Gumbo: A Melting Pot of Flavor

by Marcy Harris

Mardi Gras offers up a wealth of food, but the only thing I can think about when the time of year rolls around to celebrate this festive holiday, is gumbo. Not that one has to wait for Mardi Gras to enjoy the rich, hearty stew heaped over rice and steaming with flavor. The Roadhouse featured it for our Mardi Gras Special Dinner earlier this year, and we will continue to offer it as a special on our menu every Monday. It has definitely smothered my thoughts recently, as it is a classic example of really good American food, which is what we are known for. I can’t wait to spoon up our fresh seafood and okra gumbo, each bite offering up the fresh Gulf shrimp we order in from Gulfish.

You say gumbo, I say gombo.

As amazing as it is, gumbo has an origin as murky as the Cajun swamplands. There is enough controversy around its preparation and where it comes from, that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn people are de-friending each other on Facebook over it. There is a wide belief that gumbo actually derives from French bouillabaisse, or fish soup. The belief is that the Creoles couldn’t find the fresh fish they needed to make the bouillabaisse, so they improvised with gumbo by using shellfish. However, Lolis Eric Elie confronts the bouillabaisse theory in his cookbook
Treme, stating that it “makes the least sense”. With the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was not lacking in their choice of catch to make a fresh fish soup. Yet one does not traditionally find redfish, snapper, flounder, or drum in their gumbo. They all sound fantastic in a Creole pot-likker fish stew, actually, but that’s a story for another day. Instead, writings as early as 1885 claim that the influence for gumbo was West African, the name deriving from an African word for “okra”. I don’t claim to be a linguistics expert, but according to Jessica Harris in The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking, gumbo (or gombo, if you want to get all “Frenchie” about it) stems from the Bantu word for okra, quingombo. Considering that okra is an African vegetable and that many cooks in New Orleans during its evolution were West African, it’s a plausible theory that gumbo is heavily impacted by West African gastronomy.

What goes in the pot, stays in the pot.

While the beliefs about the origin of gumbo might be controversial, the diversity of ingredients is essential to the charm of any recipe. Stanley Dry, a writer for Southern Foodway Alliance, asserts that gumbo should always contain rice and be thickened. Outside of these two constants, the dish can be as much of a melting pot as the cultural heritage of Louisiana. Gumbo tends to be a party food, or enjoyed at large gatherings, so multiple people can contribute to what goes in the soup. I’m not saying that it is common for people to spike the pot with bourbon. However, as long as there are vegetables and rice, as well as some sort of seafood or meat, the ingredients can vary widely.

the Spanish settlers’ contribution of the peppers, the French influence of bouillabaisse and roux, the Native American offering of filé, and the Acadian manner of throwing in all the shellfish they can, it’s no wonder that the history of gumbo is as rich as the soup itself. Its style transforms by region, the ingredients local and fresh, so anything that is immediately available can be mixed in. Acadiana, the French Louisiana area settled by who we now call the Cajuns (descended from the Canadian population who migrated to the area), is itself deeply diverse, too, when it comes to the style of gumbo. The Mississippi River Delta area of Acadiana, for example, is prevalent with duck hunting, so it is not uncommon to find duck stirred in with the Andouille sausage.

What’s in your gumbo?

That being said, when people think of gumbo, they tend to categorize it based on ingredients and what is used to thicken it. The thousands of recipes out there are generally classified as: seafood gumbo (typically made with shellfish), poultry and sausage, or
gumbo z’herbes, a meatless version eaten during Lent that can be made with a wide array of greens. The main distinction from there depends on whether they are thickened with okra, or thickened with filé powder. Filé is a Choctaw contribution, made from ground sassafras leaf. Stanley Dry cites The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (1901) as including recipes for a wide array 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.”

The Creoles in New Orleans traditionally use filé to thicken gumbo when okra is out of season, and the Cajuns tend to make their gumbo much thicker with filé and roux, but little or no okra. Since okra is typically not available during the winter and fall when duck and venison are available, one might be more likely to find these meats in a filé gumbo. Okra would make more sense in a seafood gumbo, because it would be in season when the seafood is fresh. Everyone seems to have hard and fast rules about okra vs. filé, and of course it doesn’t help matters that a third thickening agent, roux, is being thrown into the mix.

Flavor is roux-dimentary

(ROO) is a French thickener made with equal parts fat and flour, and in this case that fat is usually oil. The roux for gumbo is cooked darker than most French roux. Creoles might also use roux to thicken gumbo when they aren’t using okra, but they tend to brown it less and use it in lighter quantity than the Cajuns do. While roux historically is not mentioned in recipes dating back to the 1800s, it has become, for many, a fundamental component in creating the smoky flavor that makes gumbo so deliciously distinct. Of course, opinions differ on the matter of roux as much as they do over anything else with gumbo. Some say it must be browned to the color of dark chocolate, others say to the color of peanut butter. Then there are those folks who insist that the roux must thicken the gumbo like a hearty stew, while there is an opposition that prefers a thinner consistency, more of a “juice”.

My own memories of cooking gumbo for restaurants center around the roux. I can still picture myself standing on an overturned milk crate, and doing nothing else for close to an hour but stirring the fat and flour with a large wooden paddle in a pot large enough to crawl into. I only burned the roux once, but I burned my arms every day with the splattering of the hot mixture. As long as I got it to the nutty, dark chocolate color that gave the gumbo the intense flavor that made it so good, I didn’t rue the “roux arms”.

Our gumbo

At the Roadhouse, we take our roux nice and dark. While our gumbo is not too thick, the Carolina Gold rice we use from Anson Mills’ soaks up the toasty brown goodness. As with everything we make, the ingredients are fresh, and only the best goes into our gumbo. With the shrimp we get in from Gulfish and the spicy Andouille from Aidells, we strive to tell a story with every bowl. Of course, every story behind the gumbo is authentic, any singular recipe is full of flavor and history. There are many, each as characteristic as the individual who made it, and everyone claims that theirs is the best. Assuming I’m invited to the cook-off, they are all fantastic as far I’m concerned.


Gumbo Recipe
The following recipe is approachable
for anyone to make at home. We’ve included roux, file, and okra to offer a trifecta of incredible flavor.

Yield: 1½ gallons, enough for 8 people with leftovers.

For the roux:

½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour

Combine the butter and flour in a saucepan and cook over medium high heat until it becomes the color of milk chocolate (about 45 minutes or so). Stir frequently as it cooks, particularly as it starts to darken because it will do so quickly. The roux can be made 2 days in advance, just keep it at room temperature until ready to use.

For the gumbo:  

1 medium Spanish onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 each green bell pepper, diced
1 each red bell pepper, diced
1 lb Andouille sausage, cut into half moons, 1/4″ thick

3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 small can of tomato paste
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 T dried oregano
1 T dried thyme
2 each bay leaves
3 T creole seasoning – Tony Chachere’s works great!
1/4-1/2 T crushed red pepper flakes (depends on how hot you want it!)
2 T gumbo file powder

3- 8oz bottles of clam juice (chicken stock is a good substitute)
1 cup red wine
1 lb smoked or cooked chicken in large chunks
1 lb raw peeled & deveined shrimp, thawed
1 lb frozen okra

In a large pot over medium heat, drizzle in olive oil. Add the vegetables and Andouille sausage. Sauté until the veggies are softened and the sausage is lightly browned.

Add the garlic and sauté for a minute.  Add the roux, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, oregano, thyme, file, creole spice, pepper flakes, and bay leaves.  Stir until combined.  Next, add the clam juice (or chicken stock), red wine, chicken, shrimp, and okra. Bring up to a boil. Stir vigorously to ensure full incorporation of the roux without any lumps. Allow to simmer for approximately 10 minutes, or until the shrimp are cooked through, the gumbo is thickened, and the starchy taste of the flour is cooked out. Serve over cooked rice.

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