“What is New Orleans? New Orleans is Creole gumbo,
gumbo, cowan gumbo, chicken gumbo, smoked
sausage gumbo, hot sausage
gumbo, onion gumbo.”
– Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans
vocalist and trumpeter
A SHORT HISTORY OF GUMBO
by Stanley Dry
Of all the dishes in the realm of Louisiana
cooking, gumbo is the most famous and, very likely, the most popular.
Gumbo crosses all class barriers, appearing on the tables of the
poor as well as the wealthy. Although ingredients might vary greatly
from one cook to the next, and from one part of the state to another,
a steaming bowl of fragrant gumbo is one of life’s cherished
pleasures, as emblematic of Louisiana as chili is of Texas.
Gumbo is often cited as an example of
the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking, but trying to sort
out the origins and evolution of the dish is highly speculative.
The name derives from a West African word for okra, suggesting that
gumbo was originally made with okra. The use of filé (dried
and ground sassafras leaves) was a contribution of the Choctaws
and, possibly, other local tribes. Roux has its origin in French
cuisine, although the roux used in gumbos is much darker than its
Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, of the University
of Louisiana at Lafayette, who has written the definitive history
of the Cajuns, found that the first documented references to gumbo
appeared around the turn of the 19th century. In 1803, gumbo was
served at a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans, and in 1804
gumbo was served at aCajun gathering on the Acadian Coast.
Today, the gumbos people are most familiar
with are seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. But that merely
scratches the surface of gumbo cookery, both historical and contemporary.
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.
The Creole Cookery Book, published
by the Christian Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans in 1885,
calls gumbo making an “occult science” that “should
be allowed its proper place in the gastronomical world.” A
New Orleans gumbo, the book maintains, “can be made of scraps
of cold meat or fowl, a few oysters, crabs or shrimps, and, with
a couple of spoonfuls of well cooked rice, is a very satisfying
and economical dinner.” The editors include several recipes
for gumbo, one of which incorporates filé (spelled “fillet”
in the book). Some of the recipes are made with various greens and
herbs, but, curiously, there is no mention of okra as a gumbo ingredient,
although the book includes three recipes for okra soup.
The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook,
published in New Orleans in 1901, includes recipes for a variety
of gumbos. Among the principal ingredients are chicken, ham, oysters,
turkey, wild turkey, squirrel, rabbit, beef, veal, crabs, soft-shell
crabs, shrimp, greens, and cabbage. Some of the gumbos are made
with okra, others with filé.
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
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. Both cooks and eaters
have their own opinions on how dark the roux should be and how much
should be used in a gumbo. There is no agreement on these matters,
as anyone who has tasted gumbos from different cooks can attest.
A good place to sample an astonishingly
wide range of gumbos is the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff that
is held each October in New Iberia. A few years ago, I interviewed
contestants about their gumbo philosophies. As for the preferred
color of the roux, answers varied from the color of a brown paper
bag to the color of dark chocolate. So, too, for the desired thickness
of the gumbo. A local banker aimed for a thin gumbo (“gumbo
juice,” he called it), while another cook’s ideal thickness
was somewhere between rice and gravy and a stew.
Although the New Iberia event requires
that contestants cook their own roux on site, the rest of us are
not so constrained. For some years, commercially prepared rouxs
have been available, and they are a great convenience item. Dry
rouxs consisting of only browned flour are also commonplace on grocery
shelves and are popular with those who wish to reduce their consumption
of fat. When using either, I’ve found that it’s preferable
to dissolve them in hot liquid before adding to the gumbo pot.
Contemporary gumbos are made with all
manner of ingredients in a variety of combinations. Seafood and
non-seafood gumbos are two primary types, and they may be made with
or without okra. But some gumbos include ingredients from both the
land and the sea. Duck, smoked sausage, and oyster gumbo is one
delicious example. Some cooks add hard-boiled eggs to chicken and
sausage gumbos, and quail eggs find their way into other versions.
A very atypical version is the Lenten gumbo z’herbes, which
is made with a variety of greens.
Seafood gumbos often include crabs, shrimp,
and oysters. Shrimp and okra gumbo is a perennial favorite, as is
chicken and okra gumbo. Chicken and sausage gumbo is extremely popular,
and in the households of hunters, ducks and other game birds often
wind up in the gumbo pot. Turkey and sausage gumbos appear frequently
during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. An unusual but delicious
combination is a gumbo of steak, smoked sausage, and oysters. Some
cooks use ham or tasso in their gumbos, and others use fresh sausage
in place of the smoked variety. The possible combinations are virtually
One ingredient that does arouse controversy
is the tomato. Some cooks use it in their gumbos, others wouldn’t
be caught dead putting tomato in theirs. In that respect, the situation
is analogous to jambalaya, where the question of the appropriateness
of tomato is a burning issue. Tomatoes are most often found in okra
gumbos, but I’ve had roux-based seafood gumbo that also contained
tomato. I don’t have any hard evidence to back this up, but
in my experience gumbos containing tomato are more common on the
eastern side of Bayou Lafourche than they are farther west. Personally,
I am for tomato in okra gumbo and against it in non-okra gumbo.
One point everyone can agree on is that
gumbo is always served with rice. But that was not always the case.
C.C. Robin, a Frenchman who published an account of his travels
in Louisiana in 1803-1805, reported that gumbo was served with corn
A contemporary variant on that theme
is the experience of Dr. Monty Rizzo, a New Iberia physician and
an excellent cook who hunts game in Africa. On a safari in Tanzania,
he taught the cooks to make a gumbo with the doves his party had
shot that day. The cooks had already proved their soup-making skills
with a cream of peanut soup and a Cape buffalo tail soup, but gumbo
was unknown to them. There was no rice in the camp, so the cooks
served the gumbo with corn meal mush. It was such a hit that before
the trip was over, they made it again, this time without Dr. Rizzo’s
For some reason, gumbo is one of those
dishes that men often make. It has some of the same appeal as game
cookery or barbecuing, and it is a favorite dish at hunting camps.
When men who cook only occasionally make a gumbo the event takes
on a heightened significance. Some men use the phrase “build
a gumbo” to describe what they are doing, and the occasion
demands a good supply of iced beer. If there is an audience, so
much the better. On the other hand, for women and men who cook on
a daily basis, making a gumbo is more routine, if no less important.
I’m convinced that part of gumbo’s
virtue, aside from its deliciousness, is that the dish is very forgiving
of the cook. Measurements do not have to be exact, ingredients may
be changed to use what is on hand, and unless the diners are so
set in their ways that they can’t appreciate change, the result
will be quite good.
Consider the options as set forth in
a gumbo recipe that appeared in the New Orleans City Guide,
which was published in 1938. It is a fairly basic recipe for a gumbo
made with crabs, shrimp, and oysters. At the end of the instructions
is this advice:
“Okra may be used in place of
the filé, but it is cooked with the gumbo. The basic recipe
is the same, but chicken, veal, and ham or a combination of veal
and a hambone can be substituted for the crabs and shrimp. After
Thanksgiving and Christmas the left-over turkey may be made into
a gumbo with oysters.”
Stanley Dry is a writer,
SFA member, and gumbo lover. You can see more of his work here.