Bites of History: Gumbo

The next time you pull out your gumbo pot, consider that gumbo was invented in Louisiana and that it has been simmering on local stoves for almost 300 years. And be proud that the gumbo your family enjoys is a collaboration of various cultures.

But who actually cobbled together that first cauldron of gumbo? That question is always heatedly debated.

One theory has it that gumbo was invented by Choctaw Indians, who were known for cooking a stew that, like gumbo, was made with bits of everything. They also ate kombo, sassafras leaf, which was powdered to make the thickening ingredient filé, that eventually became a crucial gumbo ingredient.

Another school of thought is that gumbo started out as bouillabaisse, a French seafood soup of fish, broth, olive oil and saffron, which was popular in Old New Orleans. Some historians believe that after a century of cooking with nontraditional ingredients, the soup was no longer recognizable and had turned into a new dish known as gumbo.

We know for sure that roux, the thickening agent made from oil and flour, did come to Louisiana from France. But at some point, did some classically trained French chef in New Orleans decide to thicken bouillabaisse with roux? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.

An extremely popular scenario is that the earliest form of gumbo came to Louisiana with slaves. The Creole/Louisiana word “gumbo” is derived from the word for okra in the central Bantu dialect of West Africa. That region was home to many of the first Louisiana African slaves, who brought with them a love for spices, smothered greens and stews, and whose okra was originally known at “ki ngombo.” The word evolved into “quingombo” and was later shortened to “gombo,” then “gumbo.”

Another nod to the African connection is that Louisiana slaves in the 1700s ate their okra with rice, calling that dish ya ya.

The first documented evidence of gumbo appeared in the early 1800s, and the dish was then described as a soup made principally of (ta-dah!) okra and rice.

Other ethnic groups that landed on our shores are responsible for gumbo ingredients that today we consider standard. The Germans who settled the German Coast 40 miles upriver from New Orleans in 1721 were wildly successful farmers, and their andouille, the heavily smoked and seasoned pork sausage, became a mainstay of rustic country gumbos.

When the Spanish took over the colony in 1762, they brought chaurice, a spicy smoked sausage, along with a love for the use of tomatoes, onions, garlic and parsley. The Spanish were also lovers of ham, and a look at Lafcadio Hearn’s “La Cuisine Creole” (1885) shows that ham, not sausage, was commonly used in New Orleans gumbo at the time.

Seafood gumbo became popular after the arrival of yet another group of immigrants. In the late 1700s, Louisiana’s Spanish government needed to strengthen defenses against the British, and so recruited a group of fishermen from the Canary Islands not only to protect the colony, but also to help produce food.

Known locally as Isleños, these folks settled along Louisiana’s marshes and coast, where they fished enormous amounts of shrimp, crab and oysters. It is believed that their effort is a key reason why seafood gumbo grew so popular in New Orleans.

Although the Acadians did not actually invent gumbo, this group of hearty peasants certainly enhanced it. Avid hunters, the outcasts from Nova Scotia threw their game into iron pots and combined it with okra and hot spices from slaves, Native American filé and herbs, German sausages, and French roux. In the beginning, they actually served it over grits, not rice.

Often cooking with ingredients that were not at their freshest, the Acadians made their gumbos dark and thick, and seasoned them with a comparative heavy hand. Today we call that style of gumbo-making Cajun gumbo, while New Orleans’ more delicate tomato-laced seafood gumbo is considered Creole.

It is generally believed that the modern classic gumbo, a roux-based soup with seafood or meat and optional okra, filé, and tomatoes, was refined by slaves and common housewives, the two demographics who often had to make do with inferior food. And because so many ethnic hands contributed to gumbo’s ingredient list, this savory, comforting, complex and downright mysterious stew has come to personify the word “Creole.”

There’s little argument that it’s the dish that most visitors identify with our region. And it’s the one thing most think they have to have. Gumbo is so identifiable with our state that the Legislature even adopted it as Louisiana’s official cuisine.

So there is no doubt that gumbo, in all its glorious versions, is south Louisiana’s culinary rock star. And does it really matter who invented it? We’re all just glad that someone did.

Sources: Africans in Colonial Louisiana (Hall, 1995), New Orleans Cuisine (Tucker, 2008).

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at noblescynthia@gmail.com.