Boy Drooling, Man Wondering
In South Louisiana’s Gumbo Belt, babies eat gumbo as soon as they go off the breast or the bottle. The mommas make sure of this.
My mother, Henrietta “Bonnie” Toups Wells, certainly did.
Now, I wish I could say I have a toddler’s memory of tasting my first gumbo, but I don’t. My first recollection was when I was six or seven years old.
We were still town people, three years before my dad moved us to the country. I was seated at the kitchen table of our tidy, slate-sided beige house near the banks the Intracoastal Waterway, the broad, muddy-brown canal that runs through Houma. My little town, fifty-five miles southwest of New Orleans, would grow into a lively oil-and-gas hub by the time I finished high school in 1966. But back then it was a drowsy Cajun hamlet of about ten thousand people with an entrance sign proudly proclaiming itself “Oyster Capital of the World.” A red plastic cloth, decorated in ornate white roses, draped our table. In the center were the condiments that sat on the tables of many South Louisiana households: Tabasco sauce; a bottle of homemade, pickled pepper–infused vinegar; a jar of filé or ground sassafras leaves.
These first two are gumbo enliveners, the last a thickener and flavor booster. Cajuns, like many cultures, have a tradition of adjusting their seasonings at the table. Reaching for the hot sauce is an ingrained reflex.
My mother was serving shrimp-okra gumbo over white rice, as she believed all proper gumbos are served (it usually needed no enlivening). It was her favorite gumbo to cook and my favorite one to eat. She had learned to cook it from her mother who had learned to cook it from hers who had most likely learned to cook it from hers.
Gumbo cooking days were joyous occasions. The simmering dish filled the house with such exquisite anticipatory aromas that I could scarcely wait to get to the supper table. I often arrived early, picking up the spoon my mother had so carefully placed on the white cloth napkin alongside my gumbo bowl, and waited. Of course, when you grow up in family of six hungry boys as I did, getting to the table early is a good idea.
I recall it being late spring for it was warm, windows open to a mild breeze, an electric fan drowsing in the background. The okra, I’m surmising, had come from a friend’s garden or a nearby roadside stand since the supermarket was not yet a ubiquitous fixture of South Louisiana life. The shrimp—not too big, not too small—had been procured that morning from French-speaking Cajun fishermen who worked the docks of a small seafood-processing plant just down the street from us. Bonnie usually did the bartering in her native tongue, Cajun French, and I often walked with her the short block, past pungent mounds of cast-off oyster shells, on these shrimp-buying errands. After the haggling was done, muscular men in sweat-stained T-shirts, smudged jeans tucked into white rubber boots, would scoop the glistening crustaceans from big wire hampers and onto a hanging metal scale.
Satisfied that the weight was correct, Bonnie would have them dump the shrimp, and a little chipped ice, into a bowl she’d brought along. Off we’d head to the kitchen, where she would start to prepare her pots. My mother liked to put her gumbo on in the morning for she knew that a gumbo begun early in the day and simmered slowly would be at its tastiest by the time it was served for supper.
“First, cher, you have to make a roux,” she would proclaim, in her mild Cajun accent.
I had no real concept of roux back then. But I liked the sound of the word and often rolled it off my tongue—roo, roo, roo. Even now the mere thought of a roux brings back those memories: the lilting, exotic voices of the Cajun French speakers; the watercolor of idled shrimp and oyster boats creaking in their ropes; the wild, salty sea smells mingled with the pungent odor of the creosoted docks; the aroma of diced onions, celery, and bell pepper; the squall they made when they met the roux.
We moved from that little house near the banks of the Intracoastal when my father, William “Rex” Wells, an outlander from Arkansas, took a job with a local sugarcane mill and settled us on the banks of the Cajun enclave of Bayou Black on the western outskirts of town. Bayou Black seemed happily stranded in a previous century. We lived on a dusty road paved in clam shells, got our water from a large cypress cistern, and swam and fished from a dock on the bayou. Indoor plumbing had arrived but the fully functioning cypress outhouse at the entrance to our chicken yard reminded us that it was a recent improvement. The sugar company still kept mules in a corral a mile away and each spring, Dad paid the mule handler five dollars to bring his favorite animal to plow our narrow bayouside vegetable plot, the strip of land between the road and the bayou that the Cajuns call the batture.
We lived in large part off what John Folse, the iconic homegrown Louisiana chef and serious Gumbo Belt food historian, calls Gumbo’s Pantry, the great sweep of woods, fields, bayous, bays, marshes, and swamps of the immensely fertile deltaic plain that defines South Louisiana’s geography and fed and nurtured our gumbo-cooking forebears. Gardening, hunting, and fishing supplied most of the ingredients for our gumbo pots, as they did for our bayou neighbors. Central to that life were family, friends, respect, and love of the low country that nurtured us, and a gritty sense of self-reliance, born in part because if we didn’t do for ourselves, we did without.
This was Bayou Black when we arrived in 1957: a place that had not changed materially in its rustic rhythms, customs, and sense of place for a hundred years. There, my brothers and I lived what I call the Gumbo Life much as my mother’s and grandmothers’ generation had experienced it, a time before the homogenizing influences of things like supermarkets, processed foods, television, and the Internet. A chicken gumbo more often than not started with a chicken chased down in the farmyard and a crawfish stew began with baiting our homespun crawfish nets with chicken necks and tossing them into the shallows of a nearby swamp.
Back then, gumbo was pretty much a Cajun and Creole secret, a peasant dish, a concoction that we cooked with passion and tradition. Historians believe the primordial form of Louisiana gumbo is at least 250 years old, perhaps much older. Just as in my mother’s family, recipes and methods had come down through generations, passed on almost exclusively by word of mouth in families living in isolation where schools were rare and illiteracy high. Outside of a smattering of historically significant cookbooks, written recipes were uncommon until after World War II. This helps to explain why gumbo’s origins are so clouded in mystery and why, as well, we probably have as many gumbo recipes in the Gumbo Belt as we have gumbo-cooking families. We made gumbo because, when properly done, it is consistently delicious, can be crafted from simple, inexpensive ingredients and cooked in a giant pot. Served over rice as is customary, it fed lots of mouths in the big families common to predominantly Catholic South Louisiana. We made it because it also fed our souls. Something this good being lovingly and patiently passed down through the generations spoke to the vibrancy and optimism of our ancestors and the culture they’d created, even amidst the poverty in which we often lived.
I grew up, moved away, lived abroad, and traveled the world. Gumbo has grown up, too, and has been doing quite a bit of traveling itself. Our once cloistered soup is in the midst of a long and expansive Diaspora, embraced, cooked, and enjoyed by peoples and cultures virtually worldwide. These days, London, New York, Paris, Toronto, Madrid, Sydney, Copenhagen, and Tokyo are but a few of the world’s great cities with Cajun and Creole restaurants that feature gumbo on the menu. I’d hazard to guess that most American cities with over two hundred thousand in population have a restaurant dishing out some version of gumbo. My father-in-law in Chicago orders in a perfectly authentic chicken-and-sausage gumbo from a Cajun place called Heaven on Seven not far from downtown’s Magnificent Mile. It’s one of seven gumbo-serving restaurants in the city.
On a recent visit to my daughter, Sara, who lives in the Richmond District of San Francisco, I walked past an Asian-Cajun restaurant called Swamp with gumbo and crawfish on the menu. I couldn’t resist going in to sample the gumbo. It was authentic gumbo, obviously made with a roux, but it was more like jambalaya in consistency and rather bland. But I was more disappointed that the Asian owner wasn’t around so I could’ve gotten firsthand the full story of how a place that served both gumbo and garlic noodles had bloomed in San Francisco. (I later learned that the San Francisco family has a branch living in New Orleans and visits and eats there often.)
While visiting the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2016 to give a lecture, I learned there was a good Cajun restaurant in Missoula with a gumbo that locals raved about. More recently, a friend sent a link to a story in the Times of Israel with the headline: “In a Black Jew’s Yiddish Gumbo, the Secret Ingredient Is Diversity.” The story was about a chef and food writer dishing out his version of gumbo in New York City. How much more of a global and cosmopolitan mention can gumbo get?
As any gumbo-loving Louisiana expatriate of a certain age will tell you, this is a rather recent phenomenon. It wasn’t so long ago that you could drive the length and breadth of the land beyond South Louisiana and queries about gumbo almost always drew blank stares. Back then, if you moved from the Gumbo Belt and wanted gumbo, as I did in 1975, you had to cook it yourself.
Now, with gumbo practically everywhere, you can make a reasonable argument that gumbo has joined the pantheon of world-famous soups. Our gift to ourselves has become a gift to the planet. But when did the Gumbo Diaspora begin and what explains its phenomenal reach? And what of gumbo’s roots?
Historians, who for decades had doggedly combed the musty stacks of libraries and archives, assumed that no one would ever find a written reference to gumbo earlier than those dating to 1803 and 1804. The latter, recorded by C.C. Robin, a Frenchman and journalist traveling deep into Louisiana’s rural Cajun communities, was particularly important because it seemed to place gumbo’s creation solidly in the Cajun camp. Robin was invited to attend a Cajun bal de maison, or house party, along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He noted that after a long night of dancing and drinking cheap, watered-down rum called tafia, “always everyone has a helping of gumbo.”
That seemed to settle the matter until Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a noted historian sleuthing into New Orleans slave genealogical records, stumbled upon a written reference to gumbo dating to 1764. (The discovery, made in the early 1990s, went largely unnoted until it burst into the gumbo blogosphere in 2011.) Why was what it said about gumbo such a shock to Gumbo World?
This matters because for the vast majority of Gumbo Belt natives, gumbo has never been merely a dish. It’s a cultural metaphor and anchor that both explains and bonds our food-centric part of the world. It is the star example that shows how the natives of the Gumbo Belt invented the only truly indigenous regional cuisine in all of America; not just a dish but a style and a way of cooking.
Perhaps because of this, gumbo has also become something of an obsession among academics, culinary historians, chefs, and pundits, for they correctly see that the story of gumbo is inextricably linked with our own. Gumbo, like blues and jazz, had come out of the crucible of a history that has been at turns uplifting and heroic, dark and dispiriting.
It is a story of intrepid French, Spanish, and German pioneers, but also a story of hardship, slavery, racism, and poverty, stretching into the encampments of Louisiana’s Native Americans and deep into West Africa and the islands of the Afro-Caribbean. It is a story inextricable from the cultural upheaval of the Cajuns and their cruel expulsion from their ancestral maritime lands in Canada by their British overlords. And yet the coda of the Cajun story is their triumphant assimilation in a low country that they have forever stamped as their own and their unquestionable influence in the evolution and spread of gumbo. This complex and kaleidoscopic history has produced this thing— gumbo—that today transcends race, class, religion, and politics. Gumbo’s creation, evolution, and triumphant ascension is a beautiful story with a happy, ever-evolving plot line. Nobody wants to or should be left out of it.
Although I am a lifelong journalist, I came to this story more in the manner of a pilgrim on a journey, inspired by my roots in the Gumbo Life and bearing no bias except the one for which I know I will be readily forgiven: My mother made the best gumbo on earth and the way my mother made her gumbo is the way all gumbo should be made. Everyone who makes that claim is allowed to, for in a way it is the elixir of the gumbo story, a spunky testament to the pride in family and place and history that has propelled the gumbo story forward. Here is my telling of it.