For a state that has a well-deserved reputation for a diverse and extraordinary cuisine, it would seem logical that the competition to name our national dish would be tough. If only based upon the enormous variety of ingredients – wildlife such as duck, deer or turkey; seafood such as shrimp, crab, oysters or several species of fish; fruits such as persimmon, French melon or mayhaw; vegetables such as eggplant, squash or pumpkin; grains such as rice and corn; and of course both domestic and exotic animals such as chicken and alligator, pig and garfish or cattle and bullfrog – one can imagine and create hundreds of recipes. Nonetheless, among all the dishes you can cook, jambalaya, stews, bisque, étouffée, rice dressing, boudin, roasts, stuffed panse, macque choux … well, you get the idea, there is only one that deserves the title of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole national dish par excellence: gumbo!
For all of its fame, its origins remain as obscure and thick as gumbo itself. In Louisiana French, the word means two things: the soup and a vegetable the French call “Greek horn” and the Americans “okra.” The name is of African origin, maybe from Bantu, more likely from Bambara. And to complicate things further, you can make gumbo from okra, in which case it called in French gombo févi, “févi” being another African word for “okra.” The first historical references to gumbo to be found go back to the Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th century. Before that, pre-Deportation Acadians preferred All Saints’ Day Soup, made with turnips, cabbage and sometimes pork. Also, the refugees from Saint Domingue arrived with a similar dish made with okra, calaloo. Luckily for us, the Acadians met the Africans and the Haitians in Louisiana. Before refrigeration was widespread, seafood gumbo was rather rare, especially far from the coast. Chicken gumbo, cooked a thousand different ways, has been found on every table since before the Civil War.
Gumbo plays a central role in one of the most emblematic rituals in the prairies of Acadiana, the running of Mardi Gras. According to Professor Barry Jean Ancelet, there are 20 or more runs, each with its own customs and songs. They do have some common elements: masked runners, a non-masked captain brandishing a whip, alcohol and music (of course) – but above all a clear goal. They are on an almost divine mission: They must collect the necessary ingredients for a communal gumbo. Coming at the end of winter and before the lean season of Lent, the cooking of the gumbo takes on a symbolism of solidarity and survival. From that point of view, the gumbo becomes nearly sacred, an idea that is reinforced by the presence of the “holy trinity” of bell peppers, onions and celery.
There is not only an impressive quantity of different ways to cook a gumbo – with or without a roux, with or without eggs, with or without meat in the case of gumbo z’herbes – but there also exists a fierce debate that brings out limitless passions about the best way to eat gumbo. All year long? Only in the wintertime? As an appetizer? As a main dish? And let us not forget the great question that divides Louisianians more than the election of a parish sheriff: potato salad, in the gumbo or on the side? There must be entire families torn apart by this thorny question. And yet, gumbo’s vocation is to bring us together, whatever our origins. Like the abundant ingredients that can be put in it, everyone is welcome around the table when gumbo is served. Whatever your position on these questions, I am sure that we agree about the importance of diversity in making a good gumbo.