Originally published March 24, 2019
Republished with additional content August 19, 2019
After our trip to New Orleans, my fiancé and I have nostalgia for a good gumbo, and I’ve been working on honing my own recipe ever since. I’d assert that there are three key elements to the best gumbo–an excellent seafood stock, a solid brick roux, and quality ingredients to go into it–fresh seafood when possible, okra in season, and so on. While you may sometimes have to make due with frozen or out-of-season ingredients, the stock, roux, and giving the gumbo the time it needs to develop flavor will still always give you incredible results. Like red beans and rice, which are also quintessentially Southern, gumbo is usually eaten over rice, but it’s just as satisfying on its own.
When we eat gumbo, we’re unwittingly coming into contact with a complex historical and cultural nexus. Although sources trace the origins of gumbo back to 1719, when African slaves were brought into Louisiana and began preparing the dish in their masters’ kitchens, African food culture and the seeds of plants like okra, sorghum, and millet were introduced to parts of the New World as early as the 1500s. The word “gumbo” is theorized to have derived from the Bantu word for okra, “ki ngumbo,” that flowering African plant whose seed pods are a staple ingredient in the dish (and is the original thickening agent). Prior to the introduction of West African slaves, the South was occupied by Europeans and Native Americans, each of whom had their own unique food culture, and whose influence in turn helped shape gumbo as an American food. The roux that gives gumbo its rich taste and color is a French technique brought into the South by Cajun French-Canadians, and a different theory regarding the origins of gumbo posits that its roots are Marseillaise, an evolution of the French fish stew bouillabaisse. Finally, the use of ground sassafras, or filé, is the contribution of the Choctaws and possibly other Native American tribes; the Choctaw word for the ingredient is “gombo” or “kombo,” and presents us with another possible origin for the dish’s name. The gumbo we have inherited today is truly creole, in the sense that it is a unique entity of mixed descent–a true melting pot, and it carries with it all the cultural, political, and socio-economic complexities of its origins.
The dish is as notable for its ability to transcend class barriers as it is for its transnational history. Famously served at an 1803 gubernatorial reception (which is supposedly the first-recorded historical mention of the dish) and still enjoyed by gourmands in New Orleans’ fine-dining establishments like Commander’s Palace, it is also a way of feeding a lot of people with seemingly little. In his 1885 La Cuisine Creole, Lafcadio Hearn says of gumbo, “This is a most excellent form of soup, and is an economical way of using up the remains of any cold roasted chicken, turkey, game, or other meats.” Indeed, many 19th century cookbooks make mention of its “economical” nature. Louisianians of all walks of life prepare it for get-togethers and special occasions. It’s a dish that, in a fundamental way, teaches us to waste nothing and unifies people. In fact, there’s a tradition in New Orleans called Courir de Mardi Gras in which gumbo literally brings the entire city together: men proceed door-to-door, begging for the ingredients to make gumbo, and then collectively cook it at a central location to serve to the community.
So the next time you make a big pot of gumbo, take a moment to enjoy the complexities of its background just as much as you might the complexities of its flavors and textures–and by all means, share a bowl of it with family, friends, and your community.
Adapted from Alton Brown’s recipe
Makes about 8 servings
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
2 cups okra, sliced
2 TBSP minced garlic
1 can diced tomato
2 TBSP kosher salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper
6-7 cups seafood stock
1 ½ pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined, and chopped into bite-sized pieces (if necessary)
½ lb package frozen mixed seafood (squid, scallops, etc.), defrosted and chopped into bite-sized pieces (if necessary)
1 TBSP filé powder
Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the vegetable oil and flour in a large Dutch oven, whisk together well, and then place in the oven on the center rack, uncovered. Cook for an hour to an hour and a half, checking the darkness of the roux and whisking every half an hour, until it’s a brick roux (a pretty dark brown, but not so dark that it’s beginning to smell or look burnt).
Place the Dutch oven with the roux on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, okra, and garlic, and cook for about ten minutes—until the onion is soft and semi-translucent—stirring frequently. Add the tomato, salt, and cayenne pepper, stir well, then add the stock, a little at a time, until the vegetables are covered by about an inch. Bring to a boil, lower to a bare simmer, and cover, leaving just a crack open for steam to escape. Cook for 35 minutes.
Taste the gumbo and add salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper as necessary. Add the filé powder while stirring constantly. Let cook for another ten minutes—the gumbo should thicken slightly, and if it’s not doing so, add some more filé. Once thickened to desired consistency, make sure that the gumbo is actively simmering, turn off the heat, and add the shrimp and seafood mix—these should cook to done almost immediately. Serve hot, sprinkled with additional cayenne if desired.