Life, as we know it, is divided into two groups; those who eat sweet potatoes with their gumbo and those who do not. Granted, though I have no official figures, I suspect that the division is lopsided toward the non-potato people, but that is only because of geography and cultural walls. In the coming age of the new enlightenment, everyone will eat sweet potato with their gumbo. Meanwhile, here is what the non-believers are missing.
Sweet potato provides a perfect, and healthy, complement to a hearty gumbo. Here’s what you do: Peel back a freshly baked spud. (Nothing smells better than the caramelized fragrances of the vegetable as it roasts in the oven.) Leave on some of the skin to preserve the syrupy flavor. Plop the potato in the gumbo. Then, as you devour the gumbo, every so often scarf up a spoon’s worth of the potato which provides a sweet counterpoint to the gamey, saltier flavor of the gumbo itself. Note: There are some people who prefer to keep their sweet potato in a plate to the side and to actually peel it entirely beforehand. That’s allowed, but it is like eating crawfish without sucking he heads. You just don’t get the full flavor.
There is one sanctioned exception to the sweet potato rule, but it is geo-specific. In St. Martin parish, where, incidentally, the Evangeline Oak is, the tradition is to use potato salad. Like the sweet potato, a St. Martiner will plop a scoop of the salad in the center of the bowl and nibble off of its as though it was a yam. The taste counterpoint is different; spicy rather than sweet, but a good gumbo can be enjoyed in many ways.
Doing it right is influenced very much by being in Louisiana where the fields are ripe with sweet potatoes and where the bayous and swamps provide the ingredients for a seafood gumbo, and where sausage making was enhanced by early German settlers.
In this, our dining issue, gumbo is but one of the many dishes that make our restaurants great, but it is the rare dish that is so Louisiana by nature and has its own style in the city (Creole) and in the country (Cajun).
There are a few other considerations which are matters of personal taste: Don’t mix meat in seafood gumbo; conversely keep the seafood out of meat gumbos. File or Okra? I prefer the latter because it has a heartier flavor and thickens the soup so that it can be eaten with a fork. There is one more ingredient that is as native of Louisiana as the sweet potato: hot sauce. I vote yes, but just a few splashes. Also: It really enhances a sweet potato.