist of a rich deep stock made of beef, steak or stew meat, served over noodles with an accompany of chopped green onions, boiled eggs and a dose of soy, Worcestershire and hot sauce, not sure how boiled eggs factor in Gumbo.
There’s also a Lenten gumbo z’herbes, which is made with a variety of greens.
What I have found is that we are not certain of the origins of Gumbo, but maybe it’s just that, GUMBO. Gumbo as I stated is a combination of several things coming together in perfect harmony resulting in delicious blend of cultural goodness.
The Gumbo Controversy, Gumbo War, Gumbo Debate has been a heated topic for years, we all think ours is the best, stand by our recipes and not only will we tell you that you are not making Gumbo the correct way, but we will never try your Gumbo. LOL
The one thing that we can agree on is that you can not have Gumbo without White Rice… With that good night.