While reviewing work I have done, I came across this short essay that I wrote for the editors of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture some years ago, and which I had submitted in good faith and assumed had been published. (I received a thank you letter and notification of the particular volume’s publication.) But I never saw the published entry, and so I decided to track it down, if only to ascertain the page numbers. To my surprise, there was another entry on gumbo where mine was supposed to have been. (And one that re-capitulates the usual food writer truisms. *Sigh.) Since I have to delete that line on my vita, I thought some good should come of the work I did so long ago. Here, then, is my version of gumbo…
When most people think of gumbo, they associate it with the Cajun and Creole peoples of south Louisiana. While the dish is most often associated with Louisiana, neither the name nor the idea for this dish itself is unique to the area. The word comes to the New World from West Africa, where the plant was known as (ki)ngombo along much of the coast, except in those areas where it was called nkruma from which the American word “okra” comes. Because of this African connection, there are also gumbos to be found in the Carolinas and in Puerto Rico.xGumbo has come to stand for Louisiana in part because it reflects and refracts so well the historical complexities out of which the dish emanates: Louisiana’s colonial period saw the immediate introduction of enslaved Africans who brought not only seeds for plants with them but ideas about what and how to prepare food. These French and African settlers were, of course, pressing outward onto a landscape already occupied by Native Americans, who called the ground sassafras they used kombo — now known as filé. Some of these native groups also had a tradition of parching ground corn. The brown meal would be carried in a pouch and then mixed with water as a subsistence food when out on long trips. Into this colonial mix of peoples and ideas came two great surges: the Acadians and the Haitians. The impact of the latter group on the culture in general and the foodways in particular of New Orleans is not to be underestimated: whites, slaves, and freed people of color doubled the population of the city overnight.
The first mentions of gumbo in the historical record appear right as the colonial period ends and the American one begins, which underlines the fact that the exact origins of Louisiana gumbo may be irretrievable. It’s form, however, appears to have been established early: a thick, brown soup served over a cereal. Since the late nineteenth century and its development as a commercial crop, rice has been at the bottom of gumbo bowls. Before that, Louisiana cleft more closely to the rest of the south and the starch that gumbo covered was corn meal mush, known at first by the Native American term for it sagamité and later by the African-influenced couche couche, This tradition is maintained in some parts of Louisiana with potato salad sometimes being scooped into a gumbo bowl to “soak up the rest of the gravy.”
The brownness of gumbo is really its essence, but how that brown is achieved varies by region and by dish. In some areas, cooks get the browning from the meat; in others from the roux. The color, consistency, and amount of roux is wildly variable, as is its place in the cooking process: some cooks begin making gumbo with making the roux, then adding seasoning vegetables, and then water. Others already have a roux made, often a large bowl of it sitting in the refrigerator, and add the roux to boiling water, dissolving it spoonful by spoonful.
Even this brief discussion of one aspect of gumbo reveals the extreme variability and flexibility of the dish. It is, like any cultural touchstone, as much a focus for arguments as it is for agreement, with differences often being distinct across regions, towns, and even families. These differences are, in point of fact, more consistent than any of the more sweeping claims sometimes made between Cajun and Creole versions of the dish. It is more likely that Cajun and Creole neighbors in Lawtell, Louisiana will make gumbo in the same way than the Creoles of Lawtell and those of New Orleans. As is the case with any number of folklore forms, gumbo reveals that there has always been a high degree of cultural integration in the south, even when social segregation was the law of the land.