contained holiday celebration. It can be a thin-bodied filé gumbo packed with shrimp and quartered crabs, or a complex roux- thickened duck gumbo with chunks of smoky andouille sausage in every spoonful. But one thing it’s not (ironically) is “one thing.” The Three Thickeners Part of gumbo’s wide range is its flexible structure, which allows the use of three thickeners (alone or in combination, depending on taste and tradition). Okra: Foodies with a linguistic bent and time to argue will insist that a gumbo isn’t gumbo without okra (stemming from the plant’s Old World Bantu root word quingombo). Most people have pronounced opinions about the often-gooey texture of this curvy green podlike vegetable. (Technically, it’s called “mucilage,” but detractors and fans alike call it “slime.”) Love it or hate it, this African-born, Deep South-bred vegetable is the secret of many gumbos across the land-and-sea spectrum. Roux: Many dishes, especially from South Louisiana’s Cajun tradition, start with this napalm-like paste of oil and toasted flour. This staple couldn’t get any simpler — equal parts wheat flour and vegetable oil cooked gradually until the flour turns brown. A slow, low flame toasts the flour particles as the mixture develops a deep, nutty flavor. Adapted from classical French technique, the Louisiana roux process often heads straight for the dark side of the spectrum — with tones described as peanut butter, medium brown, brick, chocolate, and “almost black.” And despite what you may have heard, roux preparation doesn’t require magic, intricate rituals, or incantations to long-ignored kitchen gods. Just a cast iron pot, a single stovetop burner and ample, spoon-turning patience. Filé (or Filé Powder): Away from the Gulf, filé can be a culinary mystery. Most folks, they’ve heard Hank Williams Sr. sing about it, and they know it’s never too far from gumbo, but it’s not one of those products you routinely find on spice racks outside the region. Filé is the dried leaf of the native sassafras tree, pounded into a fine powder. Native Americans used the pulverized leaves to
thicken stews, a trick picked up by French and African cooks during the colonial era. The dusty green powder gives gumbo a distinctive, herbal flavor and is usually stirred into the pot directly before serving or as a “sprinkle your own” table spice. Making It Our Own Combine the three thickeners with a tradition of natural bounty and you’ve got the possibilities of a million different gumbos — maybe more. Cooks along the Gulf Coast might hold tight to the way they were taught by their grandmother (shrimp and okra made during summer vacation) or pre-game chicken and sausage version their aunts used to make during college football season. Our gumbos can reflect a wide variety of cultural influences and regional variations that we recreate at our stovetops. Some folks have fond memories of shrimp/ sausage gumbo served in Iberia parish grade-school cafeterias, crawfish-spiked gumbos from the Cajun Prairie and Atchafalaya Basin towns or the fish-spiked seafood versions served around Mobile and Biloxi. Others yearn for Thanksgiving’s turkey-bone gumbo, made from post-feast leftovers or the comfort of an intricate New Orleans Creole gumbo
that appears for formal holiday gatherings for families in the city’s Seventh Ward. (This special-occasion variation contains shrimp, crab, oyster, chicken wing, veal stew meat and two kinds of sausage — cooked low and slow with a roux/filé combination.) A dedicated cook’s gumbo — even when it’s as unique as their thumbprint — tells a story with every pot, every bowl and every bite. Look for the Story Which brings us back to the Disney debacle. The online backlash showed us an important truth about the cultural importance of the dish, the story and the interaction of the two. “Tiana’s Healthy Gumbo” (shudder) should be recognized for what it was — the work of some well-meaning nutritionist with decent intentions — rather than an aggressive act of cultural imperialism bent on undermining our culinary traditions. The whole affair showed us how our regional cooks connect food and identity. And most importantly — how every bowl of gumbo is a chance to learn a different story, which keeps our vibrant food culture intact and thriving one pot at a time.
“A serious cook’s signature gumbo can be as unique as their thumbprint.”
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