A Southerner's Guide to Proper Gumbo


Regina Charboneau

To try Regina's traditional gumbo recipe, click here.

In the South, specifically South Louisiana, gumbo is polemical as religion, politics, SEC football, barbecue sauce, and biscuits. As the writer here, my intention is not to create controversy but to share my understanding of what I personally think defines it.

We are always influenced by our memories of the first time we ate a particular dish, and I always hope that most people are introduced to proper preparations of regional foods. My father was from South Louisiana, so I was introduced to gumbo in my dad's kitchen and the kitchen at my great aunt's house in Opelousas, Louisiana. Even if my introduction was in a valid gumbo-cooking region, family members did not agree on every thing about gumbo. I remember that as far back as when I was just seven or eight years old there were many conversations between my grandmother and father criticizing each other's gumbo. Food discussions become quite passionate when you are talking about a well-loved, familiar dish.

I have to admit, now that I have been making gumbo for over 35 years, that my father, J.P., would probably not approve completely of the way my gumbo has evolved. I started with J.P.'s gumbo, and when I first started making gumbo, every gumbo I made was different. You think you do everything the same way, but sometimes it is thinner or thicker, spicier or saltier. But, like most things, the more you do it the more consistent it becomes. I started getting it down to a science, my science, which is not universal. I will share some thoughts and my recipe for gumbo with you.

This recipe makes a whole lot of gumbo because it is the recipe I use when cooking for a crowd. It is a favorite at my Tuesday-night Texas Hold 'Em game here with friends. Also, I believe if you are going to cook, cook. It is a bit time-consuming to chop, dice, make a roux, and so on. So, I say go for it, make a lot, and freeze it so you can enjoy it more often without the work.

Here are my personal, non-scientific, unsubstantiated facts about gumbo ... but I think I am correct.

• Gumbo has to have a roux
    • Gumbo file is ground sassafras, and personally I think it gives taste and is not a substitute for roux
    • Onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic are essential
    • Gumbo is a soup, not a stew—although a thick soup
    • I like gumbo over rice, but I also love the way the Cassagne family does it over potato salad
    • Tomatoes are never a main ingredient
    • I like a touch of basil and thyme in my gumbo—just a touch
    • Okra is a key ingredient in seafood gumbo but not necessary for chicken-sausage gumbo
    • I choose to put okra in most gumbos I make because I love it (I don't put okra in my wild duck and oyster gumbo)
    • Sausage was typically not included in seafood gumbo, but I started adding it for additional flavor. My father and paternal grandmother would totally disapprove.
    • There has never been a gumbo with beef (not anywhere in my family history)
    • There has been gumbo aux zerbes (during Lent, a gumbo with only greens)
    • Gumbo is better the next day
    • Gumbo will always remain one of my favorite dishes

Recipe: Regina's Gumbo