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.
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
, 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.
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
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.
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
. It's not the holy goddamn trinity!"
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.