"Sooner or later Southerners all
not to die, but to eat gumbo."
– Eugene Walter, bard of Mobile, Alabama
This dish, inextricably tied to New Orleans,
is a tradition in homes and cafés throughout the South. When
origins are discussed, however, conversations get heated.
Gumbo. So many versions, so many cooks, so many contradictions.
Such as: Only use a roux with poultry, filé with seafood.
Use okra in the summer, filé in the winter. You have to have
a chaurice in your gumbo. You must use andouille.
This we know for sure: Gumbo, the word, is of African origins. It
translates as okra.
Rather than establish origins, the Southern Gumbo Trail seeks to
collect stories about gumbo—the varied styles, traditions,
and tastes. We share tales of okra-only gumbo, seafood gumbo, chicken
and sausage gumbo, turtle gumbo, and green gumbo, too.
For every different style of gumbo there is a different story. Oral
history interviews with cooks and purveyors across the South reveal
the various ways in which gumbo recipes have been acquired and how
they have evolved, helping to explain the importance—and persistence—of
the South’s gumbo tradition.
> Go to Oral
Histories to read the interviews.
A GUMBO PRIMER
There are as many variations of gumbo as there are people who make
it. But the foundation of any gumbo is the thickener. Some consider
okra as the original gumbo base. But then there is the old rule
of gumbo-making, “First you make a roux.” Others are
of the opinion that filé is the only proper gumbo thickener.
Then there are cooks who use some combination thereof. Whatever
the style, tradition, or preference, here are descriptions of these
gumbo cornerstones to get you primed for your journey down the Southern
For many, OKRA, that spiny and slimy pod, is the only way
to thicken a gumbo. Okra not only thickens a gumbo; it adds flavor.
It is usually sliced and then sautéed with what many consider
the holy trinity of gumbo-making: onions, celery and bell peppers.
Okra gumbo has a subtler flavor than filé- or roux-based
FILÉ is dried and ground sassafras leaves. It is usually
added to a gumbo at the very end of the cooking process or to individual
servings. Many prefer filé for its distinctive musty, tea-like
flavor. It is sometimes called "gumbo filé.” The
Cajuns and Creoles learned about filé from the Choctaw Indians
of the Gulf South. Some maintain that filé was used when
okra was out of season. Today, both gumbos are made year-round.
Combining filé with okra is uncommon.
A ROUX, used as a thickening agent, is achieved by cooking
flour and a fat (butter, vegetable oil, or even olive oil) together
over high heat. The rich nuttiness of the roux intensifies with
cooking, which also affects its color. A roux is used in various
recipes; different colors are desired for different dishes. Some
use a peanut butter colored roux, while others strive for an almost
Historically, a seafood gumbo was not made with filé because
okra would be in season when seafood was fresh. A duck or venison
gumbo would not have okra in it, since hunting season falls during
winter and fall, when okra could not be found. While these traditions
sprang from simple availability of ingredients, they still hold
true in many parts of the South’s gumbo tradition.
Now grab a spoon and hit the Southern Gumbo Trail!
(> Go to map.)
PLEASE NOTE: Every effort has been made
to make the GUMBO TRAIL a functional and up-to-date map of vendors
and locations, but please contact these establishments directly,
when making travel plans. All information herein is subject to change