Louisiana is known for its savory dishes and flavorful food staples the world over. However, of all the foods found within its boot-shaped borders, gumbo may very well be the most renowned. It’s the perfect collision of cultures, borrowing flavors from a variety of groups to create something altogether unique and delicious. Plus, gumbo’s flexibility in ingredients and preparation means that almost anyone could afford to enjoy it in those early days—from the wealthiest classes to the most modest households.
Just like its combination of flavors, the history of gumbo is vibrant. There are very few direct records of the dish’s development, but what we can speculate is that it took generations of cooks from all backgrounds to give us the dish we all know and love. Explore its tasty origins with us, and next time you whip up a pot for your family, you’ll be able to appreciate its history in every bite.
The Multicultural Roots of Gumbo
When we talk about “melting pots” in Louisiana culture, gumbo is usually the most common metaphor used—and for good reason! The various ingredients used in traditional gumbos have ties to many cultures across the globe, including African, Spanish, French, and Native American tribes.
In fact, the first documentation of gumbo in historical texts places it at the beginning of the 19th century with mentions of the dish at meetings in 1803. By this point, Louisiana was less than a decade away from becoming a state, and residents of the region had been living together and sharing ideas for more than a century. This is why historians believe that gumbo was slowly emerging and evolving within home kitchens and restaurants more than a century before.
It’s said that the name “gumbo” originated from the West African word for okra, “ki ngombo.” This gives strength to the popular theory that the dish started as an African okra stew. Even today, many forms of gumbo still include okra as a main ingredient, which may speak to its strong African influence.
Other people think that gumbo started from the French soup, bouillabaisse, which also uses a roux base. Another possibility is that French and African dishes slowly melded to form the dish we know today.
The Cultures Come Together
A popular spice and thickening ingredient for gumbo is filé, which is made from dried and crushed sassafras leaves. Filé doesn’t have connections to settlers at that time, so the powder is believed to have come from local Native American tribes in the South Louisiana region. These tribes include the Choctaw, Tunica, and Chitimacha groups that would often intermingle with local settlers to trade ingredients and supplies.
With regards to the “Holy Trinity,” many cultures use onions and peppers to season dishes. However, the unique combination of onions, bell peppers, celery—and in some cases tomato—is suspected to be of Spanish origin—or at least in part. The Holy Trinity is present in many other Louisiana staples that also resemble Spanish dishes in look and flavor. One popular example is Cajun jambalaya and Spanish paella.
Meanwhile, the roux base that’s used in almost all modern gumbos is assumed to have come from France. French roux usually takes a “blonde” hue and is used as the starter for sauces such as Béchamel or Velouté. However, the roux used in Louisiana gumbo is much darker, which could be due to trends in cooking and local influences from other non-French settlers.
The Savory Spectrum of Gumbo
As you probably know, gumbo isn’t a one-trick pony. There are endless ways it can be made, and at the end of the day, it really just comes down to what you have on hand. That’s precisely the reason why the dish was so popular with poorer families during the earlier days of its evolution.
As long as you have ingredients for the roux and vegetable base—all of which were relatively cheap and easy to come by—you could add whatever protein you had on hand to produce a satisfying meal to feed the whole family.
Published in 1901, the Picayune’s Creole Cookbook provided a list of the main gumbo ingredients at the time, which included things like chicken, wild turkey, squirrel, rabbit, beef, veal, crabs, shrimp, vegetables, and cabbage. What many don’t know is that older styles of gumbo were either thickened with okra or filé only, depending on what the cook had access to and what time of year it was.
There are records that show okra was popular for its flavoring capacity. However, before refrigerators were mass produced, okra was harder to keep fresh into the off-season unless it was dried and crushed. It was during these times that filé may have had to be used as a more convenient substitute. Modern cooks find this surprising since the traditional butter and flour roux is an indisputable staple of gumbo cooking.
The Gumbo of Today
With modern cooking practices and access to virtually any seasoning or ingredient, Louisiana gumbos today likely look a lot different than their earliest versions. We’ve perfected the roux and flavoring base. We can source the most delicious, high quality meats. And you can’t forget—almost any spice is available at our local grocery stores. These advantages give us endless opportunities to experiment with flavors and create new iterations of Louisiana’s favorite dish.
The most popular versions of gumbo today are chicken and sausage gumbo and seafood gumbo. Within these two categories are endless variations made with slightly different seasonings, supplemental ingredients, and roux-making methods.
Some choose to include tomato within the base—as with popular Creole styles—while Cajun cooks will add boiled eggs, vinegar, or spoonfuls of potato salad.
Elevated forms of gumbo, however, may feature harder-to-find proteins like quail, dove, or alligator. There are even vegan forms of gumbo, which use lots of vegetables for umami and vegan butter.
While many people will claim that their preferred gumbo is the “correct” version, the truth is that gumbo is—and will always be—an ever-evolving group project that we’re all a part of. Little by little, young cooks add their own special touches, fresh trends emerge, and new ways to enjoy gumbo are added to the dish’s rich history. The next time you cook a gumbo, remember all the people and cultures that brought your dinner to life!
What’s your favorite way to cook a gumbo? Did you learn anything new about Louisiana’s most famous dish? Let us know in the comments!
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