“Gombo filé! Gombo fevis! Gombo aux herbes! Gombo chevrettes, ou aux huitres! What do these things mean at present but vapidity of taste, instead of the licking of one’s lips? And the soups? The soups! Not a ghost of them lingering on earth.”
-Charles Gayarre; in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1887.
Gayarre, the distinguished Creole historian, was a bit premature. Gumbo is still all-pervasive, one of the keystones of local cooking, a trademark, a signature piece. Almost everyone cooks their version, or several versions according to the basis for it, of it they have their own secrets, recipes are guarded or battled over. Everyone you meet claims that their mother, their “na-nan”, their grandmother made the best Gumbo in the world, no debate, the matter’s closed. People who travel about Southern Louisiana always tease one another with intoxicating reports of little cafes attached to gas stations or the local equivalent of French auberges hidden off the main highway where the Duck Gumbo was sublime, nonpareil…but they always seem to want to want to keep these cards close to their chest.
Gumbo—as a name, not as a concoction—comes from Africa, via the slaves. Slaves from Angola called the vegetable okra in their native Umbundu, ochinggombo or ngombo. But the first people who cooked gumbo, originally a sort of catch-can stew, were the local Indians who didn’t put okra in it at all but instead thickened their prehistoric gumbos with filé powder. Filé powder is the dried, pounded and sieved leaves of the sassafras. But actually the term “filé gumbo,” as in Hank Williams, is an oxymoron: both okra and filé powder are used as traditional thickening agents in gumbo, but not together.
Okra is cooked in the gumbo, filé powder is sprinkled on afterward as when cooked it is always described as becoming “stringy” or “ropy”. Refinements to the Indians’ stew were added by the French and Spanish and by the Caribbean blacks.
In their New Orleans Cookbook, Richard and Rima Collin report an 1803 banquet given in New Orleans that served twenty-four different kinds of gumbo, a staggering variety in this day and age (especially for city dwellers without access to various sorts of game). Virtually all gumbo is a soup with an oil/fat and flour roux at its base. The roux is cooked to different colors, or degrees of doneness, and chopped vegetables and seasonings are added. Stock, oyster liquor or water is added, the principal ingredient—be it shrimp or squirrel—is added. The gumbo simmers and rolls. Then you eat it. It is better the next day, like much New Orleans food that spends hours and hours cooking in heavy pots. And it is usually cooked in very large quantities. It’s fairly simple, really.
That indispensable and elegant Yankee-born Gallophile Waverley Root remarks in his historical survey, Eating in America, “Every country with a shoreline has some sort of fish or shellfish stew, call it bouillabaisse, call it zuppa de pesce, call it chowder, but only Louisiana discovered and perfected the gumbos, fish dishes (sic) thickened either with okra or with filé…In gumbos, any sort of fish, shellfish, frogs’ legs, or even poultry or turtle meat may be used, though gumbo z’herbes has only greens or tender herbs, no flesh or fish, and is traditionally served on Maundy Thursday.”
Nice try. One’s admiration for Root’s learning, prodigious with French foods or the histories of various foodstuffs, withers a bit (I might also note that in the above-cited book, he spends several inches more space on New Orleans bouillabaisse, principally because Thackeray wrote a poem to it). Frogs’ legs and turtle seem almost outré as gumbo ingredients; so do fish—they find their glory elsewhere in local cooking. Gumbo z’herbes turns up, when at all, usually on Good Friday and the various editions of The Picayune Creole Cookbook list both ham and a veal brisket among the ingredients.
Unlike other fish or shellfish stews and soups, gumbo is enriched at its outset by the richness and flavor of its roux; bouillabaisse is served over slices of bread and enriched with hot pepper sauce called rouille (red pepper and garlic, bread crumbs and olive oil)—“A spoonful of it is ladled into the middle of the soup and remains floating on its surface like sour cream on borsch” (Root). Bourride, also a Provencal dish, a stew of white fish with a cream and fish stock reduction poured over, is enriched with the addition of aioli, that garlic-flavored mayonnaise that has been hymned as “the butter of Provence.” A lot closer to New Orleans gumbo, with an impeccable African pedigree, is Callipash, a specialty of the South Carolina blacks known as “Geechees”. Its name is a corruption of the Spanish word, carapacho, meaning the carapace of a turtle—for Callipash is a turtle stew cooked in the cleaned-out shell of a turtle. The stew has a roux base like gumbo, but no thickening agent—its consistency should be that of heavy cream.
But this is digression. Although the Picayune Creole Cook Books lists a recipe for a Cabbage Gumbo enriched with a cream sauce, one won’t find it on a menu; nor, unless you know a hunter, will you find Squirrel Gumbo. Gumbo z’herbes is rarely served in restaurants: this Lenten soup—though it now contains meat—is a mixture of chopped greens of every kind, unthickened with okra or with filé powder. Although the Picayune’s table of contents lists Lenten Soups, with the new dispensation, fast day soups and gumbo z’herbes have become mere nostalgic bits of culinary lore. One does wonder about that 1803 banquet, however, and the novelty gumbos that never caught on.
Nowadays, the gumbo that you’re going to find, see, and taste will be based on either shellfish or poultry. Shrimp, crabs, oysters—either all together in seafood gumbo, or singly—and chicken and turkey and, occasionally, duck (only wild ducks really taste right to us in gumbo and that presents another problem for restaurateurs who are not sportsmen as well). Many gumbos also have various sorts of the local sausage sliced thin (and added with the abundance of seasoning, vegetables, onions, shallots, parsley, garlic, celery and bell peppers); sausage seems to go particularly well with oysters and with chicken or turkey. Most gumbos are not extraordinarily hot in their seasoning; they have pepper, but usually it is as easy to taste the thyme, bay leaf, and a hint of mace that serves as their primary spice along with salt. Gumbo should smell good and strong. It should have a strong, rich color. Aside from filé powder, if it has no okra it requires little additional condiments. Along with French bread and butter, a good bowl of gumbo—that is, one with plenty of sausage, chicken or turkey meat, or a bit of crab, a decent number of shrimp or oysters—ought to make a very full and satisfying meal. It is a simple food, but can be exquisite.
“…the occult science of making a good ‘Gombo a la Creole’ seems too fine an inheritance of gastronomic lore to remain forever hidden away in the cuisines of this old Southern metropolis.”—The Picayune Creole Cook Book, Chapter VII.
And now for the bad news: gumbo is not reaIly a dish that one orders when eating out, at least for natives. Visitors to New Orleans, if invited to have supper at a private home where gumbo is being served, should never turn it down. At best, it will be unforgettable; at worst, an object lesson in the fact that, even in a city of great home cooks, there are exceptions. Avoid recipes in local cook books that make gumbo look deceptively easy; it isn’t for beginners, and it can be expensive to try at home in parts of the country where oysters and gumbo crabs aren’t endemic and/or cheap (the CoIIins’ cook book mentioned above, and just handsomely reprinted in paperback, contains clear and delicious recipes.) Also avoid non-local cook books: the Time-Life cook book devoted to Louisiana suggests fish stock as the liquid in a gumbo. Preposterous! as Ethel Barrymore used to say. Hot water, shrimp or crab stock, oyster liquor…but fish stock? Where do they think Louisiana is? On the Cote d’Azur? Nantes?
Eating gumbo out is chancy. The glorious days are long past when, for under a dollar, one could sit at BattisteIla’s Restaurant in the French Market and have a bowl of consistently delicious gumbo and, under the vigilant eyes of Viola Battistella, almost all of the French bread you could eat. Gumbo is now a bit pricier, but still basic and still, as noted above, all-pervasive. Everyone serves it.
Separating the sublime from the indigestible can be problematic. In a restaurant like Galatoire’s, where almost everything on the menu is good, the gumbo is good too. More or less fancy restaurants like The Bon Ton or Mr. B’s serve gumbo. These are white tablecloth places with high reputations and are not really for the budget-minded, but the gumbo is fine. Dooky Chase’s, a quasi-legendary black restaurant on Orleans Avenue, serves a classy seafood and sausage gumbo. Eddie’s, another black restaurant in a slightly more forbidding neighborhood, also serves good gumbo. So does Felix’s, an oyster bar with a lengthy menu and (much of the time) a madhouse atmosphere in the upper French Quarter on Iberville Street. The eponymous Gumbo Shop, right off Jackson square, is always busy and the tables are crowded together New York style (a rarity in New Orleans where cash is often sacrificed to customer comfort); there are a number of tourists. But there are also plenty of locals because, the above said, it serves an excellent bowl of gumbo. The chicken and andouiIle gumbo is better than the seafood, to our mind. And unlike many restaurants, you aren’t treated oddly if all you want is a beer and a bowl of gumbo—they really realize that this can be a full meal.
And yet another solution—for picnics, impromptu eating, motel-kitchenette late-night snacking, what have you: get some gumbo to go. The best place for this is Lama’s St. Roch Market (2381 St. Claude Avenue), an erstwhile city meat-and-produce market that now serves some of the best take-out food in town: boiled seafood, immense, cheap po-boys weighing in at about four pounds on the average, including such bits of local esoterica as the Fried Potato Po-Boy and the Pickled Meat Po-Boy. Lama’s gumbo is delicious, a large portion is about three dollars and it is loaded with shrimp, spice and sausage. Just remember: get it to go.