Gumbo: The Mysterious History

The legendary rice-based dish has a controversial past and a vibrant future in New Orleans and its surroundings.


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 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.


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.



Then, of course, there are the people who came to be known as the Cajuns. That word is a corruption of "Acadian," after Acadie, the French name for present-day Nova Scotia, from which the British exiled these French speakers in 1755. In the mid 1780s, around three thousand Cajuns settled in the bayous and prairies south and west of New Orleans. That community eventually grew to become the predominant group in those areas. As Nobles relates, after being introduced to the dish by the Creoles of New Orleans, the Cajuns "seasoned and added ingredients with a comparative heavy hand and ended up with their own hearty version of gumbo."

All of these influences, and others, were on display at the gumbo festival. Linda Green, of Ms. Linda's Soul Food Catering Company, dished out a wonderfully spiced Creole seafood gumbo, teeming with enormous pieces of shellfish. Massive crab claws and shrimp tails poked out from the soup, making it seem almost alive.

A few tables down, Cherie Brocato of TCA Brocato, another local catering team, offered an alluring andouille and chicken gumbo, prepared in typical Cajun fashion, with a very dark roux. Brocato herself is of Creole heritage, but her husband and business partner, Troy, is from Cajun country. "Makes things kind of interesting," she said with a laugh.

Next to Brocato, Linda Moore of the Praline Connection was serving a classic Creole okra gumbo with "a little of everything," seasoned with some thyme and bay leaf. Linda explained that she fried the okra separately before adding it to the stew. "You gotta take the slime off it," she said. It worked.

Conversations about often gumbo inevitably turn to the all-important issue of how to prepare a roux. "I like making my roux in a black cast-iron pot," said Renée Tervalon, the gumbo festival's food coordinator, who has worked in the kitchens of Donald Link and Greg Sonnier, two major figures in New Orleans cuisine. "Cast-iron holds its heat really well. So it's a good conductor, to get the roux to cook faster."

Poppy Tooker, a well-regarded New Orleans cooking instructor and slow-food advocate, also offered some wisdom regarding the roux. (Tooker's gumbo credentials were burnished last year when she appeared on Throwdown with Bobby Flay and defeated the cocky celebrity chef in a gumbo cook-off.)

"What is not in the recipes, what I rarely see written down, is the element of adding the onions first," she said. "That's going to make the roux get darker because of the sugars in the onions. And then you can add the other seasonings--the celery and the bell pepper." That combination--onions, celery, and bell pepper--is often called the "holy trinity" of Creole cooking. But Tooker has little patience for that conceit. "All this bullshit about the 'holy trinity' of Creole cooking--that's a late 20th-century invention," she said, growing a little agitated as she explained that celery is hardly a traditional element of New Orleans cuisine. "It's really a Creole mirepoix . It's not the holy goddamn trinity!"

Tooker claims to make the best gumbo in the city (see her recipes for seafood gumbo and "diaspora gumbo" ), but I asked her to suggest some establishments where one might find a reliably authentic version of the dish. She named only one: Dooky Chase's , where the legendary Leah Chase has been cooking for more than 50 years. Renée Tervalon agreed and added a few more places: the Praline Connection, Li'l Dizzy's Cafe , Olivier's , and Galatoire's .

I asked Lolis Eric Elie the same question. He first mentioned Loretta's, in the Marigny neighborhood, where he had recently tasted a seafood gumbo that reminded him--just a little bit--of his mother's. Then he told me a story about a place that sounded like an unlikely gumbo mecca: Honey Whip Donuts, in the Algiers section of New Orleans, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. In addition to its signature doughnuts, Honey Whip Donuts serves some plate lunches, including gumbo on Fridays.

"My grandmother passed away a few years ago," Elie said. "Traditionally, you bring a little food to the repast." But the owners of Honey Whip Donuts went above and beyond. "They came here with a lot of food," Elie recalled. "What I hadn't realized was that, before I was born, my grandmother was as poor as a church mouse. Well, they were as poor as the fleas on a church mouse. My grandmother had been very generous to them, and so that was their kind of way of paying tribute to that relationship. So I tasted their gumbo. And I could go on and on about how different that gumbo is from my mother's. But, still..." Then he trailed off.