Grashina Gabelmann, writer and editor-in-chief of Flaneur Magazine, looks at history, society, culture and tradition through the lens of gumbo, a dish loved and adopted, nurtured and developed by generations in New Orleans, in the fourth of our new podcast series, The Digest.
Gabelmann's work and explorations around the world led to a natural affinity with the city of New Orleans, where she met Alec, an adopted son of the Big Easy and a self-taught, passionate expert of its defining dish, gumbo. It was Alec who told her about gumbo, his love affair with the dish, and why he always takes his roux right to the edge.
Listen to their story in Yankee Goes Gumbo and see the full story below.
Yankee Goes Gumbo by Grashina Gabelmann
Read by Drew Paterson
In my opinion, everything in gumbo is debatable, especially if, like me, you're not from Louisiana. At its most basic, what we call gumbo today is a savoury stew made with meat or seafood, okra and other vegetables, and then it gets complicated. The more you talk about gumbo, the more it gets about opinion, and the more I can feel an online mob of Louisiana people saying: “This fucking Yankee doesn't know what he is talking about.” It's tricky for me to talk about this as a white dude from Indiana but it's especially tricky to talk about this stuff now because I'm not in New Orleans. I feel very removed and would be talking differently about this if I were there. I'm in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana because there's no work in New Orleans for me without tourists. South Bend is a miserable fucking place. The year I left, my home town was ranked in America's top 10 dying cities by Newsweek. As well as being number 417 of 435 for quality of life. New Orleans is the most you can escape America without leaving the country. I'm not crazy about America.
My principle love language is cooking things for people, which is a very New Orleans characteristic. I began trying to make gumbo shortly after I moved there ten years ago to study Brazilian Music at Tulane University. I was always cooking for people so I could have parties but be a control freak about them. The first batch I made was fucking incredible, the best I ever made in my life. I've been chasing that first lucky gumbo batch ever since.
There's two types of gumbo: Creole and Cajun. The gumbo I make is somewhere between the two. Maybe the most hilarious Yankee thing about me, and any Louisiana person would disqualify me immediately, is that I am allergic to shellfish. I was hospitalized after my first crawfish boil. I love shellfish, but I can't eat them. So, that automatically will skew me way more towards Cajun gumbo.
But the longer I lived in New Orleans, the less gumbo I was making for friends because locals are bored by it. Which is why I always make gumbo now when I'm abroad. It's the best channel to convey the culture of Nola. We're not talking about red beans and rice or Jambalaya, we're talking about gumbo because it's a vehicle to convey just what a melting pot the city is.
You need a bit of New Orleans historical background to grasp gumbo. I'll try to sum up its incredibly complex past. The city was founded in 1718 by the French. It was a total backwater during colonial times. Swamps with mosquitos and scary animals. It was hard to find labor so the colony turned to the African slave market to make their investments in Louisiana profitable. The number of slaves purchased at that point was low compared to other places in the south because there wasn't much profit to make.
New Orleans / Unsplash
The Spanish were given New Orleans by the British in 1763, after they won a war against France. Not many Spanish came to New Orleans, it was mostly a military outpost. The most evident influence the Spanish had on New Orleans' cuisine is Jambalaya, the result of Spanish nobility wanting something more like paella. The Spanish would have probably influenced the food culture more, had more arrived. They stayed for a few decades before the French got Louisiana back. It was still kind of a useless place and after one year, 1803, Napoleon sold it to Thomas Jefferson and two years later they figured out how to granulate sugar cane. New Orleans, for the first time ever, started making money. If Napolean had waited two more years it would have funded all his wars and, arguably, western history would be dramatically different.
So, by now the city was growing rapidly with Americans, French, Creoles, and Africans streaming in. The Haitian Revolution in 1804 brought thousands of refugees to New Orleans, both whites and free people of color. Many Haitians brought their slaves with them, many of which were native Africans. The city's population doubled in 1809 and the city became 63% black. To compare, Charleston was 53% black at the time.
Shortly after the invention that allowed sugar cane to be granulated, the steamboat arrived in New Orleans, turning the backwater colony into the second richest city in the US. Its geographical location (next to the Gulf, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River) was ideal for the steamboat, and everything coming out of the Midwest, especially in terms of agriculture, had to go through New Orleans, to say nothing of cotton and sugarcane. Also, the steamboat allowed people to go upriver and not just downriver as was previously possible. Eventually, the railroad made the steamboat redundant and New Orleans became a tourist town.
So, alongside French, Spanish and Americans you've got Cajuns. They were French exiled from France to the Acadian coast of Nova Scotia for being Catholic, but it didn't take long before they were also kicked out from there. They headed to New Orleans, as it was the largest Francophone area in America, thinking they'd be getting a warm welcome, but they were fur-wearing-bear-trapping-Leonoardo-DiCaprio-in-The Revenant-style motherfuckers, and once they got to New Orleans they were confronted with a complicated, elitist society that was like: “We don't want you.” So all the Acadians, or Cajuns, migrated straight to West Louisiana to what is now the Texas border (Texas was then still part of Mexico). They imbedded themselves in the swamps and learnt how to cook with what's there.
The extraordinary thing about Cajun culture is that it had the smallest amount of outside influence imaginable for 150 years. Louisiana didn't get good roads until the 1920s thanks to Huey Long, the prototype of a Southern politician and the closest America ever got to having a dictator - Trump included. He ruled Louisiana. He was robbing the rich for himself and his cronies, but was also giving some of it back to the poor. He campaigned to bring decent roads to Louisiana. Prior to the roads being built in the 1920s, Southwest Louisiana wasn't that different from 1820s Louisiana.
So, you've got a Cajun-style gumbo that comes from these swamp-living people. Cajun gumbo is a one-pot meal, whereas Creole gumbo is more like a soup used as an appetiser. There's this joke that Cajun food is whatever you ran over on the way home.
So, Cajun gumbo can contain rabbit, turtle, shrimp, crawfish, crabs, chicken, sausage - whatever you can catch or is seasonal. It wasn't until the 1970s that Cajun-style gumbo really took hold in New Orleans when Cajun Paul Prudhomme, who grew up around the swamps in West Louisiana, moved to the city and applied the cooking skills he learnt from his mother in Creole restaurants. He replaced the seafood soupy gumbo that was being served everywhere and introduced his mother's Cajun style roux gumbo, which took off and made him a celebrity chef before that was a thing.
Paul Prudhomme / Wikimedi Commons
So, we need to talk about roux. It's the first thing you do when making gumbo. Roux is when you take flour and a type of fat and stir continuously until the flour turns dark. There's a joke that if your kid comes in the kitchen with a broken leg, you let them deal with it for another half hour or else you'll ruin the roux. My personal thing is that I use peanut oil. The reason for that is that peanut oil tastes fucking amazing and it has a super-high smoke point. I cook it on extremely high heat and I take most delight in freaking out people from Louisiana with how dark I make my roux. That all comes from a lady who makes gumbo at her restaurant in the 9th ward. Her broth has a smokiness to it that you only get by cooking that son of a bitch roux until it's almost ruined. I talked to her for ages about her gumbo and took that with me. Adding roux to gumbo was definitely a Louisiana innovation, taking the staple of French cuisine to add texture and flavor.
Then you've got Creole gumbo. So, like I mentioned, the Haitian slave revolution bookended the Louisiana Purchase. Haiti was the richest place in the Caribbean then. Around sixty thousand Haitians fled to New Orleans, influencing the food culture massively. They completely turned the city upside down. They doubled down on the French influence, since they are French-speaking, slave-owning Africans. Or Afro-Haitians more like. They brought in a new class structure and a ton of free people of color. New Orleans is super famous for having free people of color, a caste of moneyed black people, during slavery.The original meaning of Creole was that you were a person born in the new world.
Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 - march 24, 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert.
The broad contours of what I just told you, any jamoke on the street in New Orleans could tell you. Throwing in years and how it goes together is tour-guidey, but more than anywhere else in the country, the city has its own fucking rules about history and a way to mythologize itself. It takes a day to explain just how things like street names are pronounced and shit. Nola is much more complicated than the rest of the South, which is more generally black and white. There are all these gradations there which makes it a fucking trip. And that's all part of gumbo.
So, Creole gumbo is way more like a soup, whereas Cajun gumbo is like a stew. Creole gumbo is more of an appetizer, and more seafood forward. It's more delicate and not a meal in and of itself. What both have in common is the trinity, which is based on the French mirepoix - a mix of celery, carrot and onion. In Louisiana the trinity is made up of green pepper, onion and celery. You add them into the roux. Some people add them all at once. I wait for the moment the roux is about to break and then I throw in the onions, which cools down the roux, preventing it from burning. That's the base of the whole thing. After that you can basically chill. You add the peppers and the celery.
Then, because I make more of a Cajun-style gumbo, I put a huge amount of Andouille sausage chopped up in medallion sized pieces on a cast iron skillet. When the sausage bits are all crispy I dump it into the pot with the roux and the trinity. God that reminds me, seeing my favourite secondline friend at a parade one Sunday wearing a hat that said: “No Hot Dogs in the Gumbo.” I went up to him asking like who the hell would do that? He said country folk. He was so disgusted by it, he needed a custom-made hat to process the gumbo sacrilege he had experienced.
Gumbo / StockFood
Cooking in Nola is opposite to most places I've been, at least in my experience, and being an outsider, cooking there is a competitive, almost macho thing. The ratio of people cooking at dinner parties skews so heavily towards male, and there's this aspect of arguing about it. Men will sit around and argue about how to make the best gumbo for hours. I learnt early on to be ready for gumbo confrontations. Like there's way to talk about gumbo where you can very quickly make it obvious that you know to some extent what you are doing, even if you are a white dude from Indiana. To avoid shit like my friend's boyfriend from San Jose making a pot of gumbo for Mardi Gras with boiled egg in it. I've never regained my respect for the dude. It's such a vile fucking idea. That shit is so fucked up and disgusting.
So, after the sausage is done I take okra and fry it in the sausage fat before adding it to the stew. Now, that's gumbo's most base ingredient and the most quintessentially African part about it. It's arguably the most famous food ingredient brought from West Africa to America by slaves. I can't stop thinking about how Bernel, my neighbor who is a born and bred New Orleanian, was so scared to use it because it's slimy. When I'm abroad okra is always the hardest to find ingredient for making gumbo. In several West African languages, the word for okra is ki ngombo, or in its shortened form, gombo. Gombo is still the French word for okra today. The thick slime that expels from okra as you cook it gives the stew its thickness. Back in the day, okra would only be available when in season so cooks found that they could achieve a similar thickness using the powdered form of the sassafras plant made by the local Choctaw. Choctaw call this plant kombo and it's what gives root beer its distinctive taste.
As okra proves, African American cooks played a huge role in what is known as Southern cooking today and gumbo is the best way to experience that influence. It also debunks the myth that America doesn't have its own cuisine, which is what I often heard people in Europe say.
After the okra is in the pot, I add chicken thighs that I've marinated in salt, pepper, thyme, cumin, paprika, and chili powder. If any liquid needs to get added to the gumbo - but mine usually doesn't need it - I'll add homemade chicken broth. Then, a personal preference of mine, is to add lobster bouillon. It's the only way I can get some shellfish flavor in there without killing myself. I add tomato paste to my gumbo when no one is looking and don't even discuss it with people. Then I add a fuck ton of fresh thyme (I don't think people do that enough), Sriracha, soya sauce (which is super unorthodox and almost a secret of mine), and fish sauce, which is becoming more orthodox due to the large Vietnamese community in New Orleans.
People have asked me if gumbo is now a trendy thing in New Orleans with lots of transplants having moved in after Katrina. Gumbo is so ubiquitous and a pillar of the city’s culinary culture and such a staple that it kind of transcends trendiness. Perhaps part of this is that while it varies infinitely in preparations on the Creole/Cajun spectrum, these are relatively subtle, especially to an outsider’s palate, and it’s not something as open-ended and customizable and corporatizable, like, say, ramen or poke, both of which have become super trendy in the US in the past five years. In my experience, post-Katrina transplants tend to bring in their own stuff more than revitalize or reimagine old standards like gumbo, so there’s not any kind of renaissance happening.
What I haven’t adequately conveyed until now is that most New Orleanians have been dealing with their mom or dad’s gumbos, their uncle’s gumbo, their paw paw’s gumbo, and maybe their own their whole life. It’s the kind of thing where your mother's is okay, but she doesn’t use enough hot sauce; your uncle’s is weird because he uses turkey and chicken in the same pot, which seems redundant; and your paw paw’s is the best because he’s a legit French-speaking Cajun and has been making it for 60 years. For locals it’s not something you’re going to get in a restaurant more than once a year unless perhaps you’re showing around out of town visitors.
People will argue about whose gumbo is best, and who prepares it “correct” or “right,” on an individual basis, rather than saying X restaurant’s gumbo is better than Y’s (sometimes restaurants will be invoked as examples, though almost just for the sake of comparison). For locals it’s just so utterly quotidian, and thus so personal that it's not categorizable in terms of being trendy or not and to do so would be to miss the point. In a broader sense, it’s like asking your average ‘merican the same questions of, say, chicken noodle soup. Maybe we could say that gumbo is like New Orleans’ version of the American chicken noodle soup? Infinite variations, a comfort food staple, but then obviously gumbo is a lot more complex, but then again I've never gone down a chicken noodle soup rabbit hole so who knows?