Gumbo is not just a dish to serve for Sunday dinner, or to guests on special occasions. Gumbo is a tradition. Gumbo recipes are passed generation to generation in families from Louisiana. Just as Kentucky has its Burgoo and Georgia its Brunswick stew, gumbo is all about the melting pot that is Louisiana.
On the website of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group which documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South, is an in depth study of the origins of gumbo.
Gumbo is often cited as an example of the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking, but trying to sort out the origins and evolution of the dish is highly speculative. The name derives from a West African word for okra, suggesting that gumbo was originally made with okra. The use of filé (dried and ground sassafras leaves) was a contribution of the Choctaws and, possibly, other local tribes. Roux has its origin in French cuisine, although the roux used in gumbos is much darker than its Gallic cousins.
Gumbo was always an experience I looked forward to as a child. It was an experience just because of the number of steps and ingredients needed to properly make gumbo. And it had better have been made properly, or my grandmother Thelma, from Shreveport, LA would let my mother know what was wrong.
As a child I was able to help with the preparation somewhat. I remember helping my mother cut the okra (and getting all slimy from it) and vegetables for the trinity, measuring the rice to serve along with the gumbo. The house would smell so wonderful as the gumbo was cooked. The roux, chicken, shrimp, sausage, crab legs and file powder made a magical aromatic cloud so thick you could almost taste it.
My mother and grandmother are both gone now, and I haven’t found a written recipe for their gumbo yet. But I was able to re-create it from my memories, with a few minor changes. I don’t always add okra to my gumbo, although it is used not only as a flavor enhancer but also as a thickener for the gumbo. I am still traumatized by all that slime I had to endure as a child, so I usually forgo the okra.
Although gumbo is a labor-intensive dish, it is worth the effort.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Makes 12 cups
- 1 cup rendered bacon fat
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1/2 large onion, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch chunks
- 64 ounces chicken broth
- 1 package (15 oz) smoked sausage, sliced on the diagonal
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 teaspoon gumbo file powder