Gumbo recipes are as varied as the cooks who prepare the Louisiana delicacy. You start with a roux (flour and oil or butter cooked to a dark brown), or not; you add cooked okra, or not; you thicken with filé (powdered sassafras root), or not; and you add seafood (shrimp, crab, shellfish) or cooked chicken and smoked sausage.
For gumbo, anything goes.
No one can quite agree on the dish’s history, either. While many mention African, French or Choctaw beginnings with German, Creole and Cajun additions, most food historians now point to the undeniable influence of the okra stews the West African people brought to the area around New Orleans in the mid-1700s. A language lesson finds that “okra” is “ki ngombo” in a West African dialect, a region known for okra stews. Okra is a thickening agent for gumbo.
Of course, this being Louisiana, the history doesn’t stop there. Sometime along the way, a French roux was adapted, adding flavor and texture. Native Americans, notably the Choctaw tribe, introduced filé, another thickening agent. For another curve, the Choctaw word for “sassafras” is “kombo.”
One note: Gumbo aficionados don’t mix okra and filé, though combining either with a roux is fine; they also don’t mix seafood and poultry, and, other than sausage or perhaps ham and other pork pieces, they don’t include red meat. Oh, and tomatoes are debatable; go without if possible.
The Cajuns — transplanted Acadians from Nova Scotia — began fishing the Gulf waters for shellfish and shrimp, thus adding their influence. The Germans settling the region threw smoked sausage into the pot, and then in recent years, the Creoles incorporated their love of spices. And there we have gumbo.
Murky history, I know, but taste gumbo and you’ll understand that a historical perspective isn’t really necessary in this instance. What’s important is what’s added to the stockpot.
Sadie Mares, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, requests recipes for Seafood Gumbo and Chicken/Sausage Gumbo. Jeff Rodger, Ketchikan, Alaska, sends a recipe from his 45-year-old collection.
Kathy Belt, Park Rapids, Minnesota, requests a fudge recipe that does not include evaporated or condensed milk.
BREAKFAST BISCUIT RECIPES:
David King, Piedmont, Alabama, writes that back in the 1940s and ’50s, his mother baked orange biscuits that included cinnamon. He’s pretty sure the recipe came from an older version of Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.
Our readers knew exactly the right recipe as most of the responses we received were from one version or another of the BHG cookbook.
Betty Schmidtlein-Savage, Richmond, California, includes a tip for grating orange peel: “To simplify, first place the orange in the freezer for 15 minutes, then push it diagonally across the grater rather than up and down. Grate only the outer rind, not the white pith.”
Senior Associate Editor Jean Teller loves a tasty bowl of gumbo, undoubtedly the influence of her Loo-zi-ann cousins.
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