A Short History of Gumbo

by Stanley Dry

Of all the dishes in the realm of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is the most famous and, very likely, the most popular. Gumbo crosses all class barriers, appearing on the tables of the poor as well as the wealthy. Although ingredients might vary greatly from one cook to the next, and from one part of the state to another, a steaming bowl of fragrant gumbo is one of life’s cherished pleasures, as emblematic of Louisiana as chili is of Texas.
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 The name derives from a West African word for okra, suggesting that gumbo was originally made with okra.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.
Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who has written the definitive history of the Cajuns, found that the first documented references to gumbo appeared around the turn of the 19th century. In 1803, gumbo was served at a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans, and in 1804 gumbo was served at aCajun gathering on the Acadian Coast.
Today, the gumbos people are most familiar with are seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. But that merely scratches the surface of gumbo cookery, both historical and contemporary.
Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, published in 1885, contains recipes for several gumbos made from a variety of ingredients—chicken, ham, bacon, oysters, crab, shrimp, and beef, among them. Some of the recipes are made with okra, others with filé. Although there is no mention of a roux in any of the recipes, some of them call for the addition of flour or browned flour as a thickener.
The Creole Cookery Book, published by the Christian Woman’s...