Gumbo: The Mysterious History

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Photo by Justin Vogt


Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has undergone a remarkable rebirth, with enough hopeful developments to justify optimism about the fate of a city that was nearly lost four years ago. But the city is also in the throes of a high-stakes political struggle for control of its future. Perhaps the only surprising thing about this conflict is its forward-looking nature. That's because, in New Orleans, the past is often more fiercely contested than the present or the future--especially in matters culinary.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I attended the second annual Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival, put together by the invaluable New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which also stages Jazz Fest every April. This month has set a record as the wettest in New Orleans history, and torrential rains meant that the festival had to be held inside the foundation's headquarters on Rampart Street. But the typical New Orleanian enthusiasm for food - especially New Orleans food - was undimmed, and thousands of people showed up over the course of the two-day festival to stuff themselves with seafood gumbos fragrant with fresh-caught oysters, crabs, and Louisiana shrimp; thick, spicy gumbos laden with hunks of sausage; and rich okra gumbos that managed to the avoid the dreaded epithet sometimes directed at the dish: slimy.

But maybe the richest thing of all was the festival's name, which could hardly be more loaded with meaning. All three words--Tremé, Creole, and gumbo--are powerful signifiers of the peculiar history that makes New Orleans such a fascinating city, and one whose identity is so frequently contested.

A debate about gumbo's precise origins has raged for decades, framed by Louisiana's legacy of colonialism.

A cluster of colorfully-painted shotgun houses and cottages adjacent to the French Quarter, Tremé is cited by many historians as the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States and is considered to be one of the birthplaces of jazz. It has also suffered more than its fair share of woes: a massive highway overpass that destroyed its tree-lined main thoroughfare in the 1960s; the demolition of historic homes to make way for an ill-fated development project in the 1970s; a crippling crime problem driven by the drug trade; and the ravages of flood waters after the levees failed during Katrina. This history imbues the neighborhood with a built-in sense of drama. So it's no surprise that the creator of the heralded HBO series The Wire , David Simon, can be found these days in Tremé, filming a new series set in the neighborhood and featuring characters based on some of its real-life residents. The series, titled simply Tremé , will premiere next April on HBO.

Tremé also plays an important role as a center of Creole history. "Creole" is perhaps the most important term in the rich lexicon of New Orleans culture. The word evolved from crioulo , a Portuguese term applied to slaves of African descent but born in the New World. Later, the definition expanded to include people of European descent born in the New World, as well. In French and Spanish Louisiana, and especially after the territory became part of the U.S., "Creole" came to signify people of all ethnicities (except Native Americans) who were "native" to Louisiana--especially French-speaking New Orleanians of European descent and the free people of color whose numbers and influence in the city were unusual when compared to the rest of the South.

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Photo by Justin Vogt

These days, "Creole" often refers less to ethnicity than to a set of cultural traditions centered around New Orleans, and made manifest most viscerally by the city's unique cuisine. But even in that relatively staid context, the racial ambiguities evoked by the term still have the ability to get people riled up.

Which brings us to gumbo, the quintessentially Creole soup-and-rice dish that has been cooked in this region for almost 300 years. Its name is generally agreed to derive from ki ngombo , the term for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa, the homeland of many of the slaves brought to colonial Louisiana. Okra stews, served with rice, were a staple food among those slaves. And okra is the main thickening agent in many (though not all) varieties of gumbo. So it seems reasonable to conclude, as many culinary historians have, that the dish itself also bears some African heritage.

Nevertheless, a debate about gumbo's precise origins has raged for decades, framed by Louisiana's legacy of colonialism and complicated by the vast range of gumbo-preparation techniques practiced by the different peoples who make up the region's complex ethnic fabric. Most gumbos achieve their thickness, color, and texture partly from the use of a roux, the mixture of flour and oil employed by French cooks as early as the 14th century. This French technique has sometimes been used to bolster the theory that gumbo derived not from African okra stews, but from French bouillabaisse. Another theory contends that gumbo originated with Native Americans. That idea draws support from the use of the ground sassafras called filé powder as a thickening agent in some gumbos. According to this account, filé was introduced to the French by the Choctaws, whose word for sassafras was kombo.

I heard a skeptical view of those explanations from Lolis Eric Elie , a native New Orleanian journalist and food writer who is a member of the writing team for Tremé , the HBO series. Although he acknowledges the influence of the French on the development of Creole cuisine, Elie is troubled by accounts of gumbo's origins that minimize its African roots. "My theory is that, whenever food writers taste something in New Orleans food that is different from the Anglo-American tradition in New England, or wherever they're from, they attribute it to the French," he said. "They also may attribute it vaguely to the Spanish, and the Italians, and the other Europeans who came here. And it's a very racist assumption, founded on the notion that Africans either had nothing to contribute or were unable to contribute, based on their conditions of servitude."

Recent scholarship on the issue has bolstered the argument made by Elie and others that gumbo's African origins go beyond just its name. In a fascinating chapter on gumbo in the recently published New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and their Histories (University Press of Mississippi), Cynthia LeJeune Nobles reviews the available evidence and concludes that theories of gumbo's Native American or French origins don't quite hold up under scrutiny.

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Justin Vogt is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans. More

Justin Vogt is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans. More of his work can be found at his Web site.
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