Cheré Dastugue Coen
Traveling the ‘Gumbo Trail’
When fall arrives, it's 'Gumbo Weather!'
This story by Cheré Coen originally appeared in DeSoto magazine of Mississippi.
The origins of gumbo are as cloudy and varied as its base, with history pointing to the soup evolving in New Orleans from a collection of cultures — okra from Africans, filé from Native Americans, a French roux and rice and tomato contributions from the Spanish. Depending on the region, and the personal taste of the cook, one can find any number of variations.
“When you talk about gumbo, especially in New Orleans, everyone has a different take on it,” said Chef Carolyn Shelton, author of "Zydeco Blues N Gumbo.”
There’s the dark roux accompanying sausage and duck gumbo served in Cajun Country and the Delta and the delicate broth of a seafood gumbo at a white cloth restaurant in New Orleans or Biloxi. Gumbo d’herbes uses green vegetables without meat and some gumbos use no roux base at all. Outside of Louisiana and the Gulf South, gumbos change even further, evolving to meet the needs of that particular area.
“If you have gumbo in Savannah and Charlestown it tastes so different,” said Liz Williams, president and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Many do not contain a roux and are “less evolved, more traditional.”
In New Orleans and Mississippi, gumbo has changed with immigration patterns, one of the reasons for its variations and modern styles, Williams said. “I think gumbo in Mississippi tastes similar to the gumbo in New Orleans and Louisiana,” she said. “We’ve made many many changes and it continues to evolve.”
The Southern Foodway Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi has created “The Southern Gumbo Trail,” more a study of the uniquely American soup, people who create variations and places offering samples than an actual tourism trail. Still, the website offers a nice guide to what may be Louisiana and Mississippi’s state soup.
For Williams, she’s heard people discuss a “gumbo trail” as an off-road experience. “People talk about the gumbo trail in the loosest way and what they mean is the best places to stop for a good bowl of gumbo,” Williams explained.
“And people call that the gumbo trail. It’s highly personalized and all it means is the best places to stop.”
In other words, the gumbo trail is as varied as the soup!
Here are a few recommendations to add to your gumbo trail.
The Gumbo Shop in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter offers many styles of gumbo, but Williams frequents the restaurant for its duck gumbo and the sampler of three. “I love wild duck gumbo with roux as dark as coffee grounds,” she said.
In Lafayette, the unofficial capital of Cajun Country, Charley G’s serves up a smoked duck and andouille gumbo that’s legendary, attracting locals through the doors when the weather turns cold. It’s the recipe of Carol “Pop” Boudreaux who’s been making it for almost 30 years. “I've tried gumbo all over the state, and it’s by far the gold standard,” said Lafayette lawyer and culture writer Lisa Hanchey.
Shelton, who’s working on a how-to gumbo video, is a fan of the Dickie Brennan restaurants of New Orleans where “everything is made from scratch.” She frequents the Palace Café and Tableau for her gumbo fix. “I like his own take on Creole cuisine,” she said.
Mary Mahoney’s, located in a historic house once owned by a French colonist, serves up a traditional seafood gumbo to its Biloxi clientele that’s “world famous.” The coastal restaurant was named to Forbes’ “10 Memorable Meals” of 2011.
Bloomberg News Editor Ken Wells visits family in his native Houma, Louisiana, but heads to A-Bear’s Café for its shrimp and okra gumbo (or chicken andouille, depending on the season) with its “café au lait roux.” “That’s the first place I go after saying hello,” he said, adding that it’s the closest he’s found to his late mother’s gumbo.
Mention gumbo z’herbes in New Orleans and everyone thinks of Chef Leah Chase, who created this special dish during the Lenten season at her restaurant Dookey Chase’s. The traditional green gumbo sans meat was created for Good Friday, but Chase served it up on Holy Thursday in order to incorporate meat. “It’s absolutely fabulous but it’s certainly not traditional,” Williams said. (You can view her recipe on the Southern Foodways Alliance website.)
Outside the box
For something unique, Chef Donald Link mixes pork with black-eyed peas for his gumbo at Cochon restaurant in New Orleans and Chef Alex Patout teams up oysters with his duck gumbo at Landry’s in New Iberia. And if you can’t decide which gumbo to try, Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans offers demitasse cups of three soups including their “Gumbo YaYa” with chicken and andouille sausage and seafood gumbo.
In your own kitchen
The best place to get gumbo may be your own kitchen. The hardest part of cooking gumbo is the time-intensive roux, a mixture of oil and flour that’s lovingly hand-stirred on top of the stove. There’s no rule stating you must use a roux — early New Orleans cookbooks offered numerous recipes without one and other thickners are okra and filé — but for those who love the roux base but don’t want to spend 20 to 30 minutes making one, there are plenty of gumbo starters. Our favorite is Cajun Power, a company out of Abbeville, Louisiana, that produces several styles. One jar, an equal amount of water and you’re ready to roll. All that’s needed is the final ingredients, whether seafood or meat.
Here's a recipe from "Cookin' in Cajun Country," a cookbook-travelogue written by yours truly and Cajun Karl Breaux. Bon appétit y’all!
Cameron Parish Duck, Andouille & Oyster Gumbo
2/3 cup cooking oil
3 tamed ducks, cut and seasoned to taste
1 1/3 cups rendered duck fat 2 1/2 pounds andouille sausage
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 gallons water
1 gallon chicken stock
8 ounces onions, chopped
8 ounces bell pepper, chopped
8 ounces celery, chopped
8 ounces garlic, chopped
8 tablespoons chicken stock 2 1/2 pounds fresh sausage
8 teaspoons Cajun/Creole seasoning
8 tablespoons chicken base 1 quart oysters 1 bunch green onion, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Heat 2 tablespoons cooking oil in large Dutch oven. Place duck pieces in pot and brown while rendering fat for 30 minutes. Brown andouille sausage for 3 minutes and remove both meats from pot. Add the rest of the cooking oil and flour and whisk for 30 minutes until it turns to a chocolate color. Add water and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Place the onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic in the liquid. Return the duck, andouille and fresh sausage to pot. Season with Cajun/Creole seasoning. Add chicken base and let cook for 2 1/2 hours on medium heat. Add oysters, green onions and parsley. Turn off heat. Serve over cooked Louisiana rice.