Marcelle Bienvenu photographs by Eugenia UhlA definition.
Gumbo: Spicy, thick Creole soup composed of fish or shellfish, poultry, game, meats and vegetables in any of a great variety of combinations. Gumbo is thickened with either okra or filé powder and is served ladled over rice. The name is probably derived through the Portuguese quingombo from quillobo, an African word for okra. (From American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series, 1971)
As with many other dishes of Louisiana, the origin of gumbo is always a subject of discussion. Was it the Creoles of New Orleans or the Cajuns of what is now called Acadiana who created this thick, rich soup that’s the quintessential dish of Louisiana?
Duck, oyster and andouille gumbo
In the book Stir the Pot, The History of Cajun Cuisine (2005), co-authored by Carl Brasseaux, Ryan Brasseaux and myself (Marcelle Bienvenu), it’s noted that “Gumbo first appears in the historical record at the turn of the 19th century. The two initial references, occurring in 1803 and ’04, point to the use of gumbo respectively at a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans and at a Cajun bal de maison (house dance) on the Acadian Coast, between Baton Rouge and the Crescent City.”
Historians tell us that the term gombo is the West African term for okra. Enslaved Africans (who brought okra to the New World) in Louisiana used the term in reference to the vegetable itself, not a dish. Okra was often used by the African slaves in soups and other dishes that included meat and shrimp seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper. Along the way, the French, Spanish, Germans and other ethnic groups contributed to the evolution of the okra-based soup. The French probably experimented with another thickening agent like roux – a combination of oil and flour cooked to different degrees of color. The Choctaw Indians introduced filé powder (dried ground sassafras leaves) as yet another thickening agent. The Germans and French probably are responsible for the addition of sausages. The Spanish threw in onions and peppers. And so it went, until we now have many different kinds of gumbos. The term gumbo ya ya is said to be interpreted as “everyone talking at once.”
Like jambalaya, there are as many recipes for gumbo as there are bayous that crisscross the state. Which recipe is best and what ingredients go into the pot is not so important. The important thing is that it must satisfy personal taste buds.
One can only imagine the amount of time, during which several bowls of gumbo and a couple of beers would be consumed, that could be spent arguing when and how this beloved Louisiana dish came to be.
But then, only in Louisiana will you find everyone talking for hours about their cuisine.
Ask a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker or anyone on the street what’s their favorite gumbo, and you’ll get myriad answers. Order a gumbo anywhere from a corner café to a fine dining restaurant and you’ll discover every cook and chef has his or her own interpretation.
Chicken and sausage gumbo
Visit Lafayette, Lake Charles, Mamou, St. Martinville and Morgan City. Follow Bayou Lafourche from its beginning in Donaldsonville to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Fouchon. Do a taste-test around the Greater New Orleans area, the Northshore and even in northern Louisiana. Without a doubt, you’ll find gumbos made with seafood, chicken and sausage, anything that crawls on its belly or flies overhead and perhaps a gumbo that contains it all.
There will be purists that insist that seafood gumbo contain only seafood – no sausage, or bits of ham or chicken. That a chicken and sausage gumbo shouldn’t have any seafood. Then again, a gumbo made with wild ducks or geese often has freshly-shucked oysters added to the pot just before serving.
Creole cooks, such as Leah Chase, owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, combine hot sausage, cubed beef, smoked ham, chicken pieces as well as shrimp and oysters in their golden roux-based gumbo.
OKAY, WHAT ABOUT OKRA?
Can okra can be included in a seafood gumbo or one of chicken and sausage? Well, yes, but here again there is some debate as to how the okra is cooked and should a roux be used to make an okra gumbo.
In New Orleans, fresh okra (frozen okra is acceptable only when fresh is not available) is cut crosswise into 1/2- to 1/4-inch-pieces and cooked separately in oil until it’s no longer “ropey” or stringy.
In rural areas, home cooks usually “put up” okra for winter use. In this case, cut-up okra is smothered – cooked down – slowly in oil with onions, celery and tomatoes (seasoned with salt and cayenne) either on the stove or in the oven until the slime disappears and the okra is very tender.
If the gumbo includes chopped okra, it’s often referred to as “Creole gumbo” or “gumbo févi.”
SPICES AND TOMATOES
In New Orleans, seafood gumbo is more prevalent than one of chicken and sausage simply because crabs, shrimp and oysters are easy to obtain. Made with a peanut butter-colored roux to which chopped onions, bell peppers and sometimes celery and garlic are added, it usually includes chopped tomatoes and/or other tomato products that are said to enrich the flavor. Tomatoes are not a usual addition to seafood gumbo in the country, except when okra smothered with tomatoes is introduced. City gumbos will more than likely include paprika, thyme and parsley as well as salt and cayenne pepper while country gumbos are more simply seasoned with salt, cayenne and perhaps the addition of hot sauce – well, usually.
Making a roux
ROUX OR NOT TO ROUX
As a rule, peanut butter-colored roux is primarily used for seafood gumbos – with or without okra. The darker, chocolate-colored roux is the base for most chicken and sausage or wild game gumbos. Any cook worth his or her salt will tell you that a homemade roux is the only way to go. Not only will it taste better but the act of making roux proves that love and patience goes into it and the roux maker has the opportunity to enjoy a beer or two while he or she is standing at the stove.
However, commercial roux (which comes in light or dark versions, dry or regular) is perfectly acceptable in a pinch, i.e., when time is of the essence, when making huge quantities of gumbo are made, or in the case of the dry version, diet constrictions warrant its use.
Some cooks choose to make okra gumbos (seafood or chicken) without a roux base since the okra provides the thickening agent. Water, seafood stock or chicken stock provides the liquid. In Acadiana, the locals will tell you that they make okra gumbos “with just a bit of roux” to give it more flavor.
Note: The usual order of making a gumbo is to make the roux, add the onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic (if using) and cook for about 10 minutes, then add warm or room-temperature stock, broth or water and continue with the cooking procedure. Simmer and then add the roux (wet or dry) to make the desired consistency.
STOCK OR WATER
The addition of stock or broth, rather than water, is the obvious choice for an intense, flavorful gumbo. Shrimp and/or crab shells make an incredible and easy to make stock. Simply simmer the shells in water seasoned with lemons, bay leaves, coarsely chopped celery and onions and whatever else strikes your fancy for a couple of hours … voila!
Note: The trick (according to my mother) to making a good gumbo of seafood, was to allow the roux, vegetables and intense shrimp stock to simmer for about an hour or so before adding the seafood, which is then simmered until the shrimp turned pink and the edges of the oysters curled just a bit, about 10 minutes or so. Cooked longer, the shrimp toughened, the crabmeat fell apart and the oysters almost turned to rocks.
Chicken, or turkey, carcasses simmered with onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves, a few cloves of garlic and black peppercorns are all you need for a rich chicken stock.
But, when a chicken gumbo is made with chicken pieces on the bone, you may not need to use chicken stock, only water.
Tip: When cooking a chicken gumbo, add about 1 pound of chicken livers and gizzards to the pot while it’s simmering for an added depth of flavor. The livers and gizzards can be removed, or not, when ready to serve.
Commercial stock or broth is perfectly acceptable if and when you choose not to make your own – but I wouldn’t brag about it!
RICE, POTATO SALAD OR BAKED SWEET POTATOES?
Most of the time gumbo is served with rice. Rice is either put into the gumbo bowl and the gumbo is ladled over it or, at some eateries, a small bowl of rice is served alongside the gumbo to allow diners to add the rice according to personal taste.
A “Cajun thing” is to plop (or to eat “on the side”) a scoop of potato salad or a baked sweet potato (especially in the Opelousas area where yams are a primary farm crop) into the gumbo with (again, another choice to be made) rice. Ah, starches are wonderful things, n’est pas?
Oh, and don’t forget – hot crusty French bread (yet another starch) is a must with any gumbo!
No it’s not pronounced file (like a fingernail file) but rather filé (fee-lay).
It is made from the dried leaves of sassafras trees that grow wild along the Gulf Coast. The Choctaws (as well as other American Indians) used it long before the French or Acadians reached Louisiana.
Filé has a delicate flavor (some say it is somewhat similar to thyme) and a spoonful or so thickens the gumbo into a kind of richer gravy. Cooks should beware, as it will become stringy if it is allowed to boil in the gumbo. Thus, filé powder should be added to the pot only after it’s been taken off the heat. More often than not, and especially in Acadiana, a small bottle or bowl of the filé is passed around the table for people to add to their gumbo according to personal taste. Filé is never added to okra gumbo or else it becomes gummy and stringy.
AND WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Gumbo z’herbes, also called green gumbo, is, as far as I’m concerned, the king of gumbos.
The late Leon E, Soniat, Jr. described this gumbo in his book La Bouche Creole. Gumbo z’herbes, made with a variety of greens, but no meat, was traditionally served on Good Friday. In days gone by, cooks made their way to the French Market in New Orleans to purchase the greens – mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens and cabbage – would go into the “green gumbo.” Soniat tells us that “Legend had it that for every green that was put into the gumbo, a new friend was made during the succeeding year.” (Most times, seven greens or more were used.)
When I was a youngster, my mother and I didn’t visit the French Market for our greens but rather strolled through my grandfather’s garden, picking whatever greens were available for our gumbo z’herbes.
Gumbo z’herbes is not often found in restaurants in the New Orleans area but many Creole families still prepare it. Leah Chase offers it on Holy Thursday, rather than on Good Friday, at her restaurant and you might find this green gumbo at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest.
Paul’s Pirogue in Carencro (near Lafayette) offers gumbo z’herbes on their menu and you will also find it (usually cooked with salt meat) elsewhere in Acadiana.
Of course, there are yet other gumbos on the culinary scene – smoked duck and tasso, wild mushroom gumbo, gumbo of the day (made with whatever is hanging around the kitchen), cabbage and ham hock gumbo, rabbit gumbo and on and on. If fact, if you’re a gumbo aficionado, get a copy of The Louisiana Gumbo Cookbook, by Bea & Floyd Weber, Acadian House Publishing.
ONE LAST THING
Gumbo can be eaten year-round but I’m of the opinion that gumbo should be reserved for those rainy, bone-cold days during winter when family and friends gather in a cozy kitchen, make the roux, discuss the possibilities of what ingredients will go in the pot, let the gumbo simmer for the better part of the afternoon, then gather ‘round the table to enjoy the rich, flavorful result!
Note: When the first cold front of the season blows in and everyone races to the local supermarket or grocery store to gather ingredients, it’s almost impossible to find a plump chicken or any kind of sausage south of Interstate 10. Gumbo weather has arrived!
DUCK, OYSTER AND ANDOUILLE GUMBO
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 mallards (or 4 teal), dressed, and cut into
Salt, black pepper and cayenne
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 medium-size yellow onions, chopped
2 medium-size green bell peppers, chopped
8 cups (about) water or chicken stock
2 pounds andouille sausage, cut crosswise
into 1/2-inch slices
2 dozen oysters with their liquor
1/4 cup chopped green onions (green part only)
Season the duck generously with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Set aside
Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, heavy pot (preferably black iron) over a medium-hot fire. Brown the duck pieces evenly in the oil, then remove and set aside. Drain off the oil in the pot.
In the same pot, over medium heat, combine the remaining 1 cup of oil and the flour and stirring slowly and constantly, make a dark brown roux. Add the onions and bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and golden; 8 to 10 minutes.
Return the ducks to the pot and slowly add enough warm water or stock to cover the ducks completely. Add the andouille and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until the ducks are tender; about 2 hours.
Add the oysters and their liquor, and the green onions and cook until the edges of the oysters curl slightly; about 5 minutes. Serve hot over rice.
CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE GUMBO
Makes about 8 servings
1 hen, about 4 to 5 pounds, cut into serving pieces
Salt and cayenne to taste
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped celery
10 cups chicken broth (about)
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 pound andouille, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoon chopped parsley
Filé powder (optional)
Season the hen generously with salt and cayenne. Set aside.
Combine the oil and flour in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Stirring constantly, cook until the roux is dark brown; 25 to 30 minutes.
Add the onions, bell peppers and celery and cook, stirring, until they are very soft; 8 to 10 minutes. Add the broth and stir to blend well. Add the chicken, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the chicken is very tender; 2 to 3 hours.
Add the andouille and cook for 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Add the green onions and parsley and serve immediately over rice. Pass the filé powder at the table.
Makes about 6 servings
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped bell peppers
3/4 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 bay leaves
8 cups water or shrimp stock
6 gumbo crabs, broken in half (optional)
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
2 dozen oysters, shucked with their liquor
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Combine the oil and flour in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stirring slowly and constantly, make medium-brown roux, the color of peanut butter.
Add the onions, bell peppers, celery, salt, cayenne and bay leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft; 8 to 10 minutes. Add the water or shrimp stock and stir to blend. Add the crabs and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally; about 1 1/2 hours.
Add the shrimp and crabmeat and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Add the oysters, green onions and parsley and cook until the edges of the oysters curl; 2 to 3 minutes or until the edges of the oysters curl.
Remove from heat. Remove the bay leaves. Serve with filé powder passed at the table.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
1 pound collard or mustard greens (or both)
1 pound spinach
1 pound turnip greens (optional)
1 pound green cabbage leaves, cut
1 large bunch fresh watercress (optional)
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 pound salt meat or ham, cut into
1 brunch green onions, trimmed and
1 cup chopped onions
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Wash and pat dry all the fresh greens. Put the greens in a large, deep pot and add enough water to cover. Add the cayenne, black pepper, bay leaves, thyme and allspice. Bring the mixture to a boil, pressing the greens down into the water. Cook until the greens are very tender and are falling apart. Drain and reserve the looking liquid. You should have three to four quarts. Set the liquid aside.
Chop the greens, either with a knife or kitchen shears, or you can pulse them (in batches) in a food processor – but don’t puree.
In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven, combine the oil and flour over medium heat. Stirring constantly, make a roux the color of peanut butter. Add the salt meat, green onions, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften; about 5 minutes. Add the reserved cooking liquid and stir to blend. Add the chopped greens and simmer, partially covered, for about two hours. Adjust seasoning to taste.
The gumbo can be served over rice. And don’t forget the French bread.