In an attempt to create an understanding of all of this for myself, I did an essay for CBS News’ “Sunday Morning.” In the course of that piece, I asked Bernard Carmouche, then the chef de cuisine at Emeril’s, about some of the gumbos they had served at the restaurant. In addition to the usual assortment of meat-based gumbos, he mentioned goat cheese gumbo and truffle gumbo, which were even beyonder the pale than I had imagined. Emeril’s was not distinguished in this regard. I imagined that sauciers, struck by inspiration or stuck with leftover odds and ends in the walk-in cooler, created soups with these disparate parts and then attempted to elevate the concoction by labeling it with the good name of gumbo.
I was confident in my perspective until recently, when my friend Pableaux Johnson decided to dedicate much of his waking life to making smoked turkey and andouille gumbo. Pableaux, a New Orleans-based food and travel writer, was raised in Cajun Country. Gumbo for him and his people could hardly have been more different than it was for me and mine. For him, gumbo was an everyday dish. It sometimes was seafood- and okra-based, especially in the summer, but seafood was not required. The gumbo Pableaux makes reminds me of stewed chicken. If you put turkey and sausage into the thick gravy of stewed chicken, if you made enough gravy so that the dish was closer to the soup side of the soup-stew continuum, you would have a gumbo much like Pableaux’s.
How can this dish be reconciled with the gumbo of my youth? The truth is that “gumbo” has long been a catchall word. In The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, there are ten recipes, ranging from the conventional (shrimp gumbo, crab gumbo, okra gumbo) to the exotic (squirrel or rabbit gumbo, cabbage gumbo). Originally published in 1900, this book is focused on New Orleans, so these gumbo variations don’t even take into account all the different approaches that dot the countryside.
Some of these differences in gumbo can be attributed to the different etymologies of the word. Kingombo is the word for okra in many Bantu languages in West Africa, and I believe it to be the origin of the name of the okra-based soups of Louisiana. But the Choctaw Indians called their ground sassafras leaves gombo or kombo, not filé. Thus the Choctaw word and the ingredient for which it stands could well be the origin for the thick, non-okra soup stews that also share the gumbo name. As for the third theory for the origin of gumbo, the fanciful belief that gumbo has its origins in the bouillabaisse of Provence, the evidence for that connection is as laughable as it is invisible.
Perhaps there has never been a day on this continent when the word “gumbo” meant something precise and specific. Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole, considered the first Creole cookbook, codified the idea of gumbo as leftover wasteland. “This is a most excellent form of soup, and is an economical way of using up the remains of any cold roasted chicken, turkey, game, or other meats.” Later he suggests “green corn” can also be included.
I recoil from this laundry list of additives in part because of something my mother used to say. She didn’t like a poor man’s gumbo. Meaning, not that poor people couldn’t eat gumbo, since that position would have ensured that she would have been denied that pleasure for all of her youth. Rather, she meant that if you didn’t have the proper ingredients to make a real gumbo, you should make another dish. Hearn redeems himself to an extent. While the instructions for “gombo” created from leftovers are in a headnote, the proper recipes are all for gumbos that would meet my mother’s strict standards. They feature oysters, chicken, shrimp, crabs and “filee.”
Try as I might, I can’t help but feel that vague, all-inclusive definitions of gumbo disrespect its essence. Gumbo has earned reverence in a way that few dishes have. It is the signature culinary achievement of one of the world’s great culinary capitals. It is as much at home on a family’s holiday dinner table as it is on the menus of the city’s finest restaurants. It embodies Africa, Europe and Native America with a seamless perfection. Yet the fact that any second-rate saucier feels entitled to misuse the name with callous abandon irks me in ways that no one who has ever enjoyed cow foot gumbo with corn kernels and truffles can possibly understand.