Food history: gumbo

It’s a little Cajun, a little Creole, and a lot of Louisiana. Where did this multifaceted stew creation come from?

Gumbo is a difficult dish to hone in on an exact origin and recipe for. There is more than a bit of speculation on where gumbo derived from. And, it’s one of those meals that typically uses ingredients on hand or in season at the time.

However, we are going to narrow down the history of this fantastic stew as best as we can right here, starting with the definition.

Gumbo: a stew or thick soup, usually made with chicken or seafood, greens, and okra or sometimes filé as a thickener; okra

Indeed, the words “okra” and “gumbo” are actually synonymous; West African slaves brought the unique vegetable to Louisiana in the early 1800s. So, it makes sense that gumbo with okra is a common dish.

Filé, the other mentioned ingredient in gumbo’s definition, is dried and ground sassafras leaves.

There are a couple different theories on where the first gumbo came from. One legend has it that gumbo was invented by the Choctaw Indians. And, I found two resources suggesting gumbo evolved from a French fish stew that became popular in Louisiana – this stew was made of fish, broth, olive oil, and saffron.

The roux, which is the third main ingredient in gumbo, did definitively come from France to Louisiana; roux is a thickening agent made of oil and flour.

The first reported documentation of gumbo was in 1803, when the dish was served at a gubernatorial function in New Orleans. The following year, it was served at a Cajun social gathering.

Although, it should be mentioned that whether gumbo has more of a Cajun base to it or Creole is still up for debate among gumbo enthusiasts.

In 1885, La Cuisine Creole published many recipes for gumbo, including variations with ham, chicken, bacon, oysters, etc.

Although gumbo has grown over the years to include an infinite amount of variations, there are arguably two main types of gumbo: seafood – which typically contains shrimp, oysters, and crab – and chicken and sausage.

It is possible to make a vegetarian gumbo, but the meatless (and seafoodless) version is certainly less common.

Within the last 30 years, spicy gumbo has become almost a third category in and of itself. Prior to this addition, only a few drops of Louisiana hot sauce were usually added to individual servings of gumbo; it was not a spicy dish in origin.

Regardless of its exact birthplace and formula, gumbo is undoubtedly a huge staple in Louisiana cuisine, and has been for over 300 years.

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